Handle resolutions, addictions with care

December 27, 2010
Overcoming addictions demands complete surrender.

Overcoming addictions demands complete surrender.

CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — The New Year is a time for starting afresh and turning over a new leaf. When Jan. 1 rolls around, people resolve to better themselves.

“New Year’s resolutions are a reminder that we can be better and do better in the future, some sign of faith that we will be able to do that. They are, in a sense, like a new birth for us,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty, a local Catholic physician.

While most New Year’s resolutions involve breaking a bad physical habit (smoking, overeating, binge drinking, etc.), Haggerty suggested that a resolution could also involve reading more books or going to Confession regularly.

“They can help us mentally and spiritually also,” she said, viewing resolutions as “hopeful signs.”

But for most people, New Year’s resolutions are a pointless exercise doomed to failure.

“The trouble with resolutions is that we make them and we have trouble keeping them. For resolutions to work, you have to develop habits before putting them into action. You have to give them some time,” said Haggerty.

A key to keeping New Year’s resolutions is changing habits in small increments. Not taking on too much at once is an important first step, she advised. Those who make gradual strides in developing good habits are more likely to reach their goals in the long haul.

“They say it takes three weeks to develop a habit. You can’t make it something onerous or big. You’ve got to make it something that’s small, I think,” said Haggerty.

“Make one little change to your eating habits or read for five minutes every day or give thanks every morning — something small. If it doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s possible you might change your habits eventually.”

For example, if a person habitually smokes a cigarette after lunch, a small first step would be going for a walk after lunch instead. Substitute the bad things with better things. Rather than snacking on potato chips and candy, eat carrots and celery. Any movement towards reducing smoking or improving eating habits is a good move.

“Sometimes you don’t make it the whole way, but your intention has to be to make it the whole way,” she said.

Other tidbits of advice are to stay persistent and don’t beat yourself up if you backslide occasionally.

“For most things like quitting smoking, you have to try and try again. If you don’t succeed the first time, you just keep trying and sometimes you make it,” said Haggerty.

Sometimes people sabotage their own goals, perhaps unknowingly, by making their bad habits too convenient. As an example, for someone who wants to reduce alcohol consumption, the best way is to not have it around the house. Likewise, those trying to reduce their intake of sugary cereals should not keep Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in their pantry.

NO JUNK FOOD

“If you want to stop eating candies, don’t buy them. If you want to stop drinking pop, don’t buy it. Don’t make it convenient by having it in your home,” she said. “What you buy influences what you’re going to eat.”

But for people addicted to negative behaviours or substances, a lot more is needed than a New Year’s resolution.

Joan Johnston treats people with serious eating disorders. The result of anorexia or bulimia is malnutrition, among other damaging complications, including heart and lung problems, anemia, weak muscles and electrolyte imbalances.

Johnston said the bodies of chronic patients — those who have endured a decade or more of starvation or binging and purging — are in physical disarray, often irreversibly.

NO RESOLUTIONS

Making a New Year’s resolution won’t change anything, she said. This type of addiction cannot be treated by education, will power and behavioural therapy.

“There is a huge difference between addiction and a bad habit,” she said. “For an addict, New Year’s resolutions are not a good thing to dabble in.”

A New Year’s resolution is essentially a promise to oneself. The inevitable failure of New Year’s resolutions made by alcoholics and people with eating disorders will only sink them further into their addictions, she said.

“It is inappropriate for addicts to resolve to do anything because they are setting themselves up for failure,” said Johnston.

Addicts view everything in black or white terms. A broken resolution is seen as a failure, and the addict punishes himself for this failure by reverting to his addiction to escape the pain.

“Failed resolutions fuel the addictive process,” she said. “For an addict to fail, the failure is intolerable because of that black and white thinking.”

Johnston said belief in a higher power helps addicts overcome their addictions they are powerless to change on their own. The proper use of will power is making one’s own will for our lives the same as God’s will, she said. Most patients that Johnston treats have either bottomed out or are close to it. They come to the realization that they must either change their behaviour or die.

“It involves surrender. They say, ‘I will either kill myself or I must do something different,’” she said.

For an addict to achieve success in overcoming an addiction involves complete surrender, submitting to the idea of getting help. Once the addict decides he wants to quit the addiction, God’s words are the addict’s comfort and refuge.