Addictions to various substances and behaviors have plagued world societies for thousands of years. Only in the past few decades has a clearer understanding emerged on causes and effective treatments.
Addiction is defined as a “state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”
The trauma of withdrawal can be experienced as severe physical or psychological pain or both. In certain types of addiction sudden withdrawal is actually life threatening. Barbiturates, benzodiazepines, even alcohol are among this group. An understanding of this reality is essential to comprehend for anyone treating or living with addictions. Withdrawal from some other substances creates extremely uncomfortable symptoms that are not necessarily lethal.
As a society we tend to be very judgmental of individuals with addictions. Unless we have been there it is difficult to be compassionate toward someone who seems to be hurling themselves down a path of self-destruction.
I would like to offer some insights into the problem in the hope that families and friends of persons with addictions can be better informed, less angry and more supportive in a healthy way. Because addictive behavior triggers strong emotions in others it is easy to react to the addict either by total rejection or dysfunctional codependence.
In recent years it has become clear that addictions primarily occur due to chemical abnormalities in the brain. Two individuals can consume the same amounts of alcohol. One will become addicted; the second will not. The pleasure center of the brain responds differently in each case, based on one’s genetic heritage. Some people are so prone to addiction that it develops in a very short time. The appetite centers of the brain receive an exaggerated pleasure effect which may not be limited to one substance. Very often one is or can become addicted to several chemicals or behaviors.
Although not the fault of the user, the responsibility to seek a means to recovery lies with the addicted person. Addiction is no different than any chronic illness; it must be cared for forever. But help is needed to achieve this.
When addiction is severe the individual loses the ability to function effectively and is unable to make valid decisions regarding their welfare. In such instances treatment becomes mandatory but the addict is totally stuck in a deadly cycle of using until the substance wears off then using again. Usually in such cases an intervention is needed.
After a few weeks of detox and treatment the brain begins to clear and motivation to heal arises. A few fortunate remain addiction-free for life but more often several attempts are necessary because the underlying chemical defects remain. The best program and the one with the greatest success rate is still alcoholics Anonymous.
Families suffer as they watch and pray and learn how not to be codependent enablers. Finding a balance between healthy support and angry attempts to control are a major challenge for relatives and friends.
The bottom line is that no victim of addiction wants the curse. Those who are close to the addict must realize and accept that. It means being compassionate while also setting firm limits in as loving a way as possible. Because the addict’s behavior is so maddening and frustrating it can be very helpful for family to seek the support of Alanon and/or individual therapy. Any addiction is a family affair, one in which compassion and tough love must find a healthy balance.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island. She has 27 years of experience as a therapist in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 394-2861. Visit Stanton’s Web site at http://www.etseven.net.