Drug and alcohol addiction can tear families apart, destroy careers and ruin lives. Watching a loved one battle addiction can make you feel powerless, but there is hope. Addiction can be treated, and many former addicts go on to live healthy, productive lives.
If you are wondering what causes addiction, or how to help an alcoholic or how to help a drug addict, here are five things you should know.
Over the past few decades, scientists have gained a better understanding of addiction, why some people become addicted, and why it’s so hard for addicts to stop using drugs or alcohol. Addiction is a disease of the brain, just like asthma is a disease of the lungs and heart disease is a disease of the heart.
“Addiction is a disease; it’s a brain condition that involves compulsive use of a drug, even though it’s causing you problems,” says Wilson Compton, M.D., division director, National institute on Drug Abuse. He is one of several experts featured in the video Addiction: What Is It? “We know it’s a brain disease because the brains are different in people who have addiction than in those who don’t.”
Brain imaging scans show that repeated drug use and drinking can damage the parts of the brain that control judgment and decision-making. Substance abuse actually “rewires” the brain so that addicts begin to crave the drug above all else, even though they know it’s bad for them.
Key to helping a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is thinking of addiction as a brain disease, not a sign of weakness or poor character. “Families can understand that the brains are changed in people who are using drugs,” Dr. Compton says. “That sometimes helps people be less judgmental and less stigmatized about how they approach somebody with addiction.”
“Addicts look like you and me. It could be your doctor, your lawyer, the policeman on the corner. It could be anyone,” says Marvin Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer of Hazelden, one of the nation’s foremost treatment centers. Dr. Seppala explains addiction’s power in Addiction: What Is It?
In fact, more than 20 million Americans have a drug or alcohol problem. Addiction affects people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds—even people like Karen, who shares her story on Treat It Like a Disease. An Ivy League graduate, Karen was the only African American woman working at a national law firm and seemed a rising star. She was also secretly drinking three bottles of wine a night. “I felt like it shouldn’t be me. I had this great job, I was making a lot of money, I wasn’t ready to say ‘this is my life, I’m an alcoholic,’” she says.
Addiction is equally non-discriminatory among young people. “A young addict can be anybody. It can be any kid from any point in society, any race, any age. It can be the top of the class they can be the bottom of the class,” says Steve Pasierb, CEO of Partnership at Drugfree.org and another of the experts featured at Be Smart. Be Well. Addiction. “What you need to understand is this can happen to any child.”
The younger a person starts using drugs or alcohol, the more likely he or she is to become an addict. ”Ninety percent of all adults with an addiction began their use in their teenage years,” Pasierb says. “So when you think about addiction, think about it as an adolescent health issue.”
Sofia is a young, recovering addict who started using drugs and alcohol at 12, and by 14 had tried cocaine for the first time. She and her father share her story of addiction—and recovery—in the video Addiction: Treat It Like a Disease.
Teens who use drugs or alcohol also can cause serious damage to their developing brains, according to the National institute on Drug Abuse’s Dr. Compton. “Adolescents from about age 12 to age 15 are undergoing tremendous brain development and change,” he says. “That’s a very high-risk time for exposure to any drugs of abuse.”
It’s important that parents take all teen drinking and drug use seriously, and not dismiss it as normal experimentation, Pasierb says. “When we’re talking about kids and young teenagers, experimenting is as dangerous as having a problem,” he explains. “Rather than differentiating between experimentation and a problem, see experimentation as the first warning sign.”
While addiction is treatable, most addicts can’t get sober without help. “The hallmark of addiction is that you can’t quit on their own because the drugs have hijacked and taken over parts of their brain,” Dr. Compton says. “Family and friends play a key role in someone’s recovery—both in bringing it to someone’s attention that they have a problem, and to be part of the recovery process.”
Treatment for drug abuse or alcoholism can occur in a variety of settings. It may include medication, psychotherapy and family therapy. In certain circumstances, addiction treatment requires admission to a hospital for more supervised medical monitoring. In all settings, the goal is to remove drugs or alcohol from a person’s life, and address the physical, psychological, emotional and social issues that contributed to drug use.
“It’s a disease not unlike diabetes. Whatever the doctor has prescribed is the mechanism for you to be able to stay well,” says John, who was addicted to prescription pain killers and shares his story in the video Addiction: Treat It Like a Disease.
So how do you help a loved one into treatment? “When friends or family want to help someone with addiction, I always advise them to go and get a good evaluation. Don’t mention treatment. Just say, ‘I believe you have a problem just like any other illness. Let’s go see a doctor. Let’s go see an expert and find out what’s going on and then develop a plan,’” Hazelden’s Dr. Seppala advises in the video Addiction: What Can I Do About it.
It’s important that both family members and addicts understand that treatment is not the same as a cure. “Relapse is very common, much like any other chronic illness that requires lifestyle change,” Dr. Seppala says. “We see about 50 percent of people at one year already relapsing.”
Relapse can be discouraging to family members and devastating to the addict. “Emotionally, it’s sickening. You feel like you’re never going to be able to do it,” Karen, a recovering alcoholic, says.
But relapse is not the same as failure, Pasierb stresses, and family members should not give up on their loved one if relapse occurs. “Hope that the relapse doesn’t happen, but be understanding if it does,” he says.
If you are supporting a loved one through treatment and into recovery, know that he or she will likely need your support for a long time. “This is a lifelong disease,” Dr. Seppala says. “People have to be aware throughout their life. They can’t let their guard down. They have to continue to do things that support recovery.”
But with treatment and ongoing support, there is hope. “I’ve dealt with many, many family members who’ve struggled with these issues,” says Dr. Compton, “and I’m here to tell you that there is hope and there’s always the possibility of how people can turn their lives around.”