Many years ago, we promoted the idea of replacing an addiction with other more beneficial activities and positive goals as a method to help people steer clear of “relapse” and move on from addiction. We actually had a chapter in our earlier Freedom Model Program editions called “Replacement” that homed in on that concept. Every attempt was made to ensure that our guests at Saint Jude Retreats left with a plan to replace their drinking or drug use habits with something “better” and more useful to their lives.

On its face, the idea that you replace getting drunk and high with other activities with fewer downsides would seem to make sense. But we found it wasn’t so straight forward. All possible outcomes played out. While many followed through on their plans and left their troubling substance use habits in the past, other retreat graduates who had well thought-out plans, goals, and aspirations returned to problematic drinking and/or drugging. What was just as important and surprising is we also saw many program graduates who did not have well thought-out plans to replace their substance use habits, and they did great; they never used again. And of course, there were those who completed the program with no plans or goals and returned to heavy substance use. As a researcher, I was most interested in the reality that there seemed to be no set pattern, correlation or predictor of who would abstain/moderate and who would continue problematic use. So, as researchers, we had to dig deeper and try to figure out this crucial piece of the puzzle.

In our search for a pattern, one theme kept correlating with successful abstainers and successful moderate users – they believed they could move past their problematic substance use habits, and they completely rejected the disease of addiction mythology. They knew that all habit change was an internal, self-directed job. This belief system was coupled with a willingness to “let go of the past” and “move on”. When interviewing those who were most successful, these ideas and statements kept coming up over and over again. Once the central theme “moving on” was established, I needed to drill down and figure out exactly what that meant.

Moving On – To Diversify

If you build a list of things/activities within your mind that could or would make you a happier human being, you will naturally move in that direction. You won’t have to try to battle cravings or distract yourself from using. With a comprehensive list of happier options in place, you will soon find your actions and physical being will move in the direction of those items. This is how an individual diversifies their lifestyle. Sounds a lot like replacement doesn’t it? But there is one very important distinction between replacing a drug problem and diversifying your lifestyle to move on from a drug problem – intent.

Based on more than 30 years of research, we know without the shadow of a doubt, that if your intention is to replace getting high with something else, while still pining away for the drug, you will eventually give in to what you really want more. In short, you’ll eventually fall right back into problematic use. Distracting yourself from what you want to do only goes so far. This is simply because your intent was never to move on from use, but rather to distract yourself from your preferred option of heavy substance use. For example, when the intent of replacing a drinking habit is made by having a goal to hit the gym and concentrate on nutrition, the intent is “I need a distraction, and so I will hit the gym when I crave. I’ll eat better to feel better – therefore I will be distracted from the desire to feel better via my drug of choice.” None of this could be classified as “moving on.”

Let me provide an analogy that makes the distinction of intent clear:

Let’s say you turn 16 and get your driver’s license and a car. The day before you were riding your bicycle to work every day. Once you started driving you began thinking about the benefits of being able to drive to work, to get to your friends’ houses, and to get to school without having to ask your parents or friends to drive you there. The sense of freedom and responsibility thrilled you. You were immensely excited to pass the driving test, get in the car by yourself, and get on with it! The intent of getting your driver’s license was never – “I need to get my driver’s license so I can stay away from my bicycle!” The intent was not to replace the bicycle, the intent was singular – to have more freedom. Your internal gaze (your intent) was forward thinking – it was to move on to the greener pastures of the automobile’s very specific and defined benefits.

Several months later, as you’re driving out of your parents’ driveway, you look over and see your old bicycle in the yard. Weeds are grown up around and through it. Dust and rust coat the frame and rims. You think, “Oh my God, I forgot about that thing. Huh.” A fleeting series of memories of riding the bike drift through your mind as you turn on the blinker of the car to leave the driveway. You hit the gas, turn right, and your mind drifts to thoughts of where you’re headed and why. The bike is quickly forgotten as you speed down the highway.

Absent the disease charade, a drinking or drug issue needn’t be any different. If you can let go of the disease mythology (The Freedom Model Program tackles this issue directly and effectively), then you can decide what your future looks like without the drugs or alcohol being a central part of it. Once the disease myths are addressed and out of the way, you get to choose your intent. Are you going to replace your habit with other options that distract you from drugs and alcohol (while you still secretly want to use them heavily), or are you going to make a list of options that can make you happier and drive you to move on to those greener pastures? Either way, it all comes down to intent – “I intend to distract myself” or “I intend to move on.” It’s your choice, and the path you pick will decide if your path out of addiction is a struggle or if it is without struggle. I chose the latter and never looked back – I moved on. I hope you do too!