Understanding Cross Addiction

 In Know: Chemical Dependency, Services

Evidence suggests that people who struggle with dependence on one substance, such as alcohol or heroin, are at risk for developing an addiction to another substance. Unlike the concept of dual-addiction, which is polysubstance dependence to multiple substances ingested simultaneously, cross-addiction often takes shape when a person abstains from the drug they are misusing and then picks up or accelerates the use of another substance.

How Cross Addiction Starts in Active Addiction

A person may choose to stop using a substance for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are trying to begin a life in recovery or stopping because of external consequences such as legal and family issues caused by their use. Regardless of their reason, an emphasis is placed on sustained time not using the substance that, in their eyes, causes their life’s problems.

While abstinence and sobriety are essential, there is often an over-emphasis on a particular substance rather than on the patterns of dependency at the core of the substance use disorder. This rigidity can minimize the impact of other substances that a person may already be using or may initiate using as they seek alternatives to the mind/mood-altering effects they relied upon in their active addiction.

For example, a heroin addict may think that drinking alcohol is a safe alternative to getting high. Or an alcoholic decides that taking painkillers won’t be a problem. This mentality goes back to their desire to control things. They believe that they can control their use because it’s not the substance to which they are addicted. This misunderstanding usually doesn’t last very long. Rather quickly, a person can develop similar patterns and experience adverse outcomes with their new drug of choice or even reverting to the previously used substance.

How Cross Addiction Starts in Recovery

Cross-addiction could also occur accidentally. A person could be doing well in their recovery and have no desire to drink or use. Then, their doctor may prescribe a medication for something such as anxiety, ADHD, or depression. Though used for legitimate reasons, the most common medications prescribed for these conditions can have similar mind and mood impacts as the previously abused substance. Taking new medications can be very risky for someone that has the disease of addiction. The physicians and other medical providers must be aware of the patient’s substance addiction history, just like they would be with any other health issue.

People refer to cross-addiction as a pattern of replacing one addiction with another. It is very prevalent among people who have recently left treatment. Regardless of how long a person has been in recovery, cross-addiction can strike at any time. Being aware of how you’re feeling and having a proper way to process those feelings is vital. It is crucial to develop a support system within a 12-step fellowship that includes a sponsor and others who help to support you.


If you think you or your loved one may be struggling with cross-addiction, please call Bradford Health Services at 888-SOBER-40 for a free and confidential consultation.

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