The Different Faces of Cravings
By Dr. Peg O’Connor
The following excerpt is from Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering by Dr. Peg O’Connor
In much of addiction literature, cravings are described as a tsunami of desire correlated with familiar places and associated with past usage. Cravings just rise up unbidden and feel overwhelming. Cravings are like a mugging - a picture that accurately describes the cravings that many people experience, especially those who still actively use or are recently sober.
However, this picture of cravings as mugging is not emblematic of all cravings. We’ve been captivated by this picture, which carries an accompanying assumption that cravings must always be this way. The danger with this picture and that embedded assumption is that we may be unable to recognize other forms of craving. There needs to be more nuanced accounts of craving in the context of addiction. Different drugs and addictive behaviors affect the brain and the body in different ways. Cravings will not be experienced in identical ways because they are not just one thing, nor are they one dimensional. They may be physical, cognitive, emotional, or spiritual. If we think that cravings are only big physiological/chemical tsunamis that knock us over, we will not recognize other forms of cravings.
I submit there is another form of craving, one that is more akin to the ‘confidence con’ or what is sometimes called the ‘long con.’ A long con takes time to develop, and often the best “marks” are those who believe themselves to be too smart/sophisticated/experienced to ever be duped. The con man earns the trust of the mark and then is in the best position to swindle or dupe. People with long term sobriety may be more susceptible to this form of craving precisely because they believe they are beyond craving or would recognize the tsunami if it came crashing down on them.
To understand the dynamics of both forms of craving (mugging and long con), I turn to the Sirens of ancient Greek mythology. The Sirens were half-woman/half bird creatures who lived on an island and lured sailors to their death with song. Enchanted not just by their voices but the beautiful lyrics, sailors would tack toward the coast and crash their vessels on the rocky shoals. The Sirens represent not just temptation but craving with deadly consequences. This classic Greek myth is illuminating for understanding the call that drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviors have for people who are in some stage of recovery.
What exactly was so irresistible about their song and how does this connect to cravings? The Sirens knew who was on the ships. They called to each individual sailor with a song meant just for him. And who wouldn’t want to move a little closer to hear a song that is all about you and that shows you to be the person you really want to be? Or even more strongly, the person you need to be? The Sirens’ song shows us that the craving isn’t only for a chemical and its effects, but also for a particular version of ourselves.
Much of the advice given to people who are newly sober or trying to abstain is to avoid situations where there will be temptations. This is akin to saying to the sailors, “stay as far away as possible from the Sirens’ island.” This is very good advice. If you avoid the temptations, you avoid setting off cravings that may lead you to use.
If you can’t find another route and you have to sail past that island of drugs and alcohol (if a family member continues to use, for example), are there other ways to direct your focus or keep your attention on something else? Some people substitute one substance or behavior for another. Some people quit drinking but start smoking cigarettes. Some even say that they will quit smoking after they get an addiction under control. However, there’s potential for trouble here, especially if “healthier” really means “not as unhealthy.” Diversion from one addiction may result in troubling consequences.
What does this myth tell us about long con cravings? A person with long term sobriety may come to believe that he is already beyond temptation; he’s successfully sailed past the island. This confidence may make him an easy mark. The song appeals both to the past and the future; noticeably absent is the present. The danger of the song is its deeply personal nature. Long con cravings appeal to a past seen through rose-colored glasses; we humans tend to rewrite past events or even past versions of ourselves over time. In some ways, we miss the person we imagine ourselves to have been. We miss an imaginary life where the consequences of our use weren’t all that bad—we were still able to be a good partner/son/daughter/parent/friend, and our lives weren’t defined by a catalogue of obligations and responsibilities. Our imagined past self starts to feel more real than our actual present self.
The Sirens’ song also appeals to an imaginary future that is just as deeply personal as the nostalgic remembrances. If we have rose-tinted glasses looking at our past, we see our futures with sky-blue tinted glasses. We imagine a future that fulfills all of our hopes, dreams, and aspirations that also includes “normal” use of alcohol, drugs, or behaviors. We will be a good partner/son/daughter/parent/friend, the life of the party, and a success. We will be everything we ever hoped to be. When our expectations are not met or our imaginings fail to become realities, we may feel especially resentful and wronged. We may see other people and events as the cause of our disappointments rather than ourselves.
What of the present, when the winds calm and you find yourself having to row past the island? The deep longings or cravings are most often a response to something in a person’s life. The important part is figuring out what that something is. Three other considerations are just as important. The first is maintaining an attitude of genuine humility toward one’s sobriety. Never take it for granted. Sobriety isn’t a given. The second is maintaining a healthy skepticism about both memories of our past selves and imaginings of our futures. The third consideration is coming to know ourselves in genuine ways. Self-knowledge is very much a fruit of the spiritual tree.
For the ancient Greeks, seeking self-knowledge was one of the most valuable pursuits a man could undertake. “Know thyself” was inscribed on the Temple at Delphi, the most important shrine in classical Greece. It might seem odd to consider coming to know yourself as work. But in fact, it’s not just work; it is very hard work.
Peg O’Connor, PhD, is a recovering alcoholic of 34 years and has been a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN for 27 years. She believes that philosophy helped her to get and remain sober. She avoided Alcoholics Anonymous for the first 20 years of her sobriety because of the concept of a “higher power.” Dr. O’Connor is the author of the new book, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016). She also writes a column, “Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken,” for Psychology Today that has nearly 2,000,000 total views and select columns have appeared in the print publication.