Habits vs. Addictions

Habits vs. Addictions

What’s the Difference?

By Margaret Wehrenberg

November/December 2013

I have something to tell you,” Jolie said as she sat down in my office. “It’s really bad.” She went on to describe how she’d ruined a dinner with friends because she’d drunk two glasses of wine, gotten irrationally upset at something, and left before dinner was over. With a tone of mixed embarrassment and surprise, she remarked that she must have been drunk. But as I probed further, she admitted that she’d drunk “a little” before the dinner to take the edge off her day. And further probing revealed that her two glasses of wine at dinner were more like a bottle. As we talked more about when and how much she drinks, she began to acknowledge that her use of alcohol was starting to cause problems she’d been unwilling to see.

Reluctantly, she admitted that drinking alcohol had become her automatic stress reliever when she got home from work. But what she was calling “having a glass of wine” really meant using a glass to consume a bottle of wine. She also relayed frequent incidents of being irritable at work in the morning, which her boss had commented on. She now wondered if her change in behavior was because of the amount of alcohol she’d been drinking after work. With a look of terror, she said, “I think I might have to stop drinking altogether, but do you think I’m really an alcoholic?”

The labels we use to describe clients’ behaviors have important therapeutic implications. In Jolie’s case, it was tempting to diminish her fear and say, “Well, let’s not label…

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