I’m going to talk about addiction, using alcohol with a guy called John as an example, but drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, or any number of other areas could be substituted instead. This is only a brief glance at a very complex subject, but I will probably go into more detail in certain areas in future posts.
Addiction is a contentious topic, surrounded by a lot of misunderstanding. A belief persists that people addicted to alcohol can stop any time but choose not to. This presumption not only applies to people who care about problem drinkers, but can also apply to drinkers themselves. “I haven’t got a problem; I can stop any time I like!” is a common assertion.
The NHS website describes it in the following way:
Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.
“Not having control” is the key point. After all, if addicts did have control, they would be able to stop any time they wished. Their husbands or wives wouldn’t leave them and take their children. They wouldn’t regain consciousness at 3 a.m., desperate for another drink, unable to remember what they were doing a few hours earlier and wondering where they were. They wouldn’t be thousands of pounds in debt to online poker sites or the clothing shop that sells those really amazing shoes on interest-free credit. They wouldn’t have drug dealers banging on their doors at midnight demanding money.
When addiction takes root, it often does so before negative consequences start to have an impact. “John, that guy likes his ale” at the age of 16 becomes “John who can’t handle his drink” at 21 and “stay well clear of John if he’s drinking” at 25. Naturally, the timeline can vary, but the general pattern holds. John was just doing what most other teenagers do – going out with his mates and having a great time. But as they all got older, his mates were slowing down their drinking, getting jobs and building careers, and having families. John found he couldn’t do the same. He had the career and the family, but his drinking continued to get worse. He tried to cut down or stop and couldn’t, and the downward spiral continued. He never chose for this to happen. “When I grow up, I want to be an alcoholic!” said no one, ever.
The fact that it wasn’t a choice doesn’t make it any easier for the people who love John, of course. Addiction doesn’t just hurt the one who is addicted. Its effects ripple out through families and entire communities. The destructive behaviours of those caught up in it can cause incredible pain and heartache for those around them. Often the one who’s addicted is oblivious to this.
The good news is that just as the ripple effect of addiction can cause incredible damage, so too can the ripple effect of beating addiction allow for much healing. Injured relationships can be repaired, debts can be repaid, children can be reunited with their parents. It takes work and time, but it can be done. There is no guarantee of success of course, but I’ve seen people who were literally knocking on death’s door turn it all around, overcome addiction and go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
The chance for healing only comes once addicted individuals reach the point where they can accept help, when they finally admit that they can’t beat it on their own. It may be that they’ve lost family, friends, jobs, and more, but it doesn’t have to get that bad before accepting this reality. Once they ask for help, addicts are often amazed at how many people step forward to offer it.
Addiction can be tough to overcome, but the rewards for doing so are immense. As a counsellor, I don’t use this word often, but I can guarantee that life without addiction will be far better than life with it in the driving seat.