Alcohol and Substance Abuse: No One’s To Blame
Society doesn’t treat alcohol and substance users in the same way as cancer patients. There is a stigma associated with addiction. Often, people will blame the addict or demean the addict. Many people believe a person can stop drinking or using without treatment, perceiving an addict as being weak-willed, morally corrupt, and without significance. However, studies show that addiction is a disease.
Why Can’t I Have Just One?
It’s easy for people without the addiction gene; they can have one drink and stop, while others can’t. Others try drugs a few times and quit because they can. However, some people will continue using or drinking for a long time. Why some people experiment and stop while others can’t, depends on different variables.
Substance Abuse vs. Addiction
The terms “addict” and “substance abuser” are often interchanged in conversations about addiction. What’s the difference between the terms? Substance users experiment with drugs; a substance abuser is someone who uses alcohol or substances improperly or in an unhealthy way. A person struggling with addiction, sometimes referred to as an “addict,” is someone who crosses the line from abuse to addiction because they have developed a substance use disorder (SUD) and therefore can’t stop.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), further defines the terms and their use:
Drug use refers to any scope of use of illegal drugs: heroin use, cocaine use, tobacco use. Drug misuse is used to distinguish improper or unhealthy use from use of a medication as prescribed or alcohol in moderation. These include the repeated use of drugs to produce pleasure, alleviate stress, and/or alter or avoid reality. It also includes using prescription drugs in ways other than prescribed or using someone else’s prescription. Addiction refers to substance use disorders at the severe end of the spectrum and is characterized by a person’s inability to control the impulse to use drugs even when there are negative consequences. These behavioral changes are also accompanied by changes in brain function, especially in the brain’s natural inhibition and reward centers. NIDA’s use of the term addiction corresponds roughly to the DSM definition of substance use disorder. The DSM does not use the term addiction.
A substance user or abuser is not better than an addict; both are using alcohol or drugs as a way to escape boredom, routine, feelings, or distress. The differences between a substance abuser and an addict, though, may depend on genetic predisposition and past physical or sexual abuse.
There is evidence of an addiction gene. The addiction gene can be inherited from either the maternal or paternal side of the family. The gene exists due to a chemical change to the gene that happened because of an ancestor’s use. An ancestor’s use of alcohol or substances can rewrite a gene’s pattern, changing the gene enough to carry a marker for addiction. Environmental factors can also alter genes.
Genetic predisposition doesn’t affect everyone in a family. One sibling may carry the gene while another doesn’t. Inheriting the addiction gene explains why some can stop at the experimental stage or after one drink, and others can’t. The gene reduces the ability to stop, and a person with it may struggle to stop at one drink of alcohol. The lack of impulse control makes stopping difficult, if not impossible.
Treatment centers that offer Genetic Counseling can, through testing, determine if a person carries the addiction gene. If the gene is present, treatment will revolve around how to reduce the predisposition. Addiction treatment tailored to genetic needs provides a strong foundation for recovery.
Self-medication occurs when a person is trying to dull memories or escape from pain. The theory behind self-medication is that people with poor emotion management have difficulties managing skills for emotional reactions and enduring harmful emotions. They may start using alcohol or drugs to manage negative or distressing feelings.
People who self-medicate are often those who underwent severe emotional abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse. The violence was out of their control, but they can control reducing the pain and trauma caused by the abuse. Some seek to get lost in alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication.
Recognition of past abuse is necessary for treatment. A therapist or counselor works with the client in addressing abuse issues, emotional issues, and coping mechanisms. Scars from physical and sexual violence are visible; the injuries from verbal abuse aren’t.
Comprehensive addiction treatment acknowledges outside influences and their place in addiction and recovery. Another part of treatment is becoming active in recovery groups focused on abuse and addiction. The people in the groups can empathize with each other, support each other, and suggest ways to overcome the temptation to relapse.
Our families play a significant role in our behaviors. Instances of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse shape us. Words hurt. Some examples of verbal abuse are:
- Belittling an accomplishment by reducing the accomplished feat, saying another person did better or making fun of an award.
- Calling a person names, such as stupid, ugly, slow, and fat.
- Ignoring a person is a nonverbal punishment, but the lack of words can hurt as much as an indult.
- Humiliation through embarrassing a person in front of friends, other family members, or outsiders.
Families can be complicit in addiction. Ignoring the warning signs, making excuses, or giving in to negative behaviors embolden addicts to try more, go farther, and push boundaries. It is important to include family members in therapy sessions because they have an influence on recovery.
There Is Hope
Addiction isn’t a hopeless disease. Society is beginning to recognize how addiction is an illness that requires comprehensive treatment. The stigma of being an addict is slowly fading as people learn how genetic predisposition, past abuse, and family members can affect drinking and drug use.
Alcohol or substance use, abuse, or addiction is more than a choice. The combination of environmental factors and genetics affects how a person responds to stress, anxiety, and alcohol or substance use. Those with a predisposition to addiction face a higher risk. The effort to ease feelings of anxiety, depression, pain, or other psychological issues by alcohol or substance use creates an increased need to continue drinking alcohol or using substances to calm those feelings. NIDA defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. Addiction is the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders, and is a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.” Addiction is a symptom of a deeper issue. The treatment process of addiction begins by acknowledging addiction is a disease. Contact Achieve Medical Center today at (858) 221-0344 to see how we can help.