Problematic Behavior

In 12-step programs, people frequently refer to “jackpots”, or “consequences”.  Clinicians refer to these as “problematic behavior”.

What is Problematic Behavior?

These are events that, while they may not amount to a rock bottom, are clear indications of serious problems with addictive substances or behavior.

An alcoholic or other addict's denial may allow him or her to blow off a few such incidents, but as they pile up they reach a level of life-disturbing stress that becomes hard to ignore.  In fact, about the only way to deal with them is to either act out more addictively, or stop doing whatever is causing the problem.

Three Factors that Create Problematic Behavior

Problematic behavior occurs as a result of three factors:

  • impulsivity (doing things without thinking them through);
  • continuation despite consequences; and
  • obsession (focusing on using or acting out to the point of interfering with normal everyday activities).

Examples of Problematic Behavior

The examples that follow are common problematic behaviors, and can be considered major red flags marking the route to full-blown addiction — the point where one has to use or act out in order to function.

Preoccupation: something is taking up too much of our “thinking space”.  Our thoughts keep drifting back to whatever it is, distracting us from whatever is happening in real life.

Using or acting out more often or more heavily than we intended: We go into a bar for one beer, and come out three hours later, buzzed and late for dinner; we stop into the thrift shop to look for a blouse, and come out with ten items of clothing that we'll never wear; we pop a pain pill an hour or so before it's due, then forget and take another one an hour later, and so forth.

Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control our use or other acting out: We open up a porn site for a quick look, and find ourselves still looking three hours later; we decide to have one chocolate, and finish the whole box; we bring home a six-pack so that we can have a beer after dinner, and end up driving to 7-Eleven for another one three hours later.  We decide to have no more than five cigarettes a day.

Restlessness or irritability when trying to stop: This one speaks for itself, and often louder and less politely than we might have liked.

Using as a means of escaping from problems:  We do a couple of lines so we can be “up” when the in-laws arrive.  We have affairs with neighbors to forget about our problems at work.  We smoke a blunt because our folks keep bitching about our grades.

Using to relieve feelings such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression: Sometimes these sorts of feelings ARE the result of conditions that need medication, but we aren't qualified to prescribe for ourselves, nor are the drugs available to us likely to be the best ones for the job.  Often we self-medicate without knowing it, which can make the situation much worse (although we may not be able to tell).

One of the invariable characteristics of drug use or acting out is that, as wonderful as it may have been the first time, it will never be that great again.Using repeatedly in search of a more intense experience: One of the invariable characteristics of drug use or acting out is that, as wonderful as it may have been the first time, it will never be that great again.  We develop tolerance to the stimulation, requiring more and more just to get the same high, and seeking that high drives further use and greater tolerance — a no-win situation.

Lying to family, therapists or others to conceal our use: Dude!  If you have to lie about it, you know better!  Don't put it on them, because you're the one who feels guilty, and it's your behavior that's causing your discomfort, not theirs.

Breaking the law (legally or morally) to support using or acting out: It may be that you have legal control of the family's finances, but that doesn't make it okay to put the rent money into the poker game, or use it to buy a round for the bar.  And needless to say, when you start stealing or acting out in illegal ways, you've crossed the line for sure.

Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job, or an educational or career opportunity because of using or acting out.

Incurring significant financial consequences: Gambling debts, past-due mortgages, unpaid credit cards, unemployment, lawyer fees, court costs and fines, evictions.  You get the idea.

Legal consequences: If using has gotten us to this point, we are clearly in need of help, and lots of it.  With any luck, the courts may make it possible or even mandate it.  If we're exceptionally UNlucky, we'll get away with whatever it was, get no help, and keep on doing the same old things with predictable results.

Problematic behavior means problems, period.  It may include a lot of innocent bystanders, but it's our problem, and it's our job to tuck it up and do what we have to do.  No one can do it for us, although a lot of help is out there — if we look for it.

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