More than 19 million Americans struggle with addiction, with statistics suggesting that as many as 1 in 10 of us will have a substance use disorder during our lifetimes. Addictions range from illicit substances to alcohol to dependencies on prescription medication, with reasons ranging from simple prescription use to recreational abuse.
No matter what the reason for an addiction, no one intends to be addicted. Addicts are people just like everyone else, even though addiction typically changes how they think, behave, and act around their loved ones. Substance abuse deeply changes a person, which can make it difficult for friends and family to understand them and their actions.
If your loved one is struggling, you may benefit from getting into their mind, or working to better understand their motivations, how they think, and why.
What Happens to an Addict’s Brain?
Different types of drugs and alcohol impact users in different ways. In addition, the individual’s metabolism, genetic makeup, and even personal history will impact how they react to drugs and alcohol. However, most people experience the following process:
Substance Use – The individual starts using a substance for prescription or recreational purposes. This might be to combat stress, to fit in, to combat boredom, or to simply feel good. Individuals with a history of trauma, poverty, or mental disorders are more prone to risk-taking behavior like recreational drug use. The substance interacts with receptors like opioid, dopamine, or GABA receptors in the brain and body, mimicking effects of substances created by the body, and overloading the system with them.
Tolerance – Individuals develop tolerance as the body adjusts to increased levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine. The user is forced to take more of the drug to maintain the same effect.
Dependence – The user cannot stop using without developing withdrawal symptoms, often forcing individuals to continue using to maintain work or school responsibilities.
Addiction – The user’s brain changes to adjust to the substance, often resulting in compulsive seeking behavior, “obsession”, and complete mental reliance. An addicted individual is often unable to stop but often unwilling to admit this fact. Here, the individual often loses their sense of self, spends most of their active time acquiring, using, or thinking about use, and treats everything else as secondary. They may suffer from:
- Emotional blunting– long-term overload of dopamine and serotonin receptors impact the individual’s ability to feel normal emotions
- Ego-replacement– the individual replaces their sense of self with either using or hiding the drug and have no real personal motivation or drive outside of substance use
- Loss of Relationships– The individual fails to receive social rewards in the brain so they cease to value relationships and may isolate themselves, avoid or ignore loved ones, and may manipulate or lie to friends and family
- Paranoia/Anxiety – Individuals increasingly experience feelings of paranoia and anxiety, which can affect how they perceive friends and loved ones.
- Denial– Most addicts are in denial about their addiction. Most people have to be able to maintain a pretense of “I can stop anytime I want” in order to be okay. This problem worsens as individuals lose their sense of self in addiction.
At the end of the day, no one chooses to become addicted. This is as true for recreational users as for people who become addicted while taking a prescription. Addiction is a disease, and many people are more vulnerable to it than others. If your loved one is struggling, they are struggling with a treatable mental disorder, and you can try to help.
In addition, while many addicts struggle with the same issues, most do so to different degrees. Your loved one may be completely unable to function, or conversely may be able to hold down a high-risk and high-stress job at a level where most of their peers don’t notice a problem until it’s too late.
Approaching Your Loved One About Addiction
The easiest way to understand how your loved one thinks is to talk to them. Here, it’s important to carefully frame your approach, decide what you want to say, and decide what you don’t want to say. This is crucial because saying the wrong thing will likely drive your loved one away.
Addicts often feel isolated, afraid, paranoid, and sometimes angry. These emotions are a natural result of both a flux of chemicals in the brain and body, a constant state of agitation and feeling unwell, and a feeling of being trapped. Many addicts have tried to quit and failed. If you’ve ever been sick and reacted irritably or badly to someone trying to help, you have some idea of the fact that your loved one isn’t in control, they are in a bad place, and they will react badly. It’s crucial to keep this in mind as you move forward.
- Be nonjudgmental– Addicts often face a great deal of social stigma and shame are often ashamed of their personal substance use. Showing any judgement will likely result in their reacting with hurt and anger, not the trust you need to make a difference.
- Share concern over your loved one’s safety(don’t talk about public opinion, their job, etc.) – Addicts struggle with paranoia and anxiety. If you give your loved one a reason to think you care about what people think, their job, their achievements, or how it reflects on you rather than their well-being, they will believe that, and they will respond badly. You want to build trust and that means establishing you care about them as a base level of communication.
- Offer to listen without judgement – Offer to communicate and to be there, take calls, listen about substance abuse, and do so without judgement. You can’t say “I understand” unless you’ve experienced a substance use disorder yourself, but you can say “I’ll listen and I care about you”.
- Offer help(rehab, help with a therapist, not money) – You should never offer assistance with money, but you can make it clear that when your love done is ready for rehab or therapy, you will help them get it.
It’s important not to be pulled into the position of enabling, where you constantly attempt to help your loved one, only to discover your actions enable their continued substance abuse. At the same time, it’s important to be there for them, talk to them, provide Naloxone if necessary, be available to take your loved one to a hospital, etc.
Your loved one may not be ready to get help. They might also be heavily resistant to the fact that they need help, especially if they are deep in a state of denial. You can discuss options, offer to help, and support your loved one until they are ready. If things are very bad, you can also find out how to stage an intervention, where you try to force your love done to acknowledge the extent of their addiction and its impact on their loved ones. In either case, you should attempt to do so from a place of trust, so you can build on your loved one’s motivation to recover through positive interaction and love.
Millions of people are affected by addiction and many of them struggle with mood disorders, trauma, ego-displacement, emotional blunting, and isolation. Most also struggle with side-effects of substance abuse resulting in depression, paranoia, anxiety, and mood swings. Maintaining relationships in a tumultuous period of your life can be difficult, and an addict is constantly in a tumultuous state. He or she will have difficulty connecting, no real motivation to reach out, and a constant state of agitation when not using. If you want to help your loved one, you will likely have to reach out, will have to show love and work to build trust, and will have to move your loved one into rehab based on that.
If your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, it can feel like they are a different person. Substance abuse changes the brain, so in a way, they are. However, you can still reach out, can help by getting your loved one into treatment, and can help them get their life back.
Beginnings Treatment Centers is located in beautiful and sunny Southern California in Orange County, which has one of the strongest and most active recovery communities in the United States. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us today and speak with one of our experienced and professional intake advisors, we’re here to help.