By Teresa Mercer, MSW, LCSW, LCAC, Youth First, Inc.
Millions of people in the United States are affected by substance misuse. In the last few years, death rates from opiate and fentanyl overdoses have been increasing among young people, which is alarming and disturbing.
The simple definition of addiction is this: “Continuing to seek and use substances despite adverse consequences.” Addiction is a disease of the brain because it changes how the brain functions in the areas of reward, stress, and impulse control. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a variety of other diseases all affect organs and other areas in the body. Much like other major diseases affect organs in the body, addiction affects the brain, the most complex organ in the body.
Families will keep addiction a secret due to the shame connected with it. I can’t think of any person/family that I have known personally that has dealt with a traumatic disease that wants to keep it hidden. But many people who struggle with addiction will suffer in silence due to stigma.
As a mental health professional, it’s been interesting over the years to watch how people react when they find out someone they know has a family member with cancer compared to a family member addicted to opiates. I have the fortunate experience of proudly working with people who have addictions. In fact, I changed my language a few years ago and started saying I work with people who have addictions instead of saying I work with “addicts.”
People with addictions have names, families, jobs, dreams, hopes, and goals for the future just like everyone else. They also seem to have the best sense of humor, which the world seems to lack of late. They never intended to become addicted, but when you understand how addiction hijacks the brain, it’s easier to understand their actions.
So how does addiction begin? Some people start using alcohol or marijuana as a teen, which starts out fun and then they can’t stop. Some people quickly move to other harmful substances. The other group of substance users often use to escape physical pain or emotional pain. They find something that makes them feel good or makes them function. Is that not what most of us do?
But I have witnessed the awesome transformation of people in recovery, and I can tell you that addiction takes over the thinking of the person. When they stop, the “old” person returns. Sobriety and recovery work!
You can make a difference by educating yourself about addiction. Attend a local 12-step meeting and reach out if you know someone that is on his or her recovery journey.
R- Show respect.
E- Have some empathy.
A- Gain more awareness.
C- Have compassion.
H-Offer help and hope.
Everyone needs compassion, some tough love, support, and the knowledge that they are important and worthwhile. They are not any different from the person you know with medical illnesses or any mental health illnesses. I challenge you to adopt a new perspective. You might just save a life!