The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that there are almost 24 MILLION Americans struggling with an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. That equates to approximately 1 out of 10 people age 12 and up. Put another way, EVERYBODY knows SOMEBODY with an addictive disorder – alcoholism, illegal drug abuse, or the misuse of prescription medications. This is why recovery services are so vital.
Yet for all that, addiction is one of the world’s most-misunderstood illnesses. Struggling addicts and alcoholics become the target of prejudice, scorn, and rejection, as those around them still mistakenly cling to the outdated idea that addiction is the result of moral weakness or lack of willpower.
To help clear up some of the confusion, we have answers to some of the most-frequently-asked questions about addiction and recovery.
What is an “Addiction”?
Addiction is a lifelong, or chronic, and recurring brain disorder. It is characterized by continual drug craving, seeking, and usage, even when there are negative consequences.
Because addiction is a recognized illness, the term used by the medical and recovery communities is “substance abuse disorder”.
Is Addiction Curable?
Addiction is incurable.
There is good news—the progress of the disease can be ARRESTED. The symptoms are MANAGEABLE, just like other chronic illnesses such as asthma, hypertension, or diabetes.
With proper treatment and diligent lifestyle changes, struggling substance abusers return to sober and productive lives. But without timely intervention, and addiction inevitably worsens, even to the point of serious brain damage or even death.
“The brain is the “motherboard” of the human anatomy, if you will. It controls everything, and for the most part, the brain has the same basic functions in all people, with variations of course, but one could say we are created equally. We are NOT, if we are addicts. The computer analogy would be addicts are hardwired differently, with a Trojan virus and the addict’s brain is high-speed internet without a “pop-up blocker.””
~John Michael Weber, Yes My Kid! Addiction and Other Things You Cannot Fathom
What Causes an Addiction?
As of yet, a single cause of addiction has not been identified. However, research indicates that many factors play a part in the development of the disease:
- Childhood Exposure
- Co-Occurring Mental Disorders
- Personal Drug/Alcohol Habits
A person’s personal alcohol and drug consumption habits play a significant role. Most people who take intoxicants initially do so voluntarily, for the pleasurable effects. But over a period of time, regular or heavy substance use causes physical and chemical changes within the person’s brain – “hijacking” the reasons responsible for decision-making and impulse control.
Long-term use of alcohol, illicit drugs, or certain prescription medications also leads to psychological and physical dependence. This drives drug-cravings and drug-seeking behaviors.
Recognizing When Someone Is Abusing Alcohol or Drugs
A developing addiction results in profound changes to the user’s personality and behaviors:
- Work/School problems – termination, suspension, poor grades
- Drastic changes in appearance – poor grooming or hygiene, dirty clothes, unexplained weight loss or gain, lack of pride in personal appearance
- Unpredictable mood swings
- Abnormal sleep
- Social isolation and withdrawal
- Loss of interest in formally-enjoyed hobbies and activities
- Secretive behavior
- Money difficulties – unpaid bills, constant “borrowing”, fraud, theft
- Evidence/Paraphernalia – empty pill/liquor bottles, rolling papers or pipes, syringes
Is Addiction Medically-Diagnosable?
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which says that a substance abuse disorder diagnosis may be indicated when an individual exhibits 3 or more symptoms:
- Tolerance – needing increasing amounts of the substance to get the same effect
- Loss of Control – the inability to control/regulate how often or how much of the substance is consumed
- Failed Attempts to Quit/Cut back
- An Inordinate Amount of Time Spent Obsessing about, Acquiring, Using, or Recovering from the Drug of Choice
- Abandonment of Other Responsibilities/Interests – quitting/poor attendance at school, job, hobbies, clubs, sports, extracurricular activities etc., resulting in social withdrawal and isolation
- Continued Substance Use Despite Problems – relationship difficulties, health problems, legal consequences, money issues
- Withdrawal – when the alcohol/drug is discontinued or unavailable, the user starts to experience uncomfortable – or dangerous – psychological and physical symptoms
Why Don’t Addicts Just STOP?
Substance abuse disorders are not the result of poor moral choices or a lack of willpower. Rather, the brain changes caused by chronic drug/alcohol use compromises a person’s ability to quit on their own.
When someone is battling an addictive disorder, it can be difficult to recover without specialized professional help.
What Is an Intervention?
An intervention is a firm, caring confrontation between the addicted person and their family and friends. The goal of an intervention is to persuade/compel the substance abuser to get professional treatment for their addicted disorder.
However, the secondary goal is set healthy boundaries that clearly provides specific examples of how the addict’s behaviors negatively impact the lives of those around them, and the consequences if those unacceptable behaviors continue.
There are two benefits to setting boundaries – FIRST, fear of the personal consequences often compels the substance abuser to accept help. SECOND, it protects those closest to the addict from the negative impact of someone else’s disease.
What Are the Types of Addiction Treatment?
It is called the “recovery process” for good reason. Addiction is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease. Therefore, it takes time, dedicated effort, and a strong personal support system to safely manage the symptoms:
- Alcohol and Drug Detoxification
- Outpatient/Intensive Outpatient Treatment
- Residential Rehabilitation
- Sober/Transitional Living
- Medication Assistant/Maintenance
- Long-Terms Support and Aftercare
- 12-Step Meetings
What is “Detoxification”?
An alcohol/drug detox is when a person stops drinking alcohol in using drugs to give their body time to cleanse itself of the abused substances.
Addicted people, because they are physically and psychologically dependent, can go into withdrawal when they stop using their substance of choice:
- Mood swings
- Increased anxiety
- Severe depression
- Heightened Aggression/Irritability
- Confusion/Inability to concentrate
- Irresistible cravings for alcohol and drugs
- Insomnia and poor sleep
- Muscle pain
- Symptoms resembling the flu
While they are harshly unpleasant, withdrawal symptoms are not physically dangerous, with the exceptions of benzodiazepines and alcohol. Abruptly quitting these substances is extremely dangerous and can even be fatal.
This means that you should NEVER try to self-detox from alcohol or benzodiazepine medications without the supervision of medical personnel.
Keep in mind that merely detoxing – “getting clean” – is not complete recovery. Recovery requires more than abstinence. Because the addiction led to many other problems – physical, mental, emotional, legal, relationship, etc. – specialized addiction recovery treatment must address both issues.
But detox IS a crucially-important and absolutely necessary first step in the recovery process. A person who is still under the influence of or suffering from the effects of chronic alcohol/drug abuse will not be able to fully receive the message and lessons of recovery.
How Long Does Recovery Take?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” recovery timetable. Every person’s sober journey is unique unto them. That being said, there are some general guidelines:
- Detox – Depending upon the individual’s personal history and the drug of choice, the time needed to detox can vary, from a few days, up to 3 weeks.
- Residential/inpatient rehab– Many facilities offer a 30-day program, but in severe cases, treatment lasting several months may be appropriate.
- Outpatient programs– Most outpatient recovery options last three to six months.
- Sober living – Most programs are a MINIMUM of six months in length.
- 12-Step meetings (AA/NA/Celebrate Recovery) – The 12 Steps are an ongoing “work-in-progress”.
Of special relevance, research has shown that a person new to recovery needs to stay in some form of treatment/combination of treatments for at least 90 days be effective. An article in the Los Angeles Times stated that the first-year relapse rate for individuals who remain in treatment 90 days-plus is half that of those who left treatment earlier.
Where Can I Get More Information?
If you are struggling with any sort of substance abuse disorder, then your first action needs to be a conversation with professionals – your doctor, your therapist, or a well-regarded local treatment provider. With just a phone call or email, you can start addressing – and repairing – the damage that addiction has done to your life.