What do you see when you picture an alcoholic? Maybe a white haired public inebriate? What do you see when you picture a drug addict? Maybe a greasy haired, pock marked faced, skinny addict with bad teeth? I know you all don’t have those pictures in your mind but when I ask a classroom full of college students, those are some of the images I get. But more than just the picture, what do you think of a person like that? Weak willed? Beyond hope? Criminal? Pathetic? How about, “I’d never do that. I’d never let my life get that way. I don’t understand how anyone would.” This is not self righteousness as much as it is just not knowing.
You see, most of us think that people who struggle with alcohol and/or other drugs can just fix themselves. But that is not the case any more than a diabetic can will herself to become non diabetic. Part of the thinking that addicted people can fix themselves lies in the belief that they brought it on themselves, as well.
That kind of makes sense. But there is a plethora of good science that shows us chemical addiction can be hereditary. In fact it changes the brain in such a way that the person who could have said, “No” before they became addicted virtually can’t say that word in relation to their drug of choice. We just can’t view addiction as a bunch of bad choices. It’s way more than that.
Does that make the person with what we call a substance use disorder not responsible? The answer lies in two parts. The first part is that we don’t hold that person responsible for having the problem. But we do hold that person responsible to eventually do something about it. Kind of like the diabetic. We don’t blame him for being diabetic but we consider it his responsibility to manage that disease.
What I’m really talking about here is stigma. Addicted people are often stigmatized or considered “less than” others. This results in several myths. Here are just three of those myths:
1. Addicted people are weak willed individuals and of poor moral fiber. Of course, there are some who fit that description but in general addicted people are people that are a lot like you and me. Regular people with hopes and dreams, who work hard and love their families.
2. Addicted people don’t respond well to treatment. As I’ve mentioned before in another blog, everyone has an Uncle Bob who went to treatment six times and is still “running and gunning.” Judging treatment by one person or even several people that you know doesn’t really tell the story. In reality, substance abuse treatment outcomesare among the most studied health care outcomes in our country and the news is good. People that go to treatment do well. Not everyone, of course, but on the average.
3. Addicted people who keep using don’t really love their family because if they did, they’d stop. Addicted people, especially those in the later stages of their disease, may have substantial or total emotional distance between themselves and their families and it’s certainly true that many of those people are estranged from their families. But it has to be said that the addicted brain is a hijacked brain in that the addicted person has little ability to connect their addicted behavior to the the consequences that follow. This is not an excuse but it is a plea for understanding and a plea for treatment services to be available as people need them.
At this point I’m aware that I’m opening up the proverbial can of worms because it sounds like I’m saying, “Oh poor addict, it’s not really their fault and they are so misunderstood!” I AM saying that they are misunderstood, but the message I want to get across is that those of us who deal with that person in our family or our work or wherever we are need to be able to do everything we can to understand the addiction process so we can be ready to respond in an effective manner. If we can all remember that the addicted person is NOT weak willed, has the capacity to respond to treatment, and that he or she doesn’t stop because they are on a roller coaster going 200 miles an hour and can’t stop without help, then we can approach that person in an effective and compassionate manner.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that helps me view the addicted person in the right light and it also helps me keep my thoughts, beliefs, and bias in perspective. It goes like this, “Therefore but by the Grace of God go I.” That is said in reference to anyone that I am liable to judge or to think of as being less than me. If we all repeat that saying whenever we are prone to judge that person with a substance use disorder, that will be a great start.