Recovery Workshop: Lesson Twenty-Seven
Identifying Compulsive Chains
You have learned to identify the smallest mechanical units involved in compulsive behavior: compulsive elements. You have learned that these elements can be formed like a recipe in a cookie to create a single compulsive ritual to be used to alter one's emotional state. But in addiction, there is often one additional compulsive unit to consider: compulsive chains.
Compulsive chains are identified as the linking of multiple compulsive rituals to enhance the overall stimulation being derived. This linking may involve simultaneous rituals (sex and drugs, for instance); overlapping rituals (having multiple affairs at different stages of each); or sequentially (moving from one sexually compulsive ritual to the next...to the next).
People with severe addictions tend to engage in chronic use of compulsive chains. Multiple rituals combine to form that person's primary life management strategy. The longer such chains are used, the more deficient their healthy life management skills become, thus necessitating a greater dependence on more and more rituals. Eventually, these individuals lack the ability to experience any significant emotional stimulation from events that are not related to compulsive urges. And so, no matter what events may occur in their life, they have ingrained a pattern of turning those events into compulsive pursuits. And if they can't, then the events themselves take on little meaning in their lives.
A person engaging in ritualistic chain use might combine affairs, porn, gambling, workaholism, fanatical sports playing/viewing and music to create an atmosphere of almost constant emotional intensity. And when they aren't engaged in such behavior, something just "doesn't feel right".
Up until now, we have explored rather simple, isolated compulsive behavior (e.g. compulsive rituals). When we examined this behavior, we did so from the context of the emotions that you experienced in the here and now. In other words, we looked at how a particular element of that behavior affected you as it was happening. Down the road, we will expand this skill from a focus on individual elements of a 'compulsive ritual' to more complex compulsive chains that so often develop in addiction. These complex chains involve multiple behavioral events that have the ability to produce/maintain a constant flow of stimulation that can last for days, weeks...even years in extreme cases. For now, in order to understand these more complex chains, we must return our focus to the concept of the single compulsive action as a whole — and how it developed into an actual compulsive event.
From Compulsive Behavior to Ritualistic Behavior
The final goal of this lesson is to walk you through the process of how individual rituals crystallize to form compulsive chains. That is, how one compulsive behavior bonds with another to produce a consistent pattern for stimulating our emotions. Understanding the role of compulsive chains is the final piece of understanding the chain heirarchy...and it provides you with the clearest vision yet of how compulsive behavior influences the way that you manage your life. This is an especially important concept for those who have developed an actual addiction/multiple-addictions.
As a person's addiction becomes more and more complex, the simple act of, let's say, masturbation...no longer has the same effect in terms of the stimulation that it once produced. This 'habituation' concept was introduced earlier in the workshop. And so, to give the overall level of stimulation a boost, additional elements are added to the event. It may be that the masturbation occurs for a longer period of time, that pornographic images are now included, or that people must watch as he/she masturbates. There are a limitless number of possibilities as to how the intensity of such an event can be enhanced. Eventually, there comes a time for any particular individual, where the maximum amount of stimulation is being produced...and it is no longer enough. A threshold has been achieved with that particular behavioral chain and no additional elements will have any significant effect on the overall amount of stimulation produced. So what can they do?
Obviously, when the filters begin to wear on this 'maxed-out' behavioral chain...the stimulation produced will continue to deteriorate. Yet the underlying issues in this person's life remain. The lack of life management skills remain. And so their only alternative (given the tools they currently possess), is to add additional compulsive chains to the mix. This might mean that they masturbate with more frequency (thus adding more overall stimulation to their lives — though the quality of which has deteriorated)...or it may mean that they add entirely new behaviors to supplement their masturbation. They begin frequenting strip clubs or engaging in promiscuity, for instance.
Like all compulsive behaviors, because these additional chains are capable of producing the required stimulation, they are experienced as a success. A person is feeling significant anxiety...they used to masturbate to make that anxiety go away. Lately, the anxiety persists even with the masturbation. But with the additional element of having an affair with a neighbor, the anxiety is once again relieved. Temporarily. Because the strategy implemented (masturbation and an affair) worked successfully to regain emotional balance...the strategy is called upon in the future when facing a similar situation. And the more the pattern continues...the more it is successful in providing the emotional stimulation being sought...the more ingrained this pattern becomes.
Over extended periods of time, the patterns become so ingrained that often, only the most significant of negative emotional events are capable of triggering a willingness to eliminate these behaviors from their life. Many have come to identify such an event as "hitting rock bottom". But the reality is, there is no bottom to addiction. A person's life can always get worse; just as it can always get better. And so, 'rock bottom' becomes the time in a person's life when the positive emotional stimulation received from engaging in such behaviors become incapable of balancing the overwhelmingly negative feelings that the person is experiencing. Catastrophic events such as divorce, imprisonment, passing life milestones (e.g. age, career, family) — ironically, events that are often the consequences of the very behaviors they were comforting themselves with — are all capable of producing emotions strong enough to trigger a 'rock bottom' situation. Not the possibility of these events, mind you...but the events themselves. For these patterns to change, the person must experience the realization that the choices that they have made in their life were wrong. Not morally, but wrong for the life that they want to live. Most often, this is accomplished at a time when they realize that no amount of compulsive behavior will allow them to re-establish a sense of emotional balance.
Until this time however, the behavioral chains continue to develop...continue to become ingrained...and eventually, the person finds themselves spending more than half their life engaging in emotion-based behavior that provides them with temporary relief...at the expense of long-term fulfillment and satisfaction. When the pattern of addiction hits this advanced stage, people don't usually engage in such behavioral chains consciously. Instead, the behaviors have become ritualized. Their entire world becomes sexualized...with each stimulus triggering engagement in yet another behavioral ritual. What chains they engage in have little to do with their actual desires, but more so with the opportunities that cross their path at any given time.
Those who engage in compulsive chains to manage their lives are true addicts. Even when the behavior is identical (say, drinking alcohol), it is in the multiplication of that chain over the course of their life where addiction can be identified. Keep in mind, of course, that addiction is not a prerequisite for recovery. Even a single compulsive event can cause significant destruction to many people's lives.
Lesson 27 Exercise:
Provide an example of two compulsive chains in your life. The first chain should be where multiple rituals are engaged in simultaneously — thus enhancing the overall amount of stimulation derived from the behavior. The second should be an example of how you have strung together several rituals back-to-back and thus, extended the stimulation you were deriving. Post these examples in your recovery thread.