What is Transfer Addiction?

transfer addiction

There is a lot of talk in the news today about the opioid crisis and addiction.  Normal, everyday people are finding themselves addicted to pain pills—or worse.  Even if these individuals are lucky enough to get into recovery, there are still a lot of obstacles for them to face.  The possibility of relapse, the pressure to stay sober, and even the possibility of a transfer addiction.

If you’re someone not familiar with the world of addiction, or even if you are, there’s still a good chance you may not have heard the term transfer addiction.  My hope today is to educate you on why it’s such a problem, and why getting into recovery is only half the battle for those with addictive personalities.

What is transfer addiction?

Transfer addiction, also called addiction replacement, is when you substitute one addiction for another.  Many people view addicts as having one single drug of choice (like an alcoholic that drinks vodka only), but that often is not the case.  While an addict may have an initial substance that they prefer, it’s common for them to substitute the substance with something else once they get in recovery.  For example, if you’ve ever been to an AA meeting, look around.  Many alcoholics replace drinking alcohol with caffeine consumption (think lots of lots of black coffee) and smoking cigarettes.

Why is transfer addiction a problem?

Transfer addiction is a humongous problem in the world of food addiction.  It’s not uncommon for me to work with clients who have weight loss surgery (lap band, bariatric, etc), only to develop an addiction to something else.  Sometimes this is alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs, tanning, shopping, sex, etc.  The individual may have “fixed” one problem, only to trade it off for another (or multiple others).

This can happen with any type of addiction.  An individual can achieve sobriety from so many types of addictions, only to fall into addictive patterns and addictive thinking with something else.  I’ve watched clients get into recovery from sex addiction, only to start gambling.  I’ve had clients with a shopping addiction and hoarding behaviors start to drink alcohol excessively when they stop buying things.  Just like addiction, transfer addiction does not discriminate.

What causes someone to transfer an addiction?

The problem with transfer addiction is that the root cause of addiction is often not addressed.  Let’s use the example of someone who had weight loss surgery.  “John” has lost a ton of weight following bariatric surgery, but life still isn’t what he imagined it to be.  He’s happy to be thinner but still isn’t happy.  He notices that he has started going out and drinking more frequently in the past few months, even though he knows he shouldn’t due to his surgery.  He’s also been more impulsive lately, spending a lot of money on things and even buying pain pills from a guy at work.

I always ask clients who have had weight loss surgery if they addressed the underlying issues that led them to seek out food?  It’s very common for clients to not be educated about food addiction prior to having the surgery.

If you have had weight loss surgery, there is a very significant chance that you are a food addict.  I understand that there are some extreme health situations where this may not be the case.  However, most people who choose to have the surgery done do so because they are addicted.  Food addicts use food as comfort, they binge eat, have a high tolerance, continue to eat even when it causes problems in their lives, and they will try to cut back/stop but cannot.

John and I discuss food addiction, and at first, he denies it.  But, the more we talk, the more apparent it becomes that John probably has an addictive personality.  When he decided to have his surgery, he remembers meeting with a psychologist.  However, he does not recall ever discussing his food addiction as part of his surgery prep, or digging into the void that eating filled for him.  Even after John had the surgery, he would eat things he knew he wasn’t supposed to.  The food would then make him sick.

John and I discuss how he probably has transfer addiction—he has traded food for alcohol and pain pills.  John doesn’t know why he is an addict.  But he does realize that he comes from a family history of addiction.  This is important to know, as addiction often has a strong familial link.

Treatment options for transfer addiction

Transfer addiction has to be treated at the root.  This means that you need to work with a licensed professional to figure out why you feel the need to self-medicate with a substance.  A therapist can help you figure out why you fell into addiction in the first place.

Oftentimes individuals who struggle with addiction have a lot of shame, which means they don’t feel good enough, or they feel inherently flawed/like a failure.  Sometimes this can be traced back to childhood and upbringing.  Maybe they never felt like their parents approved of them.  Maybe there was a lot of pressure to be perfect.  They may have even been abandoned by a parent growing up (physically or emotionally).  Maybe they went through something traumatic.

When you don’t feel good about yourself, it can cause really painful emotions to exist.  Sometimes the feelings are so negative and awful that individuals will try to mask the feelings with a substance.  When you use alcohol, drugs, or any other type of addictive substance, you are able to numb your feelings, even if only temporarily.

It’s important to note that transfer addiction doesn’t always happen when an individual gets into recovery.  According to the Obesity Action Coalition, around 30% of those who have weight loss surgery will experience some sort of transfer addiction.

If you are reading this, and realize you may have transfer addiction, please reach out for help!  You don’t have to walk this road alone.  A therapist can help you figure out the root cause of your addiction, and help you achieve complete sobriety.  Therapy can also teach you healthier ways to cope with your emotions.

Written by Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW

*Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling in Carmel, Indiana. Christy enjoys doing marriage/couples counseling, individual counseling, premarital counseling. She also provides family counseling, teen and adolescent counseling.