Autism and Addiction

Given the tendency to be obsessive and rigid, it seems reasonable that autistic people might struggle with breaking bad habits and have a higher risk of addiction than neurotypical people in general. I believe there is relatively conclusive evidence that there’s a genetic component to addictive personalities, and I’m certainly not discounting the contribution of this or other proven factors. Addiction is a complex, multifaceted issue, and depending on the affected individual and the specific vice or problematic substance for him or her, the contributing risk factors that initiate and perpetuate the problem are likely varied. This is far from my area of expertise, but I just see reason to believe that autistic people might be more predisposed to addictive behaviors due to certain common personality/neurology traits.

Personally, I’ve battled different addictions, though not the classic examples of recreational drugs, alcohol, or tobacco products. These substances contain addictive compounds that cause dependency; therefore, whatever behavioral/usage patterns that develop that contribute to the addiction are magnified by the chemical dependency.

The clearest examples of addictions I’ve dealt with are exercise/running, eating disordered behavior, and Benadryl (in recent years). I think some of my “special interests” can also be categorized as addictions, particularly when my obsessiveness to pursue one starts to interfere with my responsibilities or my biological needs (I might forget to eat, get up to use the bathroom, or go to bed because I’m so involved with it at the time, or I might be unable to sleep because I can’t stop thinking about the special interest). I have found the larger scale addictions (mainly exercise, certain eating disordered habits, and Benadryl) very challenging to rectify, which I guess is part and parcel of being an addiction in the first place.

I seem to typify an “all or nothing” mindset. I don’t usually go halfway into anything in action or mindset. This aligns with rigidity in a sense and makes change really difficult for someone so resistant to change in general, because I can’t convince myself that I’ll still have whatever it is I’m trying to pare back in my life in some more reasonable, healthy level. “Balance” is not an easy register for my brain to find in any domain of my life. Instead, I fixate on just a handful of pursuits and interests (for example, one or two key relationships, my job, and one special interest or hobby). It becomes unmanageable, unappealing, and overwhelming to divert my attention to much more than three things on a daily or weekly basis. Moreover, it’s not like I can handle three things on Monday with adequate focus and then address three different things on Tuesday; these three activities will steal all of my usable energy and focus for an undetermined, but extensive, length of time (weeks, months, or even years). If I try to shuffle things or add another ball to the mix (like focusing on making and going to medical appointments, or growing friendships), my carefully choreographed juggling act suddenly catastrophically fails: I drop the ball on something, become too exhausted or disorganized to keep up, and fail to do a halfway decent job on any one constituent. Because of this weakness, it’s not possible for me to do “just a little” of something in a day and have any reasonable expectation of success. For example, when I was obsessed with running, I would run hard and long every day, at least ten miles. When the run (or two) of a given day was complete, my mind would still be occupied with running: reading running websites or books, calculating my own paces and stats, listening nonstop to running podcasts, planning routes and mapping what I did, etc.

Running is healthy to a certain degree, but when you’re underweight and banging out 70 miles per week with every mile clocking in faster than 6:50 pace, it’s excessive, and damaging, for the body. Even if I had a fabulous run one day and covered 10-12 miles at a pace that impressed even me, I couldn’t get myself to abide by the tried and true training advice accepted by all running coaches that the next day should be easy: a short, slow run of maybe 4-5 miles tops. As a USATF-certified running coach and a MS in Exercise Science to my name, I certainly knew that an easy day would actually keep me healthier, reduce the risk of injury so I could keep running at all, and allow my body to reap the benefits of the hard training I had just done. Sometimes, I would even have full intentions of a rest day or a 30-minute jog the next day, but when the next day came, I’d want to better my effort from the day before by either running a bit farther or a notch faster. I remember countless times of actually verbalizing our loud to myself before the run that it would be a short, relaxed run, just to recover and get a little fresh air, yet once I headed out the door, this crazy competitive beast inside me would usurp my more moderate, balanced intentions. Before ten seconds had elapsed, I’d be streaking down the street at a blistering pace; I would not be seen back at home until I had covered a distance equal to the previous day’s hard work.

I have found the same near inability to moderate how much, how often, and how intensely I think about, engage in, or use any of my addictive vices or obsessions. They often have positive, healthy geneses, and it’s not for quite some time (over which they escalate in time- and energy-demand and they morph into an all-encompassing obsession) that I even become aware that it’s become problematic in its all-consuming nature. Oftentimes, I am unable to detect that it’s become an unhealthy obsession or habit myself. Instead, it takes repeated confrontations from loved ones who bring up their concerns about the apparent taking over-over-my-life aspect of whatever offending activity is the current problem. Like most people (I imagine), I then go on the defensive and the conversation starts to feel adversarial in nature, which isn’t as productive way to support difficult changes.

Another challenge my “all or nothing” personality that makes to not pursuing something with a fully-vested, gung-ho attitude is the layer of complication it adds to reestablishing a healthy relationship—essentially reversing what has become a bad habit to something I can still enjoy in moderation. Because I know I’m almost always unable to do this in reality, it’s a bigger decision, a true parting ways, when I am considering owning up to and healing from my addiction. This impending loss of something I am so passionate about can be too much to weather emotionally. Loss equals heartache or heartbreak, and sometimes, I don’t feel ready or willing to endure that. It takes truly seeing the devastating ramifications of the obsession or addiction to convince me that it will be for the best and will ultimately lead to a better life.

Inextricably linked with this factor is my rigidity, and fierce routinized manner. My brain thrives on repetition; the resistance to change makes modifying anything I do extremely uncomfortable, woefully unappealing, and seemingly impossible. When I was trying to quit my Benadryl dependence, I had mini panic attacks at the times I would always take the pills when I started trying to cut back. Even though the act of swallowing pills takes a mere second or two, the fact that I was just removing this inconsequential (in terms of time) step in my day skyrocketed my anxiety. This problem is magnified many times over when the activity in question occupies actual time like going to a long run or categorizing thousands of rocks and minerals. Then, I feel sick with anxiety and agitation when that activity is removed, despite the fact that I try to preempt that issue and fill the time with an appealing distraction.

I’m a member of several online support groups for autistic women. I often see posts about addictions from women seeking advice and support. While the substances of the addiction span the gamut, I notice the same symptom presentation and patterns of difficulty beating the addition. I’d love to ident some autism-specific tools and tactics to address maladaptive routines, obsessions, and rigidity that lead to addiction in my autistic peer group.

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