Understanding Addiction as a Disease: Overcoming Perceptions to Support a Loved One Suffering from Substance Use Disorder

July 11, 2016

Understanding Addiction as a Disease

Recently, I watched as a good friend went from a happy, charismatic goofball to a withdrawn, quiet loner. He was falling deeper into his alcohol addiction, and the more I watched helplessly the more I tried to understand. There are so many misconceptions about drug and alcohol addiction. Some say addiction is an excuse and that people can simply stop using at any time. Some believe that those with a substance use disorder are just weak-willed.

But what is an addiction, really? It took me a lot of time and information, but I wanted answers about what was going on with my friend. Ultimately, I think it helped me be a stronger support to him in his sobriety. If you have a loved one battling substance abuse or addiction, understanding what it truly is will better empower you to support them through recovery.

What is Addiction?

According to The Addiction Recovery Guide, “Addiction is a brain disease expressed in the form of compulsive behavior,” and a chronic and recurring illness. Long-term, regular drug use actually changes a person’s brain structure and the way that it functions. In turn, there can be lifelong impacts on personality, behaviors, and emotions.

These long-lasting changes to the brain are responsible for the “distortions of cognitive and emotional functioning that characterize addicts,” including the cravings or perceived need to use substances. This doesn’t mean addicts are simply unlucky victims. Addiction begins with a voluntary decision (albeit, possibly influenced by peers or societal pressures) to use a drug. So addicts must take some responsibility for their recovery.

Supporting a Loved One in Recovery

Supporting a loved one while they’re suffering from a substance use disorder is crucial to their recovery. Below are some tips for supporting a loved one before, during, and after recovery.

  • Continue loving them in spite of their addiction. Distancing oneself from a loved one in recovery to punish them for their choices, or to protect oneself, is not helpful. They need support from clean, loving, and caring friends and family more than ever.
  • Realize that relapse is a normal part of the recovery process. An addict has not failed if they relapse. Recovery takes years, and the majority of people relapse at least once at some point in time. Be sure to look out for a relapse, and maintain a supportive attitude if this occurs while also encouraging them to get back on track.
  • Be supportive. Make sure your friend or loved one knows that you’re offering complete support and love, and demonstrate it by spending extra time with them, driving them to meetings, and going to support groups with them.
  • Be mindful of substitute addictions. Often addicts who have stopped using will become addicted to something else. Having an addiction to eating well or exercise is better than an addiction to drugs or alcohol, but recovering addicts do need to be careful of addictive behavior and channel energies into healthier habits.
  • Encourage your loved one to get involved in activities that are structured and meaningful. Start a conversation to discover healthy activities that they’d be willing to try such as a part-time job, school, painting, writing, or exercise.

Avoiding addiction is ideal but not always easy, especially when other factors such as a comorbid mental illness or chronic physical illness, are driving one’s desire to abuse drugs. Once a person has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the support of family and friends through their journey to recovery has a major impact on long-term outcomes. Having an understanding of what addiction really is can help you overcome prior perceptions that may alter your judgment and ultimately hinder your ability to support. I know I’ll never be able to completely fathom my friend’s problem, but I’m grateful he’s shared his insight with me, so don’t be afraid to ask your loved one for help understanding.

Steve Johnson has always been dedicated to promoting health and wellness in all aspects of life. Studying in the medical field has shown him how important it is for reputable health-related facts, figures, tips, and other guidance to be readily available to the public. He created PublicHealthLibrary.org with a fellow student to act as a resource for people’s overall health inquiries and as an accurate and extensive source of health information. When he isn’t hard at work in his studies, Steve enjoys playing tennis and listening to his vintage record collection.