Understanding Addiction

Who do you picture when you think of a drug addict or an alcoholic? Film and television give us enduring caricatures — a homeless man, collapsed in an alley, clutching a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. But that isn’t always reality.

The truth is, most people who suffer with drug addiction or alcoholism can’t easily be spotted in a crowd. The telltale signs aren’t always there. In fact, chances are good you know someone who has a substance use disorder. Addiction affects every ethnic group, gender, and tax bracket. 

So, how does addiction happen?

Most people are introduced to alcohol or drugs by someone close to them, someone we call an influencer — usually a parent, sibling, or friend. Some unwittingly become addicted after taking prescription medications prescribed by their doctors.

The reasons people abuse drugs and alcohol also vary. Some find temporary relief from emotional and physical pain, or from boredom and loneliness. Others simply like the way substances make them feel, at least until addiction takes hold.

Addiction – a brain disease

Addiction isn’t a moral deficiency. Addiction is a brain disease. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic brain disease characterized by impairment in behavior control and an inability to consistently abstain from cravings. Addicts can also experience problems with personal relationships and dysfunctional emotional responses. 

Addiction does not happen overnight- it is a progressive disease. How quickly one becomes an addict depends on a number of factors, both genetic and environmental.

No one signs up to be an addict or alcoholic. No one wants to live with this brain disease. Recovery is not simply a matter of “Just Say No!” Addiction requires intervention, just like any other disease.

Recovery – there is hope

There is good news: Recovery from addiction is possible.

Like addiction itself, though, recovery is a process — not a single event. Inpatient, intensive outpatient, and outpatient substance abuse programs are the first steps on the path to recovery.

In early recovery, medications are available to help patients combat powerful physical urges to return to substance abuse, while self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery provide emotional support. When used in tandem, these treatment approaches work.

Because addiction is a process, some will experience setbacks, or even relapses. People who have never experienced addiction or seen it up close sometimes struggle to understand this. “Why can’t you just stop?!” they ask. If only the solution were that simple. Because reality is more complicated, it’s important for family and friends to educate themselves about addiction and recovery.

Al-AnonAlateen, and Nar-Anon are self-help programs for people coping with someone else’s addiction or alcoholism. If you, or someone you know is using substances, ask for help — doing so is not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to pick up the phone, or to walk into that first meeting. But you can do it. And when you do, know this: You will find an entire community of professionals and recovering individuals there who understand you, support you, and are ready and willing to help you.

Denise Connelly is a licensed clinical social worker and certified addictions counselor at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Maryland.