Addiction: A Guide for Friends and Family (2)

Written by David Partington. 

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

The thought of becoming addicted is, for many people, either totally inexcusable or a ridiculous notion. The truth however is not as simple as it looks, and that is why we must all be very careful not to make rash judgments.Addiction is not something which happens instantaneously, but something which creeps up on us unawares.

‘The killer for me was the physical pleasure’, said one person. ‘Heroin has the most tremendously physical effect. You take the stuff; all you are aware of is an extremely pleasant and friendly sensation, but a very, very intense one...... So I thought, yes, more’. This desire for a repeat of such an intensely pleasurable, exciting sensation is one of the main reasons why young people become addicted. A government research paper confirms that other common reasons are ‘to feel big’, ‘to show off’, ’to look grown up’ or ‘because it’s trendy.’

Whatever you and I may think about the horrors of addiction, drugs are not only a source of pleasure but can blank out the hassles and problems of adolescence. This is one of the major reasons why addiction is so difficult to deal with. If a teenager is ‘cushioned’ from the hard knocks of life, he or she never really grows up. As a consequence of taking drugs their emotional and social development goes into 'neutral'; so addicts carry with them, throughout their drug-taking history and beyond, their adolescent attitudes and perceptions. They remain immature and inadequate until such time as they find an environment of acceptance and ‘tough’ love where they can go through the adolescent process, without drugs, and find real freedom.

If you really want to understand this process, place yourself in the position of a young drug user who is part of a dynamic, fast-moving subculture. Each person you mix with not only shares, but also reinforces, your immature attitudes: The world really does owe us a living! Getting something for nothing really is 'success'! All’s fair in love and war! It’s more blessed to get than to give! Whatever’s yours is mine, especially if you are insured! However, as time goes on, the need grows to find money for an ever-increasing amount of drugs, and life starts to become uncomfortable. It brings with it the realities not only of growing despair but of the hostility of family, statutory authorities, police, courts, hospitals and prisons. In response you develop an elaborate defence-mechanism to protect you, as far as possible, from reality. Every problem you have is someone else's problem, and you make sure others know it so you can be sure the guilt is transferred to them. 

Despite this, however, you slowly but surely realise that life on the drug scene is not quite as attractive as it first appeared. You increasingly recognise that you are developing a tolerance so that you need more drugs, more often, to give you the same effect. Your life is increasingly revolving around getting your next fix, just to stop the discomfort involved in ‘withdrawing.’ Stealing and crime are becoming non-optional, with your parents as the first victims. Your health is deteriorating, not least because the drugs you are pumping into your body are toxic. Deep down you are still as lonely as you were, still as inadequate, still feel as rejected and unloved. And yet, despite a longing to be free you find yourself subject to a powerful psychological compulsion to carry on the use of your chosen drug.

We must remember too that age is no barrier to addiction. Older folk get into alcohol or drugs for many of the same reasons that younger people do; they too find it covers up the pain of childhood or even adult rejection. They too find that drugs cushion them from heartache, a deep sense of inadequacy, inferiority, despair and bitterness. Their addiction begins perhaps with a doctor allowing tranquillizers to be prescribed beyond the ‘safe’ period (about 4-6 weeks). For others it has been a gin and tonic a day which became two, three, four....... Behind it all was the despair and pressure created by events: long-standing relationships falling apart; children failing to live up to your high investment of money; the long-awaited promotion which failed to materialize, again; redundancy or unemployment; stress at work which became ever more intense; the feelings of being trapped at home by young children or aged parents; partners coming home too tired to be bothered to pay any attention to your needs; becoming secondary to a partner's career…

The process of addiction

Very few people become addicts immediately. For the vast majority of people there is a process which they go through involving three different stages: 

·         Experimental or casual use.

·         Misuse or abuse.

·         Addiction.

Stage One - experimental or casual use.

Casual drug users try out a substance in much the same way that people drink socially.  Some have a bad experience, but others feel pleasure and enjoy it. Eventually, having convinced themselves that there was no harm done, they begin to learn how and when to use the drug in order to make the experience more intense.

It would be difficult to stop someone at this stage because, apart from enjoying themselves, they have convinced themselves that they are the one exception to the rule - they will never become an addict.

Stage Two - misuse

The casual user never sets out to become a drug misuser or problem drinker. The change takes months, maybe years. But they slowly but surely feel the increasing need to experience the high or euphoria, either by increasing the frequency or the amount of drugs or drink. They increasingly begin to use outside the normally acceptable social rules, whilst still maintaining some self-imposed control at least for a while – e.g. never drinking before 10 am! They also develop a growing tolerance to the drugs or drink and need a higher dose to feel the same effect.

Outward signs result from the turmoil within. Verbal aggression, accompanied by physical violence, becomes an option for a few.  For others their lifestyle becomes more promiscuous, and other life-values or rules are regularly broken. Addicts will begin to inject where they once swore blind that that was the one thing they would never do. Drinkers will increasingly choose to get drunk on their own.

They readily recognize they need to control their misuse. They are ‘long’on great ideas, particularly about when and how they will give up, but they are ‘short’ on action. Reinforced by their friends, they rationalize and justify almost every action, especially their abuse of other people. It really is very difficult to talk the misuser into sustained action. What can you offer which is better?  He or she may well know that they are losing their self-respect; but who wants to experience the intense discomfort that comes when they stop?

For all these reasons it is critically important to confirm your love and acceptance of them as individuals, whilst making it clear that you reject their drug or alcohol misuse and their behaviour. It is also important to talk with them about ways in which you and other people can help them rebuild their lives when they do make the decision to take the first step.

Stage Three - Addiction

Addiction is when the drugs or alcohol ‘use’ the addict or alcoholic. They cannot control themselves or the amount they take - they are enslaved, they are in bondage.  They will do anything to avoid the psychological and physical discomfort of withdrawal. They experience a depressingly chaotic lifestyle involving a round of hospitalisation, accidental drug overdoses, social stigma, crime, arrest, prison and family conflict. They are in a nightmare world when their whole life is dominated by the substance which they crave, in a way that you as a non-addict cannot possibly imagine. They will do anything to carry on using, regardless of how degrading or depraved it is to them or to anyone else who gets in the way. Every aspect of life is dominated, be it relationships, work (if they still have a job), social life, health, sleep, eating. Addiction is one of the loneliest, desperate, most agonizing places to be; and the only way you have of coping with it is simple - take the next fix or the next bottle.

There is yet one further tragedy about addiction you need to understand. No matter how often the addict or alcoholic makes the choice to give up, they have before them a huge mountain such as few people ever have to cross. That mountain is the one which leads to ‘normal’ life. They know it will take days, weeks, months, maybe years of hard slog, of real and sustained effort. They know it will need guts and courage which they believe they are totally lacking since they have become a junkie -they have been told for years that all they need to do is ‘say No!’ They know it’s not as easy as that; and they need you, to help them begin to take the first step up that mountain. 

It may be that you don't feel you can help anyone take that first step. It's possible that you have helped them take that first step so often and they have failed. Maybe you have been hurt too often to find the courage that's needed - when you have been hurt as often as you have! I understand that, but there's still hope as the following anonymous story shows:-

‘I used to go around with a group of friends. We would smoke pot, and occasionally take speed (amphetamines). Looking back, there were some good laughs. Everyone in my circle took drugs. One day I couldn't get any cannabis: someone suggested I try heroin. I was about 18 at the time.

‘It didn't take long before I was totally hooked. After a year or so, I went and registered with a doctor. He gave me methadone, which kept me out of trouble for a while. In time, however, I used other drugs and got an even bigger habit, and my life really hit the rocks. I was working as a motor mechanic. Gradually I was having more time off and I lost my job. Soon my nice flat, car and everything I owned had gone.  Whatever I could sell had been sold, and I used to steal from anyone just to satisfy my craving for drugs.

‘A heroin addict is totally self-centred - I'd steal off my best friend just to get a fix. You wake up in the morning, and your first thought is - money. The questions you ask yourself are, “Where can I get the money?”, and “Where can I get the best deal?”. There are no holidays, no days off; every day is the same miserable existence.’

Eventually this person was advised to enter the residential rehabilitation centre at Yeldall Manor, and 15 months later he had virtually finished the programme. His status as 'senior resident' allowed him special privileges, including the opportunity of spending a weekend at home in Scotland. On his first day at home, he met all his old friends, and in his own words, ‘blew it’. He came back to Yeldall to pick up his belongings; there was to be no more rehabilitation - and no more Christianity.

‘The director asked me to come into the meeting before I left. He read from the Bible about “confessing your sins”. I shared with the other lads what I had done, and wept in front of them. They began to weep with me. Later that day, for the first time in my life, I shared with a counsellor about the hatred I felt for my mother. Although now a Christian, she had been an alcoholic.  As a young boy, I would come home from school and find her lying flat out on the floor.

‘I loved my mother, but hated the drink problem. I couldn't look her in the eye or talk to her. That night I prayed that I might be able to forgive her. The next night she telephoned and said “I want you to forgive me for all the hurt I have caused you.” In a stand-offish way I replied, “OK - I'll forgive you”, and put the phone down. I went back to my room and began to weep before God. Now I knew that I had to forgive her. Immediately I rang back and apologized for my hatred and asked her to forgive me, we wept together.

That was a turning point for me. I'd accepted Christ while at Yeldall, but I'd struggled all along. Now I forgave her, gave my life totally to Christ - and found real freedom.’ (From Redemption magazine.)

 This man has been totally free of his addiction for very many years now. His life is a testimony to what can help when people care and provide an environment in which real change can take place.

 David Partington

This feature is written by David Partington. David is general secretary of ISAAC, the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition,  

 © David Partington 2011.