Despite the fact that the word addiction is used every single day in a variety of different contexts, the majority of people don’t have a full or healthy understanding of what the word means, and why it matters.
In this three-part series on addiction, our goals are to first define what addiction is, then to understand why and how addictions happen, and finally to look and see what we can do about addiction.
In Part 1, we outlined a healthy perspective on addiction: Somewhere between alarm at how widespread addiction is, and wisdom to know when an addictive issue is serious. In Part 2, we took a close look at the etiology of addiction, as well as the neural mechanisms by which addiction happens and what we can learn from this.
In this third and final look at addiction, we’ll discuss what we can do about addiction on three expanding levels: the personal level, the professional level, and the group level.
Addiction can have a hugely negative impact on personal relationships. The tragedy of this is that just at the time that an individual struggling with an addiction is in need of the most support is precisely the time when their disease begins to create rifts between them and their loved ones.
As with all relationships, the personal interactions between a person struggling with addiction and their loved ones are a two-way street. It’s important for both parties to keep the following in mind:
Addiction is a disease, and must be treated as such. If an individual was afflicted with a disability such as a limp or a terrible allergy, or even if they had the great misfortune of getting cancer or some other life-threatening ailment, there would be no question in healthy relationships that the disability or ailment is the enemy, and that both the person struggling with the problem and their loved ones must fight against the enemy together.
Unfortunately, with addiction, too often the relationship can become twisted by poisonous emotions like guilt, shame, anger, or blame. These emotions can drive a wedge between people. For people struggling with an addiction, the trite conventional wisdom remains true: The first step is admitting there is a problem. Only when people struggling with addictions of any severity are able to surmount the guilt and shame of their situation and own their difficulty will they be fully able to gain the trust and support of their loved ones.
By the same token, for those individuals who have a loved one struggling with addiction, the most important thing is to remember that addiction is a real and terrifying brain disease, not a choice or a personality flaw. It’s absolutely vital to ally oneself with the struggling individual and take on the disease together, no matter how much anger or frustration their behavior may prompt.
When individuals struggling with an addiction are able to get on the same team, the most amazing thing happens: They are able to start fighting against the disease itself. And just in the same way as a fight against cancer or some other life-threatening ailment, the fight against addiction merits the professional attention of a trained mental health professional.
Undoubtedly, it is a very scary proposition to admit that you can’t beat the addiction on your own and to reach out for help. This level of vulnerability takes courage, humility, and unbelievable strength.
But the fact of the matter is that in serious cases of addiction, the development of a positive, long-term relationship with a mental health professional is one of the most beneficial things that an individual and their loved ones can do. Very few other things can turn the tide in the battle against an addiction like enlisting the support of a trained professional.
The reason for this is that while the metaphor of addiction as cancer may be useful, addiction is more than just a physical ailment. It’s not like a tumor or growth that can simply be excised from the body.
Rather addiction is a disease that is deeply embedded in the brain tissue itself, and addressing addiction is tantamount to addressing the whole person. In serious cases, without addressing the underlying issues that caused the addiction in the first place, the attainment of a fulfilling life free from the clutches of addiction is impossible.
This is where external organizations and other means of social support play a vital role. Even when an individual struggling with addiction has aligned themselves with their loved ones against the disease and enlisted the support of a trained mental health professional, the war they are about to embark on together is one that doesn’t end.
Addiction is a chronic disease, and one that will track with you throughout the entire arc of your life.
This is where the development of a specialized treatment plan comes into play: Mental health professionals are able to create individual plans that don’t just identify and treat the problem, but also set up systems of support and long-term care that can keep the addiction at bay throughout the lifespan.
With continuing assessments, family interviews, watchful waiting, and cooperation from the struggling individual him- or herself, the goal of social support groups is to build systems around the individual that enable them to live a fulfilling life.
Because addiction is a chronic, lifelong disease: The goal of individualized support plans is to prevent relapse for as long as possible, but also to reduce the severity of relapse and to try and make sure that the individual is able to maximize their overall life functioning, even while managing their disease.
In conclusion, wholeness and healing are possible for individuals struggling with addiction. It’s undoubtedly true that an individual engaged in the lifelong struggle against addiction has the ability to live a rich, full, fulfilling life. But it is a war; and it takes the efforts of all people.
And the first step in this struggle against addiction is to increase understanding, which was our aim in this three-part series. In Part 1, we discussed what addiction is, and what it isn’t. In Part 2, we discussed the etiology of addiction, and the brain mechanisms involved. And in Part 3, we discussed what can be done about addiction, on the personal, professional, and social levels.
So the next time you think about using the word “addiction,” make sure not to use it lightly!
Scott, C. K., Dennis, M. L., Laudet, A., Funk, R. R., & Simeone, R. S. (2011). Surviving drug addiction: The effect of treatment and abstinence on mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 101(4), 737-744.
Sullivan, E., & Fleming, M. (1997). A guide to substance abuse services for primary care clinicians: Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 24. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Rockville (MD): DHHS Publication, (1997).