What is an addiction?
This is not an easy question to answer. Family members often seek the answer to this or arrive at a personal understanding of addiction.
Our experience of living with a substance using loved one of course impacts and shapes our view of addiction. I have witnessed misunderstandings that cause blame, unjustified stigma, fragmented relationships, and ultimately suffering.
What is your view of addiction?
Does it help or hinder your relationship with your loved one?
Take a moment to consider the stigma perhaps within yourself, or that you have experienced within your family or society as a whole, as a result of being in a relationship with a loved one in addiction.
Stigma around addiction encourages secret keeping and shame, thus creating barriers to change and seeking help for everyone involved. Stigma is responsible for many untruths despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Addiction can develop despite a person’s best intentions and in spite of their strength of character.
So what is addiction?
There is no simple answer to this, and nor does a formula exist that can reliably predict addiction. However, I do hope to shed some light on this question for you.
What we know is that addiction is a complicated interaction of multiple factors: genetic, physiological, developmental, and the culture in which a person lives.
Let’s break this down:
What science tells us is that we are all unique and we all have different:
Responses to how rewarding we experience a substance to be
Experiences of taste due to our taste receptors
Metabolisms for substances
Pleasure and baseline emotion levels (how we feel about life generally)
Science supports the fact that while there is no “addictive gene” there does seem to be certain genetic vulnerabilities. However, it’s important to remember, risk does not equate to destiny. Just because a person’s family has generational substance use issues does not automatically mean that individual will have addiction issues. Hereditability vulnerability to addiction is at the same rate for mood disorders (anxiety and depression etc.) approximately 40-70%.
How a person is impacted by their environment and culture are also factors to consider. Abuse, trauma, neglect, growing up in a high substance using house or neighborhood, poor parent child relationships, peer pressure- all have been shown as vulnerabilities towards substance use issues.
Age of first use is also an indicator of future issues with substances. The earlier in life a person starts using the more likely that individual will develop issues with addiction.
An individual’s culture also plays a role: behavioural norms, price and availability of substances, and legal consequences.
As I said there are no easy answers to the “what is addiction” question. Just as your loved one is an individual so will be their map of addiction and their journey towards their recovery.
Here’s the good news– one of the strongest predictors in not developing a substance use issue and in influencing the path of addiction problems, is positive family involvement. You are part of the solution and can support your loved one and yourself towards health and wellbeing.
I realise that this information may not be new to you and it does not change the fact that you and your loved one are in pain living with the reality of addiction. However, knowledge can often change how we view our world and those in it. A better understanding of the causes of addiction may offer you some freedom from the anger and blame you may be holding on to for both yourself and your loved one.
Is it time perhaps to reconsider your assumptions or beliefs about addiction?
Beyond Addiction. A guide for families – Jeffrey Foote, Carrie Wilkens, Nicole Kosanke, Stephine Higgs
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association
HBO Addiction series http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/addiction