If you’re dealing with a loved one’s substance abuse, this is probably not the first time that you’ve gone online searching for resources.
It’s possible that you are in a pattern that feels very familiar. Perhaps you have watched the cycle that they are in right now play itself out over and over again.
In our experience, we find that the disease model of addiction helps family members and friends begin to understand why their loved one continues to make choices and engage in behaviors that are so clearly harming themselves and others.
Why would a person experiencing negative and life-destroying consequences continue to engage in a behavior that is causing those consequences?
Our answer is simple. Addiction is a disease.
But it’s a disease that doesn’t usually feel that way to the person who has it. This is particularly true in the beginning.
People do not begin using drugs or alcohol with the hope of developing a crippling dependency. They start down this road because, in the beginning, it feels like a solution to their problems.
The point at which an individual’s use progresses into addiction varies from person to person. For some, the addiction takes root early in their history of substance use. Many people in long-term recovery can recount in vivid detail their first drink or drug. Oftentimes, these stories almost have a romantic feel to them.
They may describe their life before drinking as feeling like they were out of place, frequently anxious or agitated. However, after beginning to drink or use drugs (often in high school or college, but not always) they finally feel at ease and like they fit in. For them, substances remove the general sense of discomfort they had been experiencing. They usually have a thought along the lines of: “This is what I’ve been missing all along!”
For others, a pattern of substance abuse may develop over a longer period of time. Perhaps a difficult emotional event, like the loss of a loved one or a career setback, accelerates the drinking to the point where it becomes problematic. Or it may seem to progress without any obvious inciting incident.
But regardless of how it progresses, the important thing to remember is that a biological change has occurred in the brain.
A person who has crossed over into substance dependency no longer responds to the chemically altering effects of drugs and alcohol the way that people without substance use disorder do.
Once this biological shift occurs, the person with addiction loses their capacity to remain in control over how much they consume once they start.
Their body physiologically reacts differently to the introduction of mood-altering substances.
Many family members or friends may say to the person with the addiction, “Why don’t you just have a beer or two like I do?”
And it’s a good question. But it’s one that the person often does not have an answer to themselves because they don’t understand the disease model either.
The answer to “Why don’t they stop or just have one or two?” is: they are physically incapable of doing so.
Once a person has become physically dependent on a substance, the wiring in their brain has been altered to such a degree that once the substance is introduced into their system, their brain now sends the message that they need to continue consuming those substances to survive.
This mistaken belief is so clearly false from the outside, that it’s difficult for loved ones to understand why the person with the addiction keeps falling for it.
Their rewired brain is sending the message that the substance is now in the category of other necessities, like food, water, and shelter. But the rest of us can see what is really happening. Rather than keeping the person alive, we can see that the substances are physically and emotionally harming the individual.
What used to be the solution is now the problem. However, the person with the addiction often cannot see this.
The substances that formerly provided relief now cause physical deterioration and increased distress. Yet their brain has been rewired to believe that once they start using the substance, they must continue.
At Arise, our goal is to provide an interruption to this compulsive cycle and provide the person the safety to experience something different.
We provide a therapeutic place of openness and acceptance so that clients can feel safe without the substance that they have grown dependent on and begin to see how this disease process has played out in their lives.
The first component is an educational piece that is crucial to supporting long-term recovery. The clients learn about the disease process outlined above and look at how it has played out in their lives over and over again in great detail.
The second component is therapeutic. Once a client can understand that their bodies react differently to drugs and alcohol, we can help them recognize, address and resolve emotional difficulties long before they feel so hopeless that they re-introduce drugs and alcohol into their system.
This two-pronged approach of education and therapeutic treatment is foundational to giving the person the tools they need to stay in recovery over the long term.
What Can I Do Right Now?
If any of this sounds familiar, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. A clinician on staff would be happy to hear about what is going on with your loved one and provide some clinical feedback.
Watching a loved one in the grips of the disease of addiction is heartbreaking and nearly impossible to endure alone.
We do believe help is available and recovery is possible. We have experienced the renewal of hope for people with addictions and their loved ones over and over again. Feel free to reach out to us with no pressure to commit to anything.