Millions of people drink alcoholic beverages on regular basis. Many have also experimented with drugs at some point in life. Most are able to exercise a degree of restraint and moderation – they may overindulge in alcohol occasionally, but not often, and never to the point that it puts their health at risk. Likewise, with drugs, most of those who have used feel confident that they can say no.
Substance use isn’t the same as addiction, which can make it difficult for many people to understand just how powerful the disease of addiction is. Those who have control over when, what and how much they drink or use may assume addiction is a weakness, or that a person suffering from addiction lacks willpower. They may say things to a person suffering from addiction such as “one drink won’t hurt,” without fully understanding how much damage it can actually do.
The Chronic, Progressive Nature of Addiction
Addiction is a disease in much the same way as depression, diabetes or chronic pain conditions are diseases. Left untreated, addiction can get progressively worse. Addiction can’t simply be “cured” by going through a treatment program. Instead, treatment programs educate, guide, support and provide tools to help individuals manage the disease. Those tools may include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to reduce cravings, mental healthcare, nutritional guidance, meditation, exercise and continued support.
But what can an individual in recovery do when friends, family or those around you don’t understand how challenging the path can be?
Know that addiction isn’t caused by a lack of self-control.
Many people think addiction is due to a lack of self-control, rather than understanding it for the complex, multifactorial disease that it is. Even when you suffer from addiction, it’s easy to buy into this simplistic thinking, and allow others to convince you that “just a little” will be okay. When you accept that you have a disease, it is easier to stand by your convictions, avoid temptation and do what you need to do to protect your sobriety.
Stay attuned to triggers.
Like any other disease, there are times when symptoms are harder to deal with than others. In recovery, this may be times of stress or worry. It could also be situations or circumstances that remind you of when you used to use. These are times when it’s important to take extra precautions. Give yourself permission to say no, or to stay away from places that could be triggering, such as bars or clubs, and instead head off to a support group or talk to a sponsor who will take your side.
Offer to educate.
Some people may not understand addiction as a disease because they haven’t had it explained to them. Choose a time and place where you are comfortable, and explain that there are many illnesses and disorders that aren’t obvious to the outside observer, such as autoimmune diseases, depression, anxiety-related disorders and neurological disorders, but are very real and very serious nonetheless. People with these conditions learn to develop strategies that will help them subdue symptoms and function the best they can. For an autoimmune disease or depression, no one would ever attempt to undermine these strategies. The same is needed for addiction.
No matter how much you try to explain what makes addiction a disease and why you need to deal with it in the way that you do, there will always be people who will not believe it. That’s OK. None of us can ever fully know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We have to be realistic in our expectations of what people will be able to understand.
What matters more is that you know what you’re dealing with, what you need to take care of yourself and that you don’t compromise your own health because others don’t understand. Seek out people who offer you the friendship, love and support that’s good for you. It’s your life that’s at stake, and you deserve to have the chance to live it free of the pain of substance use.