Addiction is a topic that terrifies me, which is why I have avoided writing about it despite the fact that it has been a predominant part of my life. Though I am not personally an addict, many of my friends and loved ones have battled this disease so I have seen firsthand the effect addiction has on everyone surrounding it. Often, I painfully watched addiction rip apart relationships and devastate lives.
My hope is that in sharing some of the insights I have gained over the past few decades, I might be able to help others mitigate some of these damaging effects. As a parent, I hope what I have learned will help me spare my children from the horrors of addiction and perhaps help you protect your own children. Most of this article will consist of my personal opinions and insights. My experiences and thoughts might be significantly different than others so please seek out additional perspectives if this is a topic you are interested in.
I will include some facts about addiction and will clearly distinguish those from my opinions so that you can more easily form your own opinion.
Addiction is a disease. More importantly, it is a progressive disease, meaning that left untreated it will worsen. Additionally, it is an uncurable disease. While there are effective treatments, once a person has been diagnosed as an addict, he or she will always be at risk for relapse.
Addiction rewires your brain. The drugs or alcohol interfere with the body’s ability to produce dopamine and endorphins so the substance takes over doing what the brain should do on its own.
Addiction is significantly impacted by genetics. Roughly 50% of addiction is attributable to genetics. However, children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction.
Genetics doesn’t account for all addiction cases. The truth is that anyone can develop an addiction. Some people might be able to abuse a substance for years and never develop an addiction, while others can develop an addiction after just a few uses.
Addiction frequently co-occurs with another mental health condition such as anxiety, mood, or personality disorders. Often, drugs or alcohol are used to self-medicate.
Relapse is a typical occurrence in recovery. Effective treatments do exist for addiction and often multiple treatment options are required. Relapses are a normal part of the recovery process for many individuals.
You can see a list of substance dependence symptoms at Medical News Today. I have my own thoughts on what to look for based on the dozens of addicts I have personally known.
- Bravado that masks self-esteem issues — The addicts closest to me are very rarely described as self-conscious or lacking confidence because they put a lot of energy into projecting the opposite image. Typically, they relied on drugs or alcohol to give them that confidence. As their addictions progressed, their shame and self-hatred grew so they relied more and more on the substance to help them ignore those feelings. Since I was close to these individuals, I was privy to their revelations about self-doubt and self-loathing. If someone close to you exhibits those signs but is outwardly confident, perhaps even cocky, start looking closely for other symptoms.
- Lying for no reason — Addicts are habitual liars. Once they move past substance abuse to addiction (and sometimes sooner), they lie to hide the problem from those around them. I’m not sure why, but once they develop a habit of lying, it’s been my experience that they then begin to lie about many other things, almost as if they are honing their ability to lie.
- Overly critical of others — You’ve probably heard the saying, “The best defense is a good offense.” Well, most of the addicts I know employ this strategy often once they realize you suspect they have a problem. Before you can question them about their drug or alcohol use, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a long list of all the things that are wrong with you. Experts say that this is part of the “pushing away” that is typical of addicts. As the people close to them start to interfere with their ability to use drugs/alcohol, they begin to systematically push those people away.
- Compulsiveness — Many addicts I know do things to extremes. When they diet, they don’t just cut back on junk food, they follow a rigid diet of lean protein and vegetables. When they decide to get in shape, they begin a regimen of working out 2 hours per day 7 days per week. When they decide to clean the house, they clean every crevice, corner, and surface. If you told me that between a mailroom clerk and a CEO one was an addict, I would guess the CEO.
Effects on Loved Ones
Because of the symptoms I described above, there are many side effects for those of us who love and care for an addict.
First, your self-esteem will take a big hit. For me, always being the lame duck or killjoy next to the life of the party (the addict) was a hard blow to my self-worth. Once the disease progressed so that I was the one under attack, I was ready for counseling to cope with my battered self-esteem.
Second, you will begin to question your sanity. I realize that statement seems dramatic, but it was true for me and is true of many loved ones of addicts that I know. The addict becomes so good at lying and managing their public image, you begin to wonder if you are imaging things. No one else sees a problem. The story is so convincing, am I sure that it’s a lie? The addict will state the most outlandish things in a completely sensible manner that you start to believe that YOU must be the one with a problem.
Further, many people assign a stigma to addiction because they have the misperception that it indicates a weakness. Due to this false belief, many people close to the addict will live in denial of the problem. So, when you seek help from other loved ones, you might be met with disbelief or even, anger. Again, you will question your own beliefs, and you might also begin to feel bad about yourself or isolate yourself because you feel misunderstood or out-of-place among others.
Third, you will bear a tremendous amount of stress. The attacks on your self-esteem and sanity are certainly stressful enough, but they are just a small piece of it. Depending on what the addict’s role is in your life, you will also be burdened with whether to cover for them or expose them; worrying about their safety, your safety, and the safety of others; dreading the financial and legal consequences of their actions; grappling on a daily basis with multiple emotions (anger, guilt, sadness, anxiety, fear); and living in fear of all the unknown outcomes of the disease.
What to Do
I hesitate to tell anyone what he or she should do because every situation is different. Instead, I will tell you what to consider as you make your own decisions.
Addiction is Not a Weakness
Contrary to many people’s perceptions, addiction isn’t a disease that befalls individuals who are weak-minded or who lack willpower. In fact, many addicts are overachievers and are highly successful relative to their peers. If you believe it’s a weakness, you will make it harder for the addict to seek treatment. The addict won’t want to confide in you out of shame.
You Don’t Have Control
This was a tough concept for me to grasp. Just as addicts refuse to admit they cannot control their drug or alcohol use, their loved ones resist the idea that they can’t somehow help or fix the problem. The sad reality is that the disease has to run its course and there is very little you can do to change its path. If you interfere with the addict’s access to drugs or alcohol, they will simply become more creative about getting around you. It’s also important for you to realize that because you can’t control another person’s addiction or recovery, you also aren’t to blame. If someone needs to use, they will, no matter what you say or do. If someone is working a solid program of sobriety, you can’t do anything that will force them into relapse.
Treatment Can Be Effective
There are MANY treatment programs for addiction. Often more than one treatment approach is needed to be effective. And not all treatment programs are effective for all individuals. The best thing you can do as a loved one is to educate yourself about available options as much as possible. When the addict is finally ready to pursue treatment, you will be able to help guide him or her. Or, depending on your relationship, you might be able to get the addict into treatment before he or she volunteers for it.
There is No Cure For Addiction
I know it seems confusing for me to state this after I’ve told you there are effective treatment programs, but it’s absolutely true. While the addict might be successful in a treatment program, he or she will NEVER be “cured” of addiction. I’m not saying you should break ties with all addicts because they might eventually relapse and devastate your life and relationship. I do think it’s important though that if you continue those relationships, you acknowledge the risk.
Expect a Relapse
Not all addicts in recovery will experience a relapse. However, for me personally, it was easier to cope with them when they did occur because I knew they were likely to happen. To expect an addict to remain sober for the rest of their lives is like expecting a cancer survivor to avoid getting cancer again. Do what you can to be emotionally, financially, and physically ready for a relapse so that you can more easily weather it if and when it occurs.
Again, the information in this post reflects my own personal opinions and experiences dealing with addicts. If you have your own perspective, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments. This is a painful issue for many people and I’m a firm believer that the more information and support one can get, the better.
Your Search for Help Should Focus on You
Earlier I mentioned that educating yourself on effective addiction treatments is helpful to both you and the addict. However, in my opinion, it’s even more important to find help for yourself. Because of the traumatic effects of addiction on our self-esteem, and mental and physical health, it should be a priority to safeguard ourselves. Physically, it’s helpful to eat right and get sufficient exercise. Being physically healthy spills over into other areas of your life. Mentally, it’s important to have hobbies and activities that interest us so that we don’t lose ourselves in a sea of despair. Emotionally, it is VITAL to find someone to talk to. Groups like Al-Anon are helpful, as are counselors, and so is a friend who is a good listener who won’t judge you. I sought help online, over the phone, and in person. It doesn’t matter what form of contact you have with others, but it is immensely helpful to have someone to talk to that will understand what you are going through or who aims to help you feel better.
For more information about addiction including risk factors, stages, withdrawal, and recovery, you might find this article helpful. It’s extremely thorough and is available as a downloadable PDF guide if you prefer to print it out to read it.