Here is the best explanation of the difference between obsession and craving that I have read: Joe and Charlie describes obsession and craving
The “Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book (BB) also describes the phenomenon of craving.
On page 30 of the Big Book, it states:
The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.
We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.
Simplifying the Definitions
To simplify (but I strongly suggest taking the time to read the above passages), obsession is what happens before we pick up. Craving occurs after. Obsession is in our mind. Craving is in our body once we have acted on the obsession.
Translating Obsession and Compulsion for Compulsive Debtors
Now, in our disease, compulsive debting, there are two important facts to discuss:
- For many of us, the obsession is not about debting, but about purchasing.
- Though we are not ingesting a substance, like alcohol, sugar, or cocaine, the craving set off by compulsive activity around money IS physical.
You may say that you can’t relate to the BB in this area because we don’t swallow money, so how on earth can we experience a physical reaction?
Well, I cannot explain it, but I can describe how I perceive it in my own experience pretty simply.
To put it bluntly, if I don’t give in the obsession in my mind by taking the compulsive spending or debting action, I will not develop the craving where I can’t stop spending and debting. Ever.
I can obsess about buying a single item, even a small one, that I don’t have money to purchase right now, to the point where I cannot think of anything else. I can research it, ruminate on it, romanticise it, go to sleep with it as the last thought on my mind.
That obsession can lead me into pain, deep pain, if I cannot get the object of the obsession now. The pain feels bottomless, endless, and may cause physical discomfort, such as difficulty breathing, grief, anger, even rage, and a feeling that I will explode or die if I don’t get this one item.
Pretty grim, right?
But if I don’t give in to the obsession and spend money I don’t have for that item, I will not fall into relapse.
Pretty simple, right?
Handling the Obsession
Therefore, there are two ways to handle this obsession. Let’s follow my example, above.
- I can trust that I will have what I need when I need it. And that the obsession will pass if I don’t give in to it.
This means that I can kick, scream, wail, and weep, but I take the guidance my Higher Power sends through others I have entrusted to help me.
In DA H.O.W., we speak to a sponsor daily and turn over our spending. We don’t spend without committing it first. We also keep a spending plan and if we don’t have money in a category, we must wait until we do to make a purchase or work with our sponsor or PRG team to allocate additional money.
If there isn’t enough money in the category for the purchase, and the sponsor or PRG team hasn’t worked with me to move money into the category, then, it would be a break of abstinence for me to spend that money anyway, even if there is un-categorized money waiting to be allocated.
Is that rigid? Perhaps it may seem that way to some. However, I am a heroin addict with money and I trust those I have asked to help me with my spending decisions so I don’t spiral down into compulsive spending, which inevitably leads me to debting.
- I can give in to the obsession and throw my program out the window. Yes, it is, in the end, my money, so I can choose to be free and break out of the prison of working the program. But really, was I free when I lived by a creed of satisfying cravings day in and day out to the tune of $33,000 in debt and rising? Which way of life is truly the prison?
If I defy those I trust to see the truth with me, then I am acting in self-will. Is there really any item worth reverting to my old behavior to buy?
If so, then I can give in to my obsession and make that purchase. But the risk is that I will slide headfirst into full-blown relapse and craving will become the monster that leads the way.
I can be devious and arrange a quickie PRG with others who don’t know me as well and convince them to agree to what I want. For me, if someone I trust tells me what I don’t want to hear and then I deliberately find someone who will give me a different answer, that is not living in recovery either.
It is not to say that our sponsors or even our PRG teams are always right. But in most cases, erring on the side of not giving in to obsession surely can’t hurt.
Craving for Compulsive Debtors
Now, about craving. How is it different, in DA, from obsession? Well, taking the description from the Joe and Charlie transcript, If I don’t give in to the mental obsession, which, in the case of DA H.O.W., includes spending without having the funds available or uncommitted spending, then:
- I have an opportunity to let my Higher Power remove the obsession so I can see more clearly.
- I don’t risk losing my abstinence.
- I gain one more example of seeing that I won’t die from unfulfilled desire.
- In time, either I no longer want the item, or it becomes feasible for me to purchase it.
- I find peace once again, instead of living in RIDS (Restless, Irritable, and Discontented). Here is a small passage from the Joe and Charlie transcript that speaks to this:
JOE: (BB, “Doctor’s Opinion,” p. xxvi, par. 5) ‘To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one.’ Now he describes how this is triggered. He says: (BB, “Doctor’s Opinion,” p. xxvi, par. 5, xxvii, par. 1) ‘They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience (top of p. xxvii) the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks–drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery.’
CHARLIE: Notice the use of the words: phenomenon of craving. Up until that time he is describing the way the mind feels while the person is sober. Then he said, after they have succumbed to the desire again, after they have put two or three drinks in their system, then the phenomenon of craving develops. So craving deals with the physical body, not the mind. It’s always used in the context of after we’ve had one, two, or three drinks. Then we can’t stop.
The Cost VS. the Price
I know that if I spend according to my obsession despite what I know about recovery, once I purchase that item, there is no question that another item will take its place sooner, rather than later.
And once I have given in to the obsession despite the admonition of my sponsor, why not do it again?
And once I convince myself that it is ok to do this, what will stop me from moving money around as I see fit, forgetting what I know about my disease and what works for me in recovery?
And then, how easy it will be to convince myself that I am doing fine and don’t need a sponsor … or this program, for that matter.
And then, how long will it be until I find an excuse to use a credit card for an item that costs more than my available cash that I MUST have or I WILL DIE?
And then, the horror and humiliation I’ll experience when the realization of what I have destroyed will be putty in the hands of my disease, which just wants to have fun, its sick, dank, dark, depraved idea of fun.
And then, I can’t stop the process. As it says above, “So craving deals with the physical body, not the mind. It’s always used in the context of after we’ve had one, two, or three drinks. Then we can’t stop.”
If I spend out of self-will and obsession, my disease, finally once again seeing it can have its way with me by bullying me with desire, won’t let up. Once I give in, I will surely feel the remorse they describe, but it will be drowned by the screams of my craving body for more, more, more, until I am done in for good.
A DA Psychic Change Described
This, they admonish, will happen over and over until I experience an “entire psychic change.” What is this psychic change for me?
It is the sure knowing, that came first with faith, that if I don’t give in, then my HP will remove the obsession. It may come back and try again, but I must turn to my program and HP each and every time. Never once can I fool myself that I can spend like others, with impunity. Or I will repeat that endless cycle and lose all that I have gained materially, spiritually, and emotionally.
This disease is serious. In fact, it’s deadly. So when I think of bucking my sponsor or PRG, once again, I need to ask, is the cost worth the price.