What Is Addiction?

Addiction may be diagnosed as a substance abuse disorder (alcohol, legal drugs, illegal drugs), or a process addiction disorder (food, internet, sex, gambling, debt) or a mental health disorder (depression, bipolar, mania, borderline).

A person struggling with addiction is dealing with a complex brain disease that compels them to continue their drinking or substance abuse even when faced with damaging and harmful consequences. These substances directly impact the brain itself. The brain itself sends signals that the craving (of alcohol or drugs) is the most important focus. As this need intensifies, a person may also develop a higher tolerance through increased use. Thus, more and more of the drug or alcohol is needed to satisfy the craving.

After years studying the brain, doctors understand that an addict’s brain changes.Because of their substance abuse, the addict’s decision making, judgement, memory and impulse control are severely affected. These changes can remain long after the abuse stops, which can be equally frustrating for the addict and those who surround him/her.

Podcast: How To Deal With Sudden Grief After Losing A Loved One To Addiction

Causes of Addiction?

There is no single cause for addiction. Rather, a large number of factors are involved including: genetics, biology, social, psychological and environmental factors are involved. There is no one personality type or defining characteristic that means a person is going to suffer from alcohol or substance abuse, though mental illness does often co occur with addiction.

Chronic pain has increasingly become a factor with addiction. When a person feels pain for longer than 90 days it is considered chronic. This may lead to a prescription intended for pain management that leads to substance abuse.  

Another important factor to consider is trauma. Trauma can take many different forms such as verbal, physical and mental abuse, divorce, death, etc. Trauma created intense feelings of discomfort and may cause people to turn to substances like alcohol and/or drugs in an effort to become numb.

Addiction and Denial

Denial is a common struggle with addiction. People may spend years denying how unhealthy and deep their habits have become. They find excuses that justify their behavior and ignore the advice of concerned loved ones watching them struggle with addiction.

Watching someone you love battle addiction is challenging. It’s painful to watch someone whose health continues to decline. It’s frustrating to find solutions for a person who doesn’t acknowledge the problem. Ultimately though, it can simply be exhausting as we feel drained emotionally, mentally, physically and sometimes even spiritually. Family members and friends are often “tapped out” and may grow resentful of the person they are most concerned about; this is why an interventionist can be crucial. Denial is a powerful tool used by the alcoholic/addict to allow the behavior to continue. Family members often use it too to hide the severity of the issue.

Is an intervention necessary?

When attempting to talk with someone in denial, it must be done while they are sober. The conversation may be difficult for them to have and hard for them to hear what you have to say. When under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they may be unfocused, inattentive, or just outright angry. When that happens, family members may become sidetracked or focused on other issues such as financial problems. The attention then shifts off the individual and conversations take wrong turns. These attempts are generally not productive steps toward recovery.

Professional interventionists have the training, experience, and knowledge needed to keep the focus on the person struggling with substance abuse disorders or mental health disorders. An interventionist will have spent time collecting information that gives a robust portrait of the identified loved one, and will guide the intervention accordingly. There are several different approaches to an intervention and a trained interventionist will know the most beneficial way to work with each individual. The ultimate goal of an intervention is to help both families and those struggling with addiction find healing.

Addiction and Stigma

Despite research findings and development in understanding addiction, there remains a stigma around the disease. Some people still consider addiction a moral failing or an inability to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. This thinking can hinder someone in recovery because that stigma leaves a mark of shame, disgrace and disapproval.  

Those struggling with addiction often face two stigmas: a self based stigma and a community based one. A self based stigma is a personal sense of guilt and shame those struggling with addiction feel about who they are and the things that they have done while in midst of the disease.  A community based stigma can come from the surrounding community: families, workplace, any small groups. These may be roadblocks during recovery but they are surmountable as people are so much more than their disease. As a professional interventionist and clinician, I believe in a realistic optimism that aids recovery and allows people to operate from a strength based perspective.  I believe a person is the sum of their parts and not just their disorder.

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