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Tapping the Root: Psychologist tackles cause of addictive behavior in new book

Part-time La Jollan Rosemary Ellsworth Brown’s new book is redefining what it means to look at addiction. Published in May, “Addiction is the Symptom” examines how to handle addiction in general, rather than targeting the one thing on which an addict focuses. Brown will discuss her work 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 1 at La Jolla’s Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.

Using variations on the 12 steps found in conventional recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, the book provides a program for overcoming addictive behavior and emotional dependency overall.

Rosemary Ellsworth Brown is the author of “Addiction is the Symptom”
Rosemary Ellsworth Brown is the author of “Addiction is the Symptom”

“This is crucial to the treatment industry because addiction is known as a chronic disease because there is no way to heal it,” Brown said. “When it comes to (conventional) recovery, people don’t really recover because addicts substitute one addiction for another.”

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For example, she said, “If you quit smoking, you can gain weight. So you have substituted cigarettes for food. Then you can become addicted to losing weight, and you substitute food with an addiction to exercise. When you look great, you become addicted to finding a relationship ...”

The book includes a glossary of terms, as redefined by Brown, such as emotional dependency (relying on any outside factors to have needs met) as a trigger for addictive behavior. Based on the notion that all people experience varying degrees of emotional dependency, Brown said the book applies to anyone who wants to change that behavior. She also includes substituting one subject of addiction for another in her definition of “relapse.”

Brown’s co-author, Laura MacKay, said when relapse is based on one subject — such as alcoholics returning to alcohol — the definition becomes too specific. “When we define these things narrowly, we think about them narrowly and then we don’t get at what’s really going on. This is not a narrow problem we are looking at,” MacKay said. “It’s worth redefining these things for people. When we define relapse as going back to the original addiction, that’s elusory because if you replace the alcohol with something else, you still have a problem, and a big one. It can still have a deep effect on your life.”

Brown added, “My work focuses on the cause of addictive behavior. ... Once the cause is addressed, the symptoms will disappear.”

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Her exploration started after her own battle with addiction and experience with 12-step programs. “My first addiction was prescription drugs after my daughter was born, then alcohol, and then (something else), and then, and then,” she said, noting this research “was a very personal quest for me. I know this process works because I am a person who has had multiple addictions and I know of what I speak.”

With an initial focus on alcohol, drugs and food, her research started in 1971, after Brown returned to Alcoholics Anonymous seeking help. Finding that people still experienced addiction, she spent years reading books, attending meetings and interviewing directors of treatment centers to study what was effective in preventing conventionally defined relapse.

In 1984, she took her exploration to the next level, and attended Smith College before completing her doctorate at Union Institute and University in Vermont. Her dissertation was published in 1995. Her book is based on her dissertation and subsequent research.

“The focus of my research was what was effective in 12-step programs and why people relapse. Over time it evolved into looking at healing the cause of addictive behavior rather than symptom management,” she said. “Most traditional addiction treatment is about single-symptom treatment, that’s why there is such a proliferation of 12-step programs.”

She added, “It took me a lifetime to learn this, so I want to share it with people. I’m not saying this is for everyone. This is for people who are done with talking about their problems and not getting results.”

With a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, Brown spent years facilitating talk therapy, which she says extends the life of a problem. “We are taught that good friends listen, which is not true. Good friends listen once or twice and then ask, what are you doing to change this? Problems are meant to be solved or accepted, not talked about incessantly,” she said.

Her book includes a problem-solving algorithm, along with a modified 12-step program that applies to people, places and substances rather than one target of addiction.

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” In “Addiction is the Symptom,” the first step is “We admitted we were powerless over life — people, situations, circumstances and substances — and that our lives and our minds were unmanageable when we tried to control any part of it.”

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By making the steps all encompassing, Brown said, one learns how to change his/her thinking, and eliminate emotional dependency on others. “Conflict comes about because we are looking to someone or something else to get our needs met,” she said. “By doing this work, we learn independence. Imagine what it would be like to be independent of someone or something to have your needs met?”

MacKay said the book is for those immediately trying to overcome addiction, as well as those with emotional dependency or control issues. “Almost all of us are on that spectrum somewhere.”