People struggling with substance abuse and addiction have a difficult path ahead of them — but so do the friends and family around them. Addiction touches the lives of everyone who knows, cares about, and loves a person fighting it, and it can be overwhelming to try and understand the processes of addiction and what they cause.
Watching a friend or family member transform before your eyes can be a truly dramatic experience, especially when a person you have known and love suddenly seems indifferent or downright uninterested in your thoughts or feelings. This is a common situation for friends and family of individuals suffering from addiction, and it can often lead to persistent feelings of helplessness and confusion.
“Why is my loved one acting this way and what can I do about it?” is, unfortunately, a frequently asked question from friends and family members exposed to addiction. However, there’s incredible value in learning the origins of your loved one’s new and destructive behavior. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of some of the most frequent kinds of behaviors you may encounter, why they occur, and how you can handle them in a healthy and constructive manner.
Understanding Addiction as a Disease
When it comes to demystifying addiction-driven behaviors, it’s useful to use the disease model to define the effects of substance abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) addiction is a chronic brain disease that results in compulsive drug seeking and use despite all destructive consequences, and it has far-ranging effects on the behavioral patterns of its sufferers.
For those who haven’t suffered from drug addiction themselves, it can be totally mystifying to watch a loved one return to harmful behaviors over and over again despite the mounting consequences. However, the biggest marker of addiction is an inability to properly prioritize things such as eating, sleeping and socialization over consumption of drugs or alcohol — because of quantifiable changes in the chemical makeup of the brain the sufferer cannot control.
How Addiction Hijacks the Brain
When addiction first begins in someone you know, you may develop a general sense that they’re changing. Their moods and habits might alter to the point where they seem like a completely different person — and on a chemical level, they almost are.
Activity in the human brain is governed by chemicals called neurotransmitters, which work to ferry signals from neuron to neuron. All drugs work by imitating or over-producing neurotransmitters, the brain’s “reward circuit,” interfering with normal brain function. Marijuana and heroin, for example, mimic the neurotransmitters that are naturally produced in the brain and can bind with neurons to produce their respective highs.
Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, on the other hand, catalyze natural neurotransmitter production exponentially above what the brain normally manufactures. The end result here is mass production of dopamine, which is found in the parts of the brain that control motor skills, emotion, motivation and pleasure. Drugs cause the brain to flood with dopamine, which produces euphoric effects. Over time, these overloads of reward circuitry result in tolerance through:
- Reduction of dopamine receptors in the reward circuit
- Reducing the effect of dopamine on the reward circuit
- Increasing compulsion to use more drugs, which are now less effective
Once the euphoria of drug use wears off, the compulsory aspect of addiction remains without any of the perceived benefits from before. That’s how addiction sets in.
Why Do Addicts Continue to Use?
Until a person tries and fails to stop using drugs, most are laboring under the delusion they can stop using any time they want to. What was once an occasional nightcap can turn into heavy drinking every day, and the same is true of any other drug. The question is, why can’t people break the cycle of addiction even when they know it’s detrimental to their health and their relationships with others?
Repeated instances of drug and alcohol abuse are nearly always catalyzed by psychological and emotional stress. Over time, drug abuse becomes the go-to reaction when an individual experiences duress with:
- Social settings
- Job and workplace
- Family obligations
Addiction starts as a means of self-medication for any number of stressors in a person’s life, and over-exposure of the reward circuit to drugs and alcohol make it seem as though the substance is the only solution. In time, the individual struggling with addiction will have to use increasing quantities of the drug just to avoid negative withdrawal symptoms, despite all evidence of physical and psychological damage.
How Can I Help?
One of the deciding factors in a successful recovery from addiction is the ability to recognize and properly deal with “triggers.” A trigger is a situation, setting or any sensory form of stimulation that jump-starts cravings in an addicted person. Triggers can be so overwhelming the person experiencing the sudden craving may not even be aware of its origin.
Addressing, understanding and deconstructing triggers and cravings is one of the cornerstone goals in addiction treatment and can be extremely difficult to do without professional help. However, as someone close to the individual struggling with addiction, there are some things you can do to support your loved one as they beat cravings and stop using, such as:
- Learn more about what triggers them.
- Assist in monitoring situations for risk.
- Talk them through the feelings triggers elicit.
- Ask what you can do to help ease the craving.
- Help create a list of constructive distractions from cravings.
Oftentimes, having a person around who can ask the right questions can make the difference between indefinite sobriety and relapse. As a friend or family member, you’re in a unique position to support the person on a close personal level, so learning everything you can about their triggers can make you an excellent ally against addiction.
Why Do Addicts Lie and Steal?
One of the most jarring aspects of addiction for those stuck on the sidelines is the tendency for sufferers to lie, cheat and steal their way to more drugs or alcohol. When someone you once trusted turns their back on you in favor of substance abuse, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal. That’s why it’s important to remember their brain is in the grip of a chemical imbalance — and as much as it feels that way, it isn’t personal.
Addiction affects the prefrontal cortex by limiting its ability to function properly. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain responsible for essential processes such as:
- Planning and organization
- Motivation for goal-oriented activity
- Weighing consequences
- Impulse inhibition
Collectively, these are known as executive functions — and when they’re impaired by drugs and alcohol, a person’s behavior can go from strange to dangerous very quickly. The good news is, one study has shown that after abstaining from drinking, alcoholics can actually regrow brain matter and enhance cognitive function.
Though the chemical foundation of lying during addiction can be explained in clinical terms, it’s just as important to understand the emotional and psychological motivations behind these behaviors. When those with substance abuse disorders perform these damaging behaviors, it almost always comes down to these reasons:
- Preserving their addiction
- Evading the reality of their disorder
- Avoiding confrontation
If a person is addicted, their brain is telling them continued procurement and use of the drug is their No. 1 priority and compels them to do whatever it takes to do so, even at the risk of love and livelihood. The reward pathways simply don’t respond to much but the drugs anymore, which is why professional treatment is necessary to begin undoing addiction’s handiwork.
How Can I Help?
Lying and stealing are signs your addicted friend or family member is reaching “rock bottom.” By this point, addiction has rewritten their reward circuitry so completely that they are exhibiting behaviors that would be unthinkable to their former selves, just to get ahold of their substance of choice. If addiction isn’t caught and treated as soon as possible, the addicted individual’s chances of a healthy recovery will continue to decline.
As a friend or family member, the strongest show of support you can give to someone suffering from this extent of drug or alcohol addiction is to participate in some level of intervention. Though they can be very tense and emotional situations, following these steps to intervention can assist you in helping your loved one to understand the scope of their substance abuse problem:
- Form a team and create a plan. The best results will be achieved if you are able to consult a mental health and addiction professional, who can guide you through the rest of the process.
- Compile information. To help your loved one understand his or her situation, you have to understand it as well. Gather information on the severity of their addiction, and do your research on effective treatment options.
- Choose consequences. It’s important to make clear to the individual struggling with addiction what steps the group will take if he or she does not get the necessary help. For example, a spouse might move out if their husband or wife refuses to go to treatment.
Once you’ve enlisted the help of others, you stand a better chance of convincing your loved one to take the appropriate steps in seeking professional help for addiction recovery.
Why Do Addicts Avoid Family and Friends?
Avoidance of friends and family is one of the more painful aspects of a substance abuse disorder. When all you want is to reach out and offer help to your loved one, it can be devastating when they continue to isolate themselves despite your best intentions and efforts. Why is it that substance abuse disorders cause people to withdraw from the world around them?
Why Do Addicts Feel Lonely?
It’s important to remember that without the skills learned in formal rehab treatment, people struggling with addiction are often unable to properly process and understand their own psychological state. There are many conscious and unconscious reasons someone struggling with addiction can end up avoiding their loved ones and feeling lonely, including:
- Maintaining denial of their problem.
- Avoiding attempts at intervention.
- Trying to hide drug or alcohol use.
- Fear of judgment or ridicule.
Why Do Addicts Isolate Themselves?
When an addicted person’s brain is already telling them that seeking and using a substance takes priority over so many other rewarding activities, it’s easy to see how they might cut out social interaction altogether to avoid unwanted consequences.
Unfortunately, the consequences of isolation outweigh the perceived benefits of avoiding friends and family. Aside from missing out on emotional support from loved ones, people who isolate themselves are also giving up the benefits of mutual-aid support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step programs. As multiple studies have proven, participating in support groups significantly improves one’s chances of maintaining sobriety over the long term.
Why Do Addicts Blame Others?
Another facet of isolationism is the tendency to blame others for the problem behaviors the person is displaying. They may insist they don’t even have a problem or that those close to them are making things up to persecute them. If someone struggling with addiction is told anything but what they want to hear about their substance abuse problem, reacting by redirecting or projecting blame onto others is an unfortunate common event.
How Can I Help?
This is another case in which a little research can go a long way in helping your friend or family member along in their recovery. Finding others who understand what addiction is like and can share useful pointers is a fantastic way for your loved one to begin getting in touch with their social side again. If they don’t already know about these types of mutual-aid support groups, it may be useful to give them an overview of the top two types out there:
- Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous: Also known as 12-step groups, AA or NA meetings center around admitting powerlessness over addiction, surrendering to a higher power, making amends with those who have been harmed by your addiction, and learning to better oneself going forward in sobriety.
- Group Therapy: While not as structured or higher power-focused as 12-step programs, traditional methods of group therapy reach for the same goals. They’re an excellent opportunity for people in recovery to meet and learn from others who share the same struggles.
There are many more specific forms of mutual-aid support groups, and the best fit depends on whether your loved one is more comfortable in groups of a certain composition, such as specifically religious or atheist programs, as well as those based in gender or age. Finding the right one can be an emotionally exhausting process, so your friend or family member can definitely use your support.
Why Do Addicts Refuse to Get Help?
An astonishing number of individuals struggling with addiction don’t get help, in part because so many of them don’t realize they have a problem. NIDA outlines one crucial statistic in the fight against substance abuse and addiction:
Even with full knowledge of addiction’s detrimental effect, only 11 percent of people end up actually reaching out for effective treatment. Why would someone choose not to pursue a path out of addiction? There are a whole host of reasons people decide to continue down their path of substance abuse without saying a word, including but not limited to:
- Fear of judgment by friends, family or employers
- Extreme denial of their destructive patterns
- Worry that treatment won’t work
- Concern over the financial cost of treatment
How Can I Help?
While concern about how others will perceive them isn’t something you can change outright, vocalizing your love and support can go a long way in giving them the confidence to make a stand against addiction.
Denial can be one of the biggest roadblocks in seeking treatment, but reinforcement from trusted people and a professionally run intervention can help an individual struggling with addiction see the light when it comes to getting treatment.
Many people who refuse treatment insist rehab doesn’t work. These individuals aren’t taking into account that formal treatment provides an effective set of tools, care and medication that can only be properly utilized when the person in treatment truly wants to put in the work to earn permanent sobriety. They can only get as much out as they put in.
Luckily, the financial aspect of rehab is one of the smaller hurdles to leap. Help your loved one understand that top quality rehabs accept insurance and are more than happy to work with clients to find the best way to pay for this potentially life-saving treatment.
Why Do Addicts Relapse?
Sometimes, even the strongest people can suffer a relapse of substance abuse without really knowing why. The unfortunate fact is that addiction is a chronic disease, with relapse rates that are similar to conditions like asthma or diabetes. Rehab can provide the arsenal necessary to combat relapse, but without post-rehab support and ongoing addiction education, some recoveries can be more challenging. Of the many reasons individuals fall back into substance abuse, these are some of the most common:
- Negative emotions such as depression and anxiety
- Risky situations or environments
- Friends or family who don’t support recovery
In recovery, many people find the people and places they used to frequent have become triggers for them. If, for example, a person used to go drinking with their friends, they often find those aren’t healthy people to be around, even if they had been close friends in the past. Learning how to regulate triggers and cravings in precarious situations is one of the most difficult aspects of life after treatment.
Addiction is also frequently accompanied by co-occurring mental disorders that make relapse a bigger risk. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
Co-occurring disorders require specialized treatment in programs that understand the unique challenges that come with handling dual diagnoses at once. With the proper treatment, individuals with co-occurring disorders can achieve permanent sobriety as well as manage their mental illness with much better efficacy.
Fortunately, relapses aren’t a guarantee that recovery is off the rails for good. It’s helpful to view relapse as a hurdle to be leapt over and learned from.
How Can I Help?
If you know someone you love has a co-occurring disorder, has relapsed in the past, or just wants to do everything they can to prevent relapse in the future, make sure they’re aware of continuing treatment options after rehab.
Post-treatment support and aftercare usually take the form of continued therapy and clinical assessment, network-building and 12-step group work. Re-integrating into a normal life without the crutch of drugs or alcohol is essential if an individual is serious about preventing relapse, and continued monitoring in an aftercare program is the smartest way to keep track of recovery.
Ask your loved one what steps they plan on taking after rehab is completed, and help them find information on effective aftercare programs.
Getting Ahead of Addiction
By now, you realize the phenomenon of addiction to drugs and alcohol is a complex one, spanning the gamut of effects from physical to psychological and emotional. Though the decision to use is initially a willful one, addiction insinuates itself in the brain by completely changing the way a person views their priorities. Sheer willpower alone won’t result in a real recovery without rigorous work with professionals who know addiction and cravings inside and out.
The behaviors those suffering from addiction display can make them seem like completely different and self-destructive people. Though the behaviors we’ve discussed shouldn’t be tolerated, understanding their sources can help you see solutions. In combination with the effectiveness of rehab treatment, having friends and family who are familiar with addiction and its behavioral consequences can provide the boost your loved one needs to move forward addiction-free.
12 Keys Rehab Center understands addiction from every angle and is here to provide the expert guidance your loved one needs when they decide recovery is for them. The trained staff is comprised of people who have struggled with addiction themselves and can provide the solidarity that helps make for a sustained and healthy sobriety. Don’t wait any longer — contact us today.