Addiction Warrants Compassion

addiction compassionOur culture is gradually warming up to the idea that mental illnesses are just as real a disease as physical illnesses. Recent research has revealed how mental disorders change the brain’s neural network to make it dysfunctional, and it takes a great deal of effort to reverse the dysfunction, which makes them actual conditions rather than simply a state of mind. However, when it comes to addiction, people are more resistant to being compassionate. It is true that a person’s addiction is very hard on the people in their life, however, the same can be said of any mental disorder.

Addicts have just as real a condition as those who suffer depression, anxiety or a number of other mental disorders. Addiction is resented so fiercely because people can see with their eyes how the addict is feeding their addiction. Those who are close to the addict see them overindulge. Even when the addict has taken to trying to hide their addiction, their secretive behavior can be observed by those who are close to them. This is resented because people can observe the actions taken that contribute to the illness.

When you think about a mental disorder like depression, we cannot see the things the depressed person does that contribute to the depression because they are thought patterns. Depressed people are in the pattern of engaging in negative self talk which sets them into episodes of depression. Depression is no one’s fault, yet it is the depressed person’s responsibility to learn positive self talk so that they can break the cycle of depression. The same can be said for addiction. An addict is responsible for learning how to resist their addiction and acquiring tools that will make them strong against the temptation to return to addiction. In both cases, the person with the condition has a responsible role to play in their recovery. It is a fallacy of reason to offer patience to someone struggling with depression but condemn someone struggling with addiction.

Don’t Look for Logic Where There Is None

addiction logicIt is extremely important not to be judgmental toward an addict and worsen the stigma around them. Addicts struggle with self esteem enough as it is without people giving them more reason to dislike themselves. However, this does not mean that there is anything to condone about addiction. It is an inherently unhealthy behavior that can lead to consequences as serious as death. It is possible to take compassion for an addict to an unhealthy place by participating in their addiction, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from judging them. Sometimes people become too soft toward the addiction and empathize with the addict to an unhealthy extent. This can enable their addiction further and worsen their condition.

While it is important to offer compassion to the addict, it is also important not to imagine that their decision making is by any means logical. You can empathize with an addict up until a certain point, but you also have a responsibility to separate your thinking from theirs so that you can be a positive influence on them. The fact of the matter is, addictive traits are not founded on logic; they are founded on emotion. If you believe there is a logic to search for, you will come up empty-handed. Trying to understand the logic of an addict is like having Stockholm Syndrome. It is inherently unhealthy thinking.

Being understanding of an addict’s struggles while still being firm in not participating in them is a balancing act that requires careful thought and execution. It may pain you to tell someone you care about that you want no part of their unhealthy behavior, but mental health and addiction specialists agree that it is the best way to help them toward recovery. Do not let them think that their addiction is safe with you. Instead, help them understand that they are safe with you, so that when they are ready to work toward their recovery, they will know they can come to you.

How to Interact with an Addict

addict interactionMost of us have a struggling addict in our lives somewhere, be it a close relationship like a family member or a distant relationship like a person in your community. How close you are to this person effects the scale of responsibility that you have toward them. If you are close with the person, you will obviously have a more crucial role to play in their recovery. If you are distant to them, it will likely be their own family or support system that holds them up in their recovery, but you can still impact the person’s life for the better by understanding the right way to interact with them.

First of all, it is important to be respectful of their condition. If you are not a close friend or family member, let them bring the topic of their addiction up rather than you asking them about it. A person’s addiction may become public information without their permission and it can be a sensitive matter to them. If you are close with the addict, there are situations when it is appropriate to bring it up, such as when you are assessing whether or not they are in danger. It is also wise never to assume that you know more about their condition than they do.

It is very important that you support the addict in your life by making it clear to them that you will not participate in their addiction with them. Whether you are close to them or not, they may seek camaraderie with you in practicing their addiction. It is very important that you do not enable them or join with them in their addiction. Be clear in communicating this point if they invite you to share their addiction with them.

It is equally important, however, that you impress on them that you are available to them for support in their recovery. If you are close to the person, supporting their recovery may mean providing them a place to stay, helping them get into an alcoholism drug rehabilitation, spending time with them or taking calls from them when they are in need. If you are not close to them, simply offering them prayer and words of kindness is an excellent way to support them.

Know an Addict?

addictMost of us are acquainted with or have a close relationship to an addict. Addiction is everywhere, and its effects are felt far and wide. The addict you know may be a friend, a family member or someone you barely interact with. Regardless, you should be aware that addiction is a serious illness and communication about it should be handled with sensitivity and care. Some people are already practiced at this while others have room to grow in their awareness.

Those who have long been close to an addict probably have a good idea of what to say to them and do for them, as well as what not to say to them and what not to do for them. Anyone who cares for an addict wants to see them get better and put thought into how to help them. They know that trying to help them means walking a line between encouraging them to help themselves and knowing when to stop pushing at them. Too much in either direction can send them into binge mode.

Those who are are limited in their interactions with addicts, as well as limited in their knowledge of addiction, should be open minded, respectful and compassionate in their interactions with addictions. It is possible that you hold inaccurate views of addiction and could afford to learn about the workings of a brain that is not like your own. Let the addict inform you of their condition rather than trying to inform them. Grow in your understanding and empathy for how they feel about their addiction and offer them whatever support you can.

Experts say that the best thing people can do for addicts who are in their lives is gently encourage them to seek help. Offer them support in beginning their recovery but make it clear that you will not condone or enable their addiction. Addicts are simply human and have all the same needs as anyone else, including the need for relationship, for understanding and for support. Do your best to provide these things to the addict in your life.

Things Not to Say to an Addict

addiction stigmaMost addicts could write a book on people’s misconceptions about addiction. Addicts are constantly bombarded by the opinions of people who are uninformed about addiction and offer them harsh judgments, inaccurate assessments and basic information that they have been aware of for years. These statements help reinforce harmful stigmas that go against what mental health and brain chemistry experts have to say about addiction and must be shut down. When you are interacting with an addict, be sure not to say any of the things listed below, as they are offensive and outdated:

  • “Its just a lack of self control.” Addicts have been hearing this opinions for many years, and it can trigger the need to defend themselves. Addiction is far more than a lack of self control. Addiction is rooted in biological, environmental, psychological and behavioral underlying causes. Even when a person was a small child, they were developing some of the brain functions, behaviors and thought patterns that made them addicts in their more mature years. Defeating addiction takes treatment administered by experts, not just a little will power.
  • “Why don’t you just quit?” This question is the epitome of ignorance when it comes to addiction. Obviously if addicts could just quit, addiction would not exist. First of all, people should be aware that a number of substance addictions are dangerous to just quit. When the body becomes dependent on the addictive substance to function, withdrawal symptoms can be very severe, even deadly in some cases. For example, never advise an opiate addict to just quit. You could be risking their health and their life. Secondly, even for addictions that the addict could end without ramification to their health and safety, there are chemical processes happening in the addict’s brain that tell them they need the object of their addiction like they need water to survive. It is a visceral kind of craving that the average person cannot even imagine, and quitting requires a great deal of work on the addict’s part.
  • “Your addiction is your fault.” Spewing venom at an addict for being an addict is nothing but throwing fuel on the fire of their mental unhealthiness. Harsh judgments and cruel stigmas only wound the addict and make them sink further into their addiction. Addiction is a disease and a legitimate disorder, not an excuse to look down on someone.

Addicts Have Unique Brains

addict brainEven after we have discovered so much about addiction that qualifies it as a disease rather than a flaw in someone’s character, addiction is still stigmatized as something that throw away people suffer from. Many people still have an image in their minds of an addict as a bum or a helpless person who does not contribute to society. This is an outdated, ignorant way of thinking. Addicts are our friends, relatives, coworkers, supervisors and peers. Addiction strikes every demographic equally, with no regard for race, gender, social class or education level. We must eradicate stereotypes of addicts from our collective thinking, but we cannot succeed at this until we appreciate how unique an addict’s thinking is.

What many people do not realize is that addicts are very high functioning people. Most addicts escape into their addiction in part because they are unable to shut their brains off for certain areas of thought. Most addicts are wired to be high functioning people, but when addiction takes hold of them, their impressive energy and dedication is put toward the addiction instead of channeled into a meaningful purpose. An addictive personality is one that can become totally consumed by the object the person is focused on. When that trait is focused on something positive, addictive personalities are highly effective people. When it is focused on addiction, the consequences can be devastating.

Another unique facet of an addict’s brain is its dopamine production. Dopamine is the brain chemical that is released when a person is experiencing pleasure. The average person’s brain releases dopamine so many times per day, where as an addict’s brain releases far less dopamine. Because of this underproduction of dopamine, when an addict encounters a substance or behavior that rewards them with a rush of dopamine, they latch onto it, instantly attracted to something that gives them the pleasure sensations that they struggle to come by naturally.

Knowing this information will increase the respect you have for addicts by realizing that their brains do not function like the average person’s. Addictive personalities can serve functions that the average person cannot serve, so long as they are able to focus their energy and abilities on healthy, worthwhile things.