I live a very clean life, but in my extended family, we have a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol. I feel very lucky to have been raised the way I was and to be free of those sorts of problems. But this also makes it difficult for me to understand why people like my relatives would do the things they do, or how they could allow themselves to fall into such terrible habits.
What can the experts tell me about addiction that might make me a little more open-minded, and help me be more loving and understanding toward those struggling with addiction?
For those of us lucky enough to live without the burden of addiction, it can be very difficult to understand how and why others end up bearing that burden. Your desire to be open-minded and understanding about addiction is an admirable one, and one that suits the challenge: while personal failures and mistakes can increase the risk of addiction, there is no denying that addiction itself is a medical condition, one that is largely beyond the control of the addict – and, usually, entirely outside of their power to defeat without help.
Addictive substances have all different underlying effects, but they all have certain things in common. Experts define addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” In the case of some addictions, the types of physical chemistry that cause craving, increased tolerance, and withdrawal are clear. In other cases, the psychology of addiction is less clear. But in all cases, addiction is a disease.
One of the most common forms of addiction is alcoholism, which affects a staggering one in 12 American adults. For most alcoholics, the only effective remedy is to quit drinking entirely – something that can often only be done with the support of medical experts and alcoholism treatment programs available at rehabilitation and recovery centers. Such rehab centers often also host those addicted to other substances, such as opiates. Whether or not a rehab center focuses on just one substance depends on the center.
Speaking of opioids – a class that includes heroin and many painkillers, among other drugs – our nation is facing an opioid epidemic right now, which makes this subject all the more relevant. Opioid overdoses now kill more than 115 Americans a day. There is hope for those addicted to opioids, too, of course: just as alcoholics can, opioid addicts can seek treatment and assistance from medical experts and rehab centers. Recognizing the scale of the problem, many state and local governments have sponsored programs to help addicts get help, even when they might be able to pay for such help themselves.
The nature of addiction is that it is largely, if not entirely, beyond the control of the addict. This truth plays out in the realities of treatment, where support and expertise is vital in combating the issue. If you understand addiction as a medical issue and recognize that even small mistakes can lead to massive problems that are well beyond the control of the addict, you’ll be on your way to viewing addicts in a more empathetic way.
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” – Theodore Roosevelt