One of the most gut-wrenching results of addiction is how it turns people we love into strangers. Somewhere along the line, loved ones who once thrived with shining personal traits devolve into someone who lies and steals on a regular basis. As they go in and out of stints in rehab, you start to grow jaded. That gnawing thought in the back of your mind festers. “My son has become his addiction. He’s gone for good.” Although the concern is real, it’s grounded in a misconception about the disease of addiction. And the truth offers hope: your loved one is still in there somewhere. It just requires separating the addict from their addict behavior.
Disease with Behavioral Symptoms
The disease model of addiction spread into mainstream medical acceptance beginning in the 1950’s. Although the stigma of addiction prompts many laymen to reject the disease model, scientific studies continue to support its accuracy. (In case you need to convince anyone, here are three recent peer-reviewed scholarly sources: one, two, three.)
The disease model of addiction provides a scientific basis for separating the addict from their addict behavior. Deviations in the physiology of addicts lead to a different response to how their bodies process chemical substances. Put simply, the average person’s body knows when to stop because chemical overdoses send overwhelming physiological “STOP!” signals. Think nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, and distress. These trusty stop signals are not so trusty for people who suffer from the disease of addiction.
Rather than stop signals, dangerous doses of chemicals produce ever-increasing reward responses in the addict. Imagine that a fifth vodka shot in the span of an hour sounds reasonable rather than a one-way ambulance ride. Or imagine the desperation required to drive an otherwise responsible person into shooting up in the bathroom at work. These counter intuitive behaviors are just snapshots of how chemical dependence carves destructive neural pathways. These physiological pathways are responsible for addict behaviors, not any moral failing on the addict themselves.
Neural Pathways Create Unwanted Homeostasis
Ask any person who knows rock bottom like the back of their hand: Addiction is not a choice. It is a disease that manifests in behavioral symptoms. But suffering loved ones often conflate these disease-fueled behaviors with personal choice. Let’s repeat it again: Addiction is not a choice. It happens when destructive neural pathways create new unwanted behaviors. The operating word here: unwanted. Although addicts must perform “voluntary” actions to continue using, if we’re talking about the person deep down, they remain trapped in a state of cognitive dissonance. Their base instincts, hijacked by chemical dependence, compel them to undesired behaviors that maintain homeostasis. It’s tantamount to being a prisoner inside yourself.
Behavior is tricky. Many of us believe that our naked mental strength can push us through even the most adverse circumstances. But as medical professionals continue to study how events and foreign substances can alter our brain chemistry, this “perseverance overcomes all” attitude does not hold up to scrutiny. Chronic substance abuse actually carves neural pathways that causes people to act against their natural inclinations (i.e., to act as basically good and honest people).
Understanding Addict Behavior
Several addict behaviors stand out as misunderstood symptoms. Namely…
Person refuses to accept the need for change. Grandiose delusions often drive thoughts like, “I’m not an addict, my habit is different and I can control it.”
Lying becomes a maladaptive behavior to maintain homeostasis. This erodes trust with loved ones as they suffer in the wake of constant lies.
Stealing, especially from people we know, goes against our core values. Yet the compulsion to maintain homeostasis often requires addicts to become thieves.
But here’s the thing: once mind-altering chemicals hijack an addict’s reward system, addicts’ behaviors turn from voluntary choices into uncontrollable impulses. Suddenly separating the addict and their addict behavior becomes a necessity to treat the disease. The difficult truth, though, is that addicts cannot be separated from their addict behavior until they are ready.
Separating the Addict from Their Addict Behavior
In order to provide much needed support, loved ones must understand the implications of separating the addict from their addict behavior. So what does that look like, exactly?
First of all, loved ones must manage their expectations during this difficult time. Active addicts must reach a point in their habit where their disease becomes unmanageable. Denial exerts a stronghold on most addicts for years, if not decades. They will always be in there… somewhere. Deep down. But the addict will continue to engage in addict behavior as a symptom of their disease. Eventually though, most people become sick and tired of being sick and tired.
In order to facilitate their journey to recovery, loved ones should avoid enabling, set healthy boundaries, and remember that only the addict themselves can make the choice to change.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363