What is addiction?
If your loved one continues to use drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences (marital problems, problems at work or school, DUI, financial or health problems), s/he is likely physically and emotionally dependent. This means that the body and brain will react with a strong, negative response if they don’t continue to use substances. If you’ve never been addicted yourself, it is truly difficult to understand the magnitude of the physical and mental drive to continue to use. I recently enjoyed reading Compass of Pleasure by Dr. David Linden, which helps explain the neuroscience behind the intense drives to continue to do “pleasurable activities” even at the expense of one’s health, relationships, freedom, etc. The brain chemistry actually changes due to substance use, making it harder and harder to quit.
Substance use is an unhealthy way to cope with pain
However, it’s interesting that rather quickly, substance use is no longer pleasurable. Substance use is largely about avoiding pain. This is why we refer to it as being hooked or chasing a high. As tolerance builds, addicts need more and more of the drugs to get high and eventually they are not so much getting high as they are trying to avoid the pain or withdrawal and the underlying pain of their lives.
Underneath the addiction, there is almost pain, trauma, mental health problems, or loss. The addict turned to substances to cope. So, the problem is that when someone breaks through denial and desires sobriety, the cards are stacked against them: Their brain and body are dependent. Their brain chemistry has changed. The original pain is still there. They have no positive coping skills. And years of substance use have created a whole new set of problems. People often relapse because they don’t know how to deal with painful things that happened to them and the pain they’ve caused others. Addiction is a very selfish disease. And while it seems the addict doesn’t care about anyone but him/herself, s/he feels high levels of guilt and shame that also lead to more substance use as a way to avoid these negative feelings.
You didn’t cause it and you can’t cure it
Addiction is a powerful disease. Like you, I have loved ones struggling with addiction. Some are in recovery and some are not. You didn’t cause the addiction and you can’t cure it. Sometimes all you can do is take care of yourself, create some space between yourself and the addict, seek support (therapy and Alanon are wonderful). And above all, don’t take it personally. Your loved one’s addiction isn’t about you.
Learn more about addiction and codependency
© Sharon Martin, LCSW