I Promise it Won’t Happen Again.
Are these familiar words? Perhaps someone in your immediate family has said them to you after a night of excess drinking or drugging, and really meant it. Unfortunately, if they are addicted, regardless of the substance of choice (drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, etc.), it’s a promise they usually can’t keep and one you’ve likely heard before.
Why can’t someone simply stop abusing alcohol, drugs, or food? Why can’t they stop excessive gambling, online gaming, shopping or any of a myriad of addictive behaviours? What many people don’t understand about addiction is that it is a disease of the brain, manifesting in behaviour. Addiction affects those parts of our brain that influence decision-making, impulse control and thinking, so no matter how genuine their intention, an alcoholic or other addict cannot simply turn off the switch.
This guide offers a brief insight into addiction, and steps you can take when someone you care about has a problem.
What is Addiction?
The International Society of Addiction Medicine (ISAM) describes addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
This international fellowship of physicians is dedicated to the research and knowledge about addiction. In February 2012, issued the following list of addiction characteristics:
- An inability to consistently abstain
- Impairment in behavioural control
- Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships
- Dysfunctional emotional response
The ISAM reports, “Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
Many people decide they are not addicted because they don’t drink or drug every day or feel they can control the amount they drink in specific circumstances. Not every person who is addicted has lost everything they own, and many function at an extremely high level. Some believe because they can go for a long time without partaking in their drug or activity of choice, this means they are don’t have a problem. Not so. Alcohol and drug consumption patterns vary, but an addict will always return to their habit, if they don’t get help.
What Can I Do?
If you want to help your partner, spouse or friend, the first step is to arm yourself with information. Find out as much as you can about addiction and educate yourself, so you can better recognize the signs and symptoms, and get some professional advice.
Each province has addiction resources available online and in-person. Speak to qualified counsellors, who will guide you though steps you can take. Some might suggest you join a support group for friends and families of alcoholics or food addicts, for example, and difficult as this may seem, it can be invaluable in learning to understand the addiction mindset.
Recovering addicts are another source of help and information. If you know of someone who no longer drinks, drugs or gambles and at one time seemed to have a problem, they may be willing to share what worked for them. Again, this can seem like an uncomfortable step, but when balanced against the consensus that addiction is a progressive disease, it is better to act than watch your loved one slowly get worse.
Where Can I Get Help?
You are not alone if you want help understanding and dealing with a loved one’s addiction. There are many resources and agencies ready to help you, on a confidential basis, to learn more about this disease and provide you with support and encouragement.
Your Employee or Business Assistance Program offers confidential access to addiction specialists and is a great starting point. Counselors will help you make sense of the feeling of helplessness and frustration you may be experiencing, and will offer practical suggestions and guidance. They can also help locate a health care provider who specializes in the treatment of addiction.
Each province has excellent addiction resources available through their health services departments. These include hotlines, and counseling for families affected by alcohol, access to addiction specialists and educational information. Find the closest office by checking a provincial directory or searching online.
Programs such as Al-Anon were established by people who have gone through the same thing and can provide information and support.
Something to Think About
The disease is addiction; the symptom is excess use of substances such as drugs and alcohol, or repeating addictive behaviours. Once the brain is altered by addiction, it can’t revert to its original state, even when your loved one gets treatment. This means ongoing work and awareness about their disease even after they get initial help.
A life sentence? It may seem that way to some, but it is life—not the sentence untreated addiction ultimately offers. Recovering addicts who face this disease and engage in recovery activities grow to enjoy happy, fulfilling lives. Your loved one can too.
HAVING THE DISEASE OF ADDICTION DOESN’T DEFINE YOU—IT’S JUST PART OF YOU.