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Addiction, Brain Disease and the Family Part I

With U Recover’s second interview with Val McElvy on WBVP 1230 AM radio in Beaver County Pennsylvania, I wanted to elaborate on some points we will be discussing regarding addiction and the family.

The American Medical Association adopted the idea of the disease concept in 1956 stating that addiction is a disease due to having similar characteristics with other diseases. That Idea did not win over the public or even medical community with its research and clinical information at the time and still has a good deal of controversy surrounding it. I have talked with many families that are dealing with a loved one who is actively drinking and balk at the idea that alcoholism is a disease. The primary reason for the disagreement? Because they feel claiming addiction as a disease takes the responsibility off of the addict.  

It’s understandable.  Yes, I believe addiction is a disease but the primary difference addiction has as opposed to other diseases in symptoms is it produces bad behavior which people see as a choice. In our culture bad behaviors can be curbed with the right amount of persuasion.  They also see taking the drink or drug as a choice as well. To this I can say that, yes, taking the first drink or drug is a choice.  But, after a point, after that drug makes physical changes in the body and brain, the addict has no choice: They have to use even seemingly against their own will.

Addiction like diabetes or cancer makes physical changes in the body which make your next drink as necessary as your next breath.  This is especially hard for loved ones to understand that have the mind set of, “Why can’t they just stop?”

Like diabetes, full blown addiction is usually successfully arrested by a course of medical treatment.

The bad behavior I had mentioned that addicts are known for is only a symptom of the disease. Many family members get very wrapped up in focusing on these behaviors such as isolation, risk taking and financial difficulties and attempt to treat these symptoms in an effort to help the addict get their life together.   

Most individuals struggling with addiction have no lack of financial woes and very often families assist the addict by giving the addicts exactly what they need to continue their addiction: more money!

It’s important to emphasize major trap families and loved ones find themselves in when dealing with an addict. It is a trap which is actually two-sided:  a) families will do everything and anything to help the alcoholic and b) families try to assign logic to what is happening to their loved ones.

Our western culture stresses that if a loved one is in trouble we need to be there to help them in any way we can. In almost any situation when dealing with an illness that would be the right thing to do and also commendable.  With addiction, not so much.

a)       Assisting someone who is in the grips of addiction to do anything but get treatment will, in most cases, further along the addiction even though that was not the intent.  The sole goal of addiction is to keep going and to stay active in the addicted person.  Giving the addict money, paying their bills, covering for them at work, providing food and shelter will keep the addiction well cared for.

The troubling part of this is there is no real way to separate the addiction from the addict. So many loved ones see refusing to help their loved one in their time of need as cruel or even abuse.  I have heard many parents state they would never refuse their son or daughter a roof over their head even though their being there was creating a whirlwind of chaos and anxiety for the entire family.

b)      Most of society does not understand the alcoholic or addict simply because they try to look at the addict’s situation with logic as you would with any normal person.  A normal person would not isolate themselves and deplete their bank account, runoff on their family or go put their family and children in jeopardy. Again, society like families looks at the addict’s symptoms and not the actual disease. There is really no logic when you attempt to analyze an alcoholic’s behavior and compare it to the rest of the population.  It’s downright crazy!  

Addiction is a brain disease. As any disease it makes physiological and chemical changes in the brain and body and some of these changes are permanent.  The most notable change addiction makes is in the frontal lobe of the brain where all the logical thinking occurs. Basically their thinker is broke.  Members of Alcoholics Anonymous knew this long before there was an MRI to look at how our brains functioned.   One of AA’s better saying is, “I don’t have a drinking problem, I have a thinking problem.”

Another thing to always remember when dealing with an alcoholic or addict is you are dealing with a sick person, not a bad person.

I will talk about enabling and codependent behaviors in a follow-up blog. There is still a lot to cover when it comes to family and addiction. professional intervention coach

Frank Say June 19th 2017

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