“The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict? The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict…” ~ William S. Burroughs, Junky According to some surveys, almost two-thirds of American families have been significantly impacted in some way by addictions to drugs or alcohol. Virtually everyone knows someone with a drinking or drug problem – a family member, a friend, or a coworker. Despite this, there are a number of misconceptions and little-known facts about addiction that continue to persist. Understanding is one of the main keys to mitigating the damage that addiction can do.
1. Addiction is a Disease
Alcoholism was identified as a disease several decades ago, and it is now known that all addictions fall into the same category. Yet, many people still think of addiction as a personal weakness or moral failing. To be clear – when addiction is active, the alcoholic/addict has virtually no control over their actions. They are just as much a victim of their disease as is someone with diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or any other chronic condition. Signs of addiction include:
- needing to use more and more of the drug/alcohol to achieve the same effect
- anxiety or irritation when the drug/alcohol is not available
- constant preoccupation about the drug/alcohol
- inability to stop using/drinking, even in the face of negative consequences
- hiding or lying about one’s usage
2. Addiction Is a Lonely Disease but Addicts Are Not Alone
Because of the deception and denial that, hand-in-hand with addiction, many substance abusers find themselves separate from those around them. This isolation can exacerbate their problem because they feel alone and unworthy. However, addicts are far from alone in their suffering. Some estimates report that up to 23 million Americans have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. What this means is that in response, there is help available everywhere. Even tiny communities will hold 12-Step meetings, and towns of any size whatsoever have access to professional drug rehab programs.
3. Addiction Is Incurable
Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease. Chronic, because it can never be cured. A person who is addicted will always have to be on guard with their thoughts and actions, lest they suffer a relapse. Progressive, because unless something is done, the disease invariably worsens, even to the point of being fatal. There is no such thing as a “recovered” addict or alcoholic. A person who has had a substance abuse problem cannot go back to social drinking or recreational drug use without running the risk of picking up right where they left off. However, the disease can be managed, in much the same way that other chronic afflictions are. Just as diabetics monitor their blood sugars and make adjustments and people with hypertension reduce their salt intake, addicts too can make changes that will halt their disease’s progression. Time and therapy will allow them to recover from much of the damage – emotional, spiritual, and physical – that the disease has infected over time.
4. Many Addicts Cannot Feel Normal without Their Drug of Choice
Addiction is a disease of the brain. The brain of someone who is actively addicted to drugs or alcohol will actually undergo physical and chemical changes, and these changes are what make it so hard to overcome an addiction. When the substance is ingested, the brain floods the body with pleasure-producing hormones. Over time, that person almost completely loses the ability to produce those hormones naturally. This means that when they aren’t drinking or using, they can’t experience normal pleasure or joy. When that person enters drug or alcohol rehab and totally abstains, this means that (1) they don’t have the substance that they physically need to feel normal, and (2) they can’t feel normal on their own. This is why withdrawal is such an unpleasant experience – the body no longer knows what to do without the alcohol/drug. It can take several months for the recovering addict’s brain chemistry to come back into balance.
5. There Is No Such Thing as a “Stereotypical” Addict
For whatever reason, many people still have the mental picture of an addict/alcoholic as homeless, dirty, incoherent, and criminal. While there is no doubt that some substance abusers fit that profile, there are many more who appear outwardly as normal, productive, everyday citizens. A person can have all the trappings of success – a good job, high income, nice house, seemingly-happy family – and still be lost to the disease of addiction. Addiction strikes every segment of the population, and it knows no boundaries. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic – rich or poor – professional or blue-collar – anyone can suffer from substance abuse. In fact, because up to 20% of the US population suffers from a drug or alcohol dependency, high-functioning addicts may even be the rule, rather than the exception.
6. No One Knows Exactly What Causes Addiction
Addiction is a disease with many contributing factors, but no single identifying cause. Some factors that may play a role include:
- Genetics – experts believe that up to half of a person’s risk of developing an addiction is due to their own personal genetic predisposition. It is known that individuals who have close family members who have been addicted to drugs or alcohol are much more likely to suffer from a substance abuse disorder at some point in their life.
- Trauma – many people who have suffered from some past emotional upheaval or traumatic experience will try to self-medicate in an attempt to feel better.
- Family History – individuals who were exposed to drug or alcohol abuse as a child are at high risk of substance abuse when they become adults.
- Social pressure – when a person already has a genetic/familial predisposition to addiction and they are exposed to regular usage, it can precipitate a rapid addiction.
- Co-occurring mental disorders – conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD can both partially cause and be partially caused by addiction. During treatment, it is important to address both the substance abuse disorder and simultaneous mental disorder.
- Behavior – even when a person believes that they are inviting recreationally or socially, regular, heavy use can result in the brain changes that dictate addictive behavior. In other words, if a person drinks or uses drugs long enough and heavily enough, they will become addicted.
7. Addiction Can Be Fatal, but so Can Unsupervised Recovery
Most people understand that recovery from addiction means abstaining from drinking and using, and that means unpleasant withdrawal, with symptoms such as:
- headaches and confusion
- wild mood swings
- muscle cramps/bodily pain
As bad as all that is, withdrawal from most drugs is not inherently dangerous. Painful? Yes. That’s why it is recommended that when a person quits drugs, they do so in the safe confines of a professional drug detoxification center. The facility’s staff can help ease the worst withdrawal symptoms. However, in the case of alcohol or benzodiazepine-class of drugs, it is absolutely crucial that the detox takes place under medical supervision. Severe withdrawal symptoms from these two substances can be so severe as to be life-threatening. Often, the medication must be administered for the patient’s safety.
8. A Person Can Be Addicted to Anything
When talking about addiction, we usually think in terms and focus on drugs and alcohol, but those are by no means the only types of addiction. A person can be addicted to:
- the Internet
- video games
Any behavior that disrupts a person’s life and leaves them powerless to stop may qualify as an addiction, and professional intervention and counseling may be necessary.
9. Recovery from Addiction Can Require Drastic Lifestyle Changes
People in recovery for alcoholism or drug addiction learn that in order to stay sober they will have to avoid the people, places, and things that were a regular part of their drinking and drugging lifestyles. This means that to avoid risking relapse, the recovering alcoholic/addict must stay away from friends and family members who are still actively addicted, find new places to go and change their behaviors and mindsets. This can be difficult, but it is often necessary.
10. Recovery from Addiction Is Possible
With proper treatment by trained professionals, it is possible for a person to recover from alcoholism or drug abuse. Addiction is a highly personalized disease, and it will manifest itself differently from individual to individual. Consequently, treatment plans must be tailored to the person, starting with an in-depth, detailed intake evaluation. From there, the case supervisor, the counselors, the staff psychologist/psychiatrist, and the patient will work together to come up with an effective treatment plan. Some treatment strategies might include:
- Individual Counseling
- Group Therapy
- Medication Assistance
- Psychological Treatment for Any Co-Occurring Disorder
- Pet and Equine Therapy
Not every drug/alcohol rehab facility will employ all of these treatment options, but those that do will attack the disease on multiple levels, giving the patient the best chance at lasting recovery and productive life.