If you’ve never struggled with addiction, you’re lucky. You’ll never know the hopelessness of being addicted, or of wanting to stop and not being able too. Imagine something so powerful that it uses you. It’s like that for those of us who are susceptible to a substance use disorder.
We voluntarily take our first drink or drug, and then it takes over. We develop psychological dependency – an emotional and mental process that goes hand-in-hand with addiction. Our chemically altered state becomes our brains’ new normal.
Our body becomes physically dependent. We need higher and higher doses to create the same euphoric effect. As tolerance builds, signals are sent to our mid-brain, over-riding our frontal lobe – the area of our brain responsible for executive functions such as planning for the future, judgment, decision-making skills, attention span, impulse control, and inhibition. Our thought process becomes hijacked and reroutes itself through the midbrain, also known as the reptilian brain, the part of the brain responsible for survival. It’s our fight or flight response. The signal it sends out says ‘get high or die.’
The susceptible person’s brain responds differently to chemical stimulation than non-addicts do. The majority of people will be able to use drugs and alcohol with few consequences. They don’t over-indulge because they don’t like feeling out of control. However, for those of us struggling with addiction, we don’t feel out of control. We feel in control, maybe for the very first time in our lives.
Every addicted person I know, including myself, struggle with feeling different than others. Like a black sheep, in a herd of white ones. We’re uncomfortable in our skin. We stand in a crowd but feel lonely and separate from the people around us. We’re observers – outsiders, looking in. Something is missing. We try and fill this void with food, shopping, relationships, work, exercise, gaming, porn, or drugs and alcohol. Our first experience with substance or other mood-altering behaviors will change the way we feel about ourselves and our perception of the world around us. The feelings of euphoria and happiness are so intense that we will chase this feeling for the rest of our lives.
As a person in long-term recovery who works with substance abusers, there are seven things you should know about people struggling with addiction:
1) Addiction is a delusional illness.
Becoming addicted is easy, and no one knows they’re doing it. We tell ourselves we’re having fun. We need it to relax. We minimize the severity of our addiction by focusing on what we still have, not on what we have lost. The alcoholic says I only drink beer. The cocaine abuser says I don’t use meth. The meth addict says I only smoke drugs, I don’t inject them. The pill-popper says at least I don’t use heroin. Delusion is a belief that everything is fine in spite of mounting evidence that points otherwise. Delusion takes a problem and says, ‘what problem? There’s no problem here.’ Delusion is sincere, which is why addicts aren’t always lying when they’re lying.
2) Addiction is not a moral failing or a weakness.
Those struggling with addiction aren’t bad, although they do terrible things to maintain their habit. Addicts are very sick. Addiction is a brain disease that rewires the cerebral cortex resulting in poor judgment and impulse control. It manifests in compulsive substance use in spite of harmful consequences. It’s progressive in nature ending in jails, institutions, death, or recovery.
3) Persons struggling with addiction need help to stay sick.
The enabler aides in their addiction by making excuses for them. They clean up their messes, loan them money, and keep their secrets. The enabler believes they know their addicted loved one better than anyone else, but in reality, they’re usually the easiest person in the family to manipulate. This one-sided relationship allows the addicted person to under-function in all their affairs and to focus solely on their relationship with drugs or alcohol.
4) Shame is our second skin.
Addicted persons experience high levels of shame. They’re not comfortable in their bodies. They may mask this with sarcasm, jokes, or an attitude of entitlement. They have a love-hate relationship with themselves and their drug of choice. They love the way they feel when high but hate the things they do to achieve this feeling. They judge themselves harshly, calling themselves losers, junkies, or a waste of space. They may believe they’re too weak to quit using, and their family would be better off without them.
5) Love won’t make us better.
You’ve nursed them back to health. You’ve watched over them as they slept. You’ve loved them when they weren’t very loveable. You’ve done everything in your power to help them get better. Instead of thanking you for it, your addicted loved one pushed you further away. Now you’re exhausted and left wondering if you did something wrong. While you may have made mistakes, please know you didn’t cause their addiction, and you can’t love them well.
6) Addiction is a family illness.
When one family member struggles with addiction, it affects the whole family. Trust is broken, hurt accumulates and builds, exploding in an eruption of emotions and regrets. You may find yourself protecting the addicted person, or blaming them for your own unhealthy behavior. Parents may turn on one another in their frustration. The family walks on egg-shells around the substance abuser, fearing they may upset them. In healthy families, everyone can get their needs met. In addicted families, the only one getting their needs met is the substance abuser.
7) If you’re doing the right thing, your addicted loved one will probably be mad at you.
Boundaries let you love the addicted person without enabling them. Boundaries keep you safe. They tell your loved one what you’re okay with, and what you’re not. When you say no to enabling behaviors, you threaten addiction because consequences promote change. Learning to set boundaries is the best way to maintain your health and, ultimately, help your addicted loved one.
It’s essential to note addiction is a highly treatable illness. The key to recovery is breaking the code of silence by admitting you need help and reaching out.