An Addict’s Life—the Underbelly of Addiction

opioid addictionAn addict’s life is mystifying to someone who has never had a substance problem, and to those who have, it can cause a deep and abiding compassion. I think this compassion is partially why so many in addiction recovery stay in 12-Step programs like AA or NA (Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous) or even become substance treatment professionals themselves. It’s common to hear from such people that they remember the help they needed when actively addicted and want to provide that to others who are suffering as they did.

The Wounded Healer in Addiction Treatment

Addiction treatment is a healthcare field filled with recovering people turned professional. And, you will find a good deal of transparency about that. Many professionals will share at least a bit of that history in their work. This can be very comforting to clients and patients, who above all else, seek hope for their own recovery.

The wounded healer is an ancient archetype, or phenomenon heavily laden with symbolism. It challenges our view of the clinician which is now popular in our culture. We’ve come to expect clinical detachment, for example—that treatment leaves little room for interactions with professionals who share that type of information on such a personal level. The wounded healer, however, is another person like us, and one that knows what we go through as we struggle with addiction treatment and recovery. The wounded healer knows that from the inside out.

The value of this can be life-changing. Addicts live on the outside of life—in its margins, and in its alienation, stigma, and great humiliation.  It has been proven countless times in 12 Step programs that one addict can help another. However, personal sharing isn’t something every addiction professional will do, nor should they. It’s a matter of personal style and personal preference. Also, people in addiction treatment and recovery need other people with different perspectives and different expertise.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach Works Best

Research shows us that addiction treatment in a program of professionals with different expertise and approaches works best. Addiction is not a one-dimensional subject. It is a whole person, whole life illness, and experience. It takes chunks of us in every realm—in the physical and psychological certainly, but also in our functioning across the board, in every aspect we call human functioning or human life. Consequently, a comprehensive approach to recovery works best. Most of us need a physician, nurses, psychotherapists, counselors, and educators, for example. And, many need psychiatrists. Each professional brings specific knowledge to help us. They don’t have to be wounded healers to be invaluable. They simply need to bring their skill to us in a way we can benefit.

The Day to Day of an Addict’s Life

What happens daily in the life of an addict depends in part on the substances they are addicted to. For instance, someone addicted to illegal substances must engage in behavior that an alcoholic doesn’t. Just to obtain illegal substances requires we dip at least occasionally into a different type of secret-keeping—one in which we risk legal sanctions. Sure, anyone who is intoxicated can be arrested for improper conduct, but the person living in a world of addiction that requires frequent illegal buying alone has another level of risk.

While each person is unique, there are commonalities in the day to day lives of addicts. Across the board, there is inevitably a loss of control in conducting one’s ordinary life activity. Unmanageability creeps in steadily as addictive use continues. The unmanageability is not just in one’s outer circumstances, however. It becomes an inner experience, too. Moods, thoughts, and feelings begin to be more in control of us than we are of them. Our urges and impulses to act take more control of us than our self-control does, too. On the inside and on the outside, we are increasingly at the mercy of things we can’t control, no matter how much we want to control them.

Evidence of Unmanageability in an Addict’s Life

There are many ways to measure the evidence of unmanageability in an addict’s life. However, one of the most objective is the medical criteria for a Substance Use Disorder, or what we typically call ‘substance abuse’ or ‘addiction’. This is a list of symptoms by which a substance disorder is diagnosed. As you read them, keep in mind that only 2 in a 12-month period of using is required for a diagnosis. Also, note that a Substance Use Disorder lies on a continuum from mild or moderate to severe. The greater the number of symptoms, the greater the severity of the disorder. These symptoms each fall into one type of 4 categories. These are:

  • Impaired control (IC)
  • Social impairment (SI)
  • Risky use (RU)
  • Pharmacological indicators (PI)

The symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder below are each noted with one of the above categories. They are:

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you intended. (IC)
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using, but not managing to. (IC)
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance. (IC)
  4. Having cravings and urges to use the substance. (IC)
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use. (SI)
  6. Continuing to use despite use causing relationship problems. (SI)
  7. Foregoing important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use. (SI)
  8. Using substances again and again in risky situations. (RU)
  9. Continuing to use despite knowing that a physical or psychological problem is caused by or made worse by use. (RU)
  10. Over time, requiring greater amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect (tolerance). (PI)
  11. Developing withdrawal symptoms when abruptly stopping use or significantly lowered the usual dose. (PI)

The Thoughts and Beliefs of an Addict’s Life

The mental and emotional life of addicted people also has many commonalities. Among these are thinking patterns that reinforce the use of substances, and emotional states. Among the thinking patterns are beliefs about themselves, others and the world that support continuing to use. Some of these are:

  • Being convinced that they are hopeless and helpless; victims of others, life or ‘bad luck’; incapable of doing what it takes to have a happy, healthy and successful life.
  • Blaming others, the world, or life for their own behaviors.
  • Presenting a façade of ‘all is well’, keeping secrets, attempting to hide pain and struggle, refusing to reach out for help, rejecting others’ efforts to help.
  • Rationalizing and justifying substance use.

There are many more self-sabotaging thinking patterns that enable substance use to continue, and that prevent change. Such thinking negatively affects one’s energy, motivation, and drive, as well as one’s ability to have successful relationships, and to effectively pursue hopes, dreams, goals and ambitions. They also interfere with accepting treatment and following through with other recovery efforts.

Emotional Factors in an Addict’s Life

Emotional unmanageability is a daily constant for actively addicted people. Mood swings are common, as are intensely felt negative emotions like sadness, grief, anger and fear. Intoxication helps ‘take the edge off’ these feelings, but it does not cure them. If anything, it sets them aside where they can gain momentum and deepen.

The thinking patterns common to addiction can also fuel profound and difficult emotional states such as self-pity, shame, guilt, self-loathing, depression, hostility, and suicidality. These can be chronic, coloring one’s daily functioning and interactions with others, and becoming sabotaging and debilitating. They also set up a vicious cycle in which addiction causes these and they trigger more use to self-medicate them.

Relationships in an Addict’s Life

Inevitably all relationships suffer in some fashion when one is addicted. The addictive illness pulls everyone farther and farther into their own world, leaving a series of disconnections between self and others. Many relationships are simply lost, damaged beyond repair, even with earnest efforts to make amends in recovery. Others limp along, having accumulated a great deal of strain and pain, but they are able to be rebuilt. In either situation, there is typically damage and work to be done to release the relationships or to rebuild them.

The relationships affected by our addictions are not just those we consider primary. Although, of course, the primary relationships in our lives—our partners, children, parents, siblings and close friends—all suffer the most, and carry the heaviest emotional toll for everyone involved. However, other important relationships in a healthy and successful life suffer, too. These can include our extended family members, the wider range of our social dealings, our work-related associations, our neighbors, and even the community at large.

If You Are Ready for a New Life…

If you are addicted and can relate to the suffering described in this article, you probably yearn to be free of your addiction. Despite how hopeless or helpless you feel to make the necessary changes, with the right help you are capable of making them. Like countless others, you may simply have to make a leap of faith or decide that you have nothing to lose by giving treatment a chance. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to put yourself in the right place to receive help and open yourself to receive it.

If you and your loved ones are suffering because of your addictive illness, give us a call today. We offer free consultations to identify your individual needs, clarify your insurance coverage, and find the appropriate treatment programs that can effectively help you.