Many family members of people suffering from addiction ask themselves why their loved one can’t just stop. It is sometimes difficult for family members to grasp why addicted loved ones do the things they do.
- Why do they use until they are sick and depressed?
- Why did they leave treatment again?
- How are they homeless again?
- Why don’t they want to get better?
- Why can’t they just stop?
Addiction is a disease. It is not something that can be cured with medication or surgery. It is a lifelong disease that changes the way the brain works. The disease of addiction changes a person’s cognitive functioning, their behavior and their mood.
No matter how many times you ask someone to change and no matter how many times they promise you they will, there is no guarantee. Without a strong, supportive sober network, and in most cases professional treatment, the chance of them succeeding in their sobriety becomes slim.
Strong, Supportive Sober Network
What does “strong, supportive sober network” mean?
- Strong: Those who are consistent and available to the person seeking recovery; people who have firm boundaries but caring demeanors.
- Supportive: Those who support the person, yet do not enable them.
- Sober: People who are free of drugs, who do not promote or glorify drug use and who do not use drugs or alcohol in front of the person.
- Network: A network can include a person’s friends, family members, community support group, co-workers, sponsor and peers in recovery.
A Person in Recovery Is in Recovery from All Drugs
Those in recovery need to abstain from all drugs. This may seem like a given, however, there is still a permissiveness towards certain drugs. For example, marijuana is a drug that is glorified in the media and popular culture.
Many people in treatment believe they can just smoke marijuana recreationally because it is not possible to become addicted to it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can lead to dependence and cause withdrawal symptoms when stopping the drug, including irritability, difficulty sleeping and cravings.1 Many people seek treatment for marijuana abuse.
What Does the Disease Model of Addiction Say About Recovery?
Addiction is classified as a disease by the American Medical Association and other medical organizations. The disease model of addiction states that addiction is a disease, much like cancer or diabetes. Therefore, the person who is addicted to something cannot simply stop doing it.2 The disease of addiction rewires the brain to crave the drug, despite the many health, relationship and behavioral consequences that may have occurred due to use.
All drugs hijack the brain’s reward pathways and inhibit the prefrontal cortex from functioning at its full capacity, which means that trading one drug for another—for example, marijuana for heroin—will still affect the brain in the same way. The brain will still be dependent on a drug. The prefrontal cortex plays a significant role in a person’s decision making, motivation, learning, judgment and planning.
Family members may wonder how their loved one doesn’t know better or how they could make such bad decisions. Considering that the brain is not even fully developed until the age of 25 and that the prefrontal cortex takes the most time to develop, one can understand how a person who has been using for many years might have significant issues in these areas.
In Defense of the Family Member
As a family member of people experiencing addiction, I understand that these questions cross our mind from time to time. It can be very difficult to see our loved one get struck down every time they try to improve their life. However, after learning about the disease of addiction, how the brain works and the effects of drugs on the brain, I became more sympathetic and aware. I also had to learn the line between enabling and supporting.
Enabling vs. Supporting the Disease of Addiction
My male cousins come from a family where all the males suffer from addiction, have had bouts of homelessness, have been involved in crimes and have used for most of their lives. My aunt and their sisters have spent many years bailing them out of jail, giving them money and taking them to treatment—only to watch them abandon therapy several days later. This is an example of enabling. It perpetuates the addiction and eventually leads to conflict and to the enabler feeling taken advantage of and overwhelmed.
A close family friend was stuck in a pattern of enabling for a long time. Her son was in active meth addiction at the time and was living and working in a garage. She would come by to wash his clothes and bring him food, as he was not eating. He repeatedly told her to stop interfering with his life, so she did. She decided that taking care of him was only bringing her down, and she found a Nar-Anon group to attend. Here she found comfort in talking to people who were going through a similar situation and learned to develop firm but loving boundaries.
Nar-Anon is a support group for family members and friends of people experiencing the disease of addiction.3 Al-Anon is a support group for family and friends of people suffering from alcohol addiction.4 Alateen is for teens who have been affected by another person’s drinking.5 You do not have to be religious to attend these support groups. Everyone attending the meeting is in the same boat as you to some degree. These support groups help you to become a supporter not an enabler and give you the steps you need to get through this period in your family’s life.