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When Your Loved One Is Addicted

3 minute read

It’s an iconic image: The alcoholic (or compulsive gambler, shopper, or drug addict) comes home to find the apartment filled with friends, family and colleagues. They gravely inform him or her that everyone is agreed there is a drinking problem and that rehab is the only way to save the family, relationships and the job. Confronted by this united front, the alcoholic can no longer deny the truth, and tearfully agrees to change. Thirty days of rehab later, the alcoholic is discharged and returns home, chastened, humble and determined to start a new life and never touch alcohol again.

Unfortunately, this picture, promoted by pop culture, bears little resemblance to how people who are struggling with addictions actually change.

There are a number of myths behind this picture:

Myth #1 Addicts have to hit ‘rock bottom’ and admit to their addiction before they’re willing to change.

Fact People change at all stages and to varying degrees. Some, like the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, lose everything including, very nearly, their lives, before they decide to change — and then never touch their substance again. Others simply cut back at the first sign that their addiction is impacting their life.

Myth #2 Addicts are helpless in the face of their addiction and need professional help to change.

Fact The majority of people who change their behavior do it on their own or by attending self help groups.

Myth #3 Addicts don’t recognize their addiction — they’re in denial — and you have to break through that denial, get them to admit that they have a problem, before change can happen.

Fact People who are struggling with a substance or a behavior addiction may deny to others that they have a problem. But they certainly know that what they’re doing is a problem for others, and that it gets them into trouble too. They experience great shame over this, and very often that shame leads to further addictive behavior in an effort to forget and feel better. So breaking through that denial, forcing someone to face up to their terrible problem, is generally going to only deepen that shame and increase their addictive behavior.

Myth #4 Abstinence is the only answer to addiction.

Fact For some people, yes. For others, a reduction but not abstinence is a perfectly acceptable goal. The idea of completely giving up a behavior or substance that has been a core part of their life for so long might seem like climbing Mt. Everest. The goal of abstinence can therefore be a negative influence sometimes, preventing people from taking the first step on the road to change.

Myth #5 Rehab is the answer for people who are addicted.

Fact Fewer than 10% of addicted individuals are willing to enter care. Drop out rates are high. And even among those who complete rehab programs, one year relapse rates are 40-60%. (Read Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment — and How to Get Help That Works for more information about what really happens in this multi-billion dollar industry.)

Unfortunately, these myths are pervasive and often destructive. They are embedded in our culture and influence — without us being aware of it — the way we deal with friends and family who suffer. They lead us to take power and control away from them, to tell them what their problem is, force them to confront their behavior, and insist that we know the path for their recovery. Without doubt, there are some people who will respond to this approach. But as a general rule, people don’t react well to being labelled an addict, to being shamed, and to being told what their road to recovery must be.

The inventor of Motivational Interviewing and the authors of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change take a very different approach. They recognize that everyone has conflicting motivations. One man may feel so uncomfortable in social situations that they feel compelled to drink, while at the same time wish to stop drinking because of the damage it’s doing to his career. A woman may feel horrified at the damage her compulsive gambling is doing to her family’s finances, but feel so bitterly unhappy that she needs to return to the racetrack. Helping both these people to focus on their motivation in order to reduce or stop their behavior, while still respecting their ability to make decisions for themselves, is the key. The end goal is decided by the person being helped. Perhaps it might be reducing gambling amounts by cutting up all but one credit card, or eliminating social engagements that feel awkward. Or it could be going to Gamblers Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Or only going to the racetrack with friends, or only going to parties when the next day is a holiday.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is struggling in this area, put aside the myths that our society has fed you. Pick up a copy of “Beyond Addiction” and learn more about how you can really help your loved one.


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