Check Yes or No: Unpacking the Choice of Addiction
When most people imagine themselves in an addict’s shoes, they see drug use as a simple choice to use or to remain sober. This misconception is understandable; to an outsider the trajectory of addiction is most visible as our friend or loved one’s continued choice to use no matter what the cost. But what if addiction is more complicated than a yes-or-no question? If you consider some of the factors that lead up to and reinforce addiction, you might begin to think about it in an entirely new light.
One of the most fundamental yet overlooked aspects of addiction is its connection to traumatic experiences. Trauma is an experience that renders an individual incapable of protecting their life or body from physical or emotional harm and occurs when all an individual’s existing coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. Without any other way to make sense of and metabolize a traumatic experience, addiction is often the only coping mechanism accessible to the individual that can adequately dull the negative effects of trauma.
Not everyone who experiences trauma becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, and not everyone abusing drugs has a history of trauma. But the strength of the relationship between addiction and traumatic experiences, especially in early childhood, suggests that drug abuse is not simply the moral failing many take it to be.
Make no mistake, drugs including alcohol, can be very effective at hiding negative feelings. Some studies even suggest that the brain reacts very similarly to alcohol as it does to fast-acting antidepressants. This is not to say that alcohol or any other illicit drug actually treats depression, just that alcohol succeeds in minimizing the symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder for a short period of time. Using an addict’s drug of choice can make it feel like all their problems are gone, even when nothing could be further from the truth.
Radical change requires genuine hope for the future if it’s going to be successful. But social stigma associated with drug abuse can make the individual addict feel further isolated and degraded. Filled with shame from a traumatic experience and drug dependence, stigmatized as worthless by society, cut off from family and friends hurt by an ongoing addiction, believing in change can be terrifying to the addicted person. The yes-or-no choice to use most people think of as addiction is really a qualitative question: how can I live a good life, and can I be truly happy? If that question cannot be answered in a positive way, the addiction will persist.
People who have no first-hand experience with addiction tend to see addiction as beyond comprehension. In order to effectively reach and treat individuals with a history of addiction, we must first empathize with their perceptions and try to see the world through their eyes. The key to recovery is in answering that qualitative question to help individuals find meaning in the lives that they create for themselves. We have to help them find hope.
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