The heroin epidemic the country is suffering through, and the subsequent media coverage about the fight to conquer this epidemic has opened my eyes to the way people really view addiction. After more than twenty years in the treatment field, most of which has been in the specialty of treating opioid addiction, I never really looked at the issue from the outside in.
For something that has been part of my daily life for so long, I just found myself removed from what other people outside of the addiction treatment field thought. I began to discuss addiction with everyone and anyone who would listen to me, people in line at the grocery store, in the mall, sitting next to me on planes, etc. What I clearly found out more often than not is—addiction is entirely misunderstood.
Some people are fortunate enough to never have to live through the experience of being an addict or having a loved one who is addicted. Luckily, they don’t know what it feels like to love an addict, to go through the trials and tribulations and suffering, the endless guilt about where they went wrong or how they could have done things differently.
No one factor can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs. A combination of factors influence risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.
Addiction is everywhere. It may affect you or your children, your spouse, your loved ones, your friends, your pharmacist, your doctor, your neighbor, the actors in your favorite films or TV shows, the musicians who perform your favorite songs etc… Addiction does not discriminate. Addiction affects everyone it touches. It changes and damages every relationship it comes into contact with.
Some are quite obvious, and others well-hidden, suffering the ugly and sometimes deadly effects of this disease alone on their bathroom floor shaking violently, soaked in tears, and overflowing with shame and guilt.
No child fantasizes about growing up and becoming an addict with a needle in their arm, or passing out on their couch once again in front of their TV after they’ve polished off their nightly bottle of Vodka. When they take that first drink of beer as a curious youngster, or puff on a joint for the first time in college, they don’t imagine they might be taking the first steps on a journey that will lead them to a life of pain, despair, shame, and hopelessness. If most addicts had just a moment to fully experience the darkness of addiction before ever getting started, some may have never picked it up in the first place. Inexplicably, there are some who would do it again because they’re already looking for a way to escape the confusing pain of life, isolation, and above all, fear.
The addict who will commit crimes in order to get money to buy their drug of choice didn’t necessarily start off as a criminal. In fact, a lot of them hate themselves for what they’re doing. Many of them are experiencing the agonizing physical pain of withdrawals, or the terror of knowing that withdrawal is looming overhead if they don’t find money, some way, and any way.
In the addict’s eyes, this may be the only way to survive the night. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be furious. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t face each and every consequence they bring their way. But it does mean that at a certain level, compassion is needed. These are people that we love. They are human beings- completely redeemable human lives. They are absolutely capable of change but it isn’t an easy road and can’t be done without the total surrender and willingness of the addict themselves to do the work of getting (and remaining) sober.
Addicts end up hurting other people. There is no way around that, no way to tidy it up or sweep it under the rug. While in the grip of their addiction, they can be selfish, manipulative, mean, and destructive and thought of as pure evil. They can abandon the people who love and depend on them, whether it’s a physical abandonment or an emotional one. I won’t make excuses for the addict’s hurtful and destructive behavior. But I maintain compassion for them, because I know their story all too well and I know that they can change. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but it can be done.
Today I look back at the news of Prince, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, River Phoenix – and many other talented celebrities we had all seen and grown to love, only to later learn that these gifted individuals were are all victims of addiction. It was made even more disturbingly personal to me when I went back and read the hateful, cold comments that people on the internet were leaving in regards to the passing of these talented people, all due to their addiction. Many said that “it was their own fault”, that they “deserved what they got”. “A junkie doesn’t deserve to live”; “They are a waste, nothing more.”
I guess I was just desensitized to these types of comments after working in the addiction field for so many years, but, in looking at it from the outside in and taking a new view, I became really angry. I was overcome on how uneducated the public is on addiction.
Most of the recovering addicts I’ve met or treated over the years are absolutely amazing individuals, and this world is a better place because of them. Many of them wouldn’t be giving the healthy contributions to society that they are today, had they not first been addicts. Being at the bottom of a dark and lonely hole really helps one to appreciate standing on solid ground!
Before casting judgement on an addict, imagine the despair. Imagine what it must feel like to believe there is no alternative; to see no other option, to just sit there all alone on the floor in front of your toilet with a needle in your arm knowing that you might lose everyone you love, everything you’ve worked for, for years. In fact, you might even lose your life. And, you might just welcome that. These people need love, not more fuel poured on the fire of their self-loathing. They are not choosing despair. For them, it is not a choice. They do not want to suffer. They want to be happy just like everyone else. They do not see any other option. Loving them doesn’t mean accepting destructive behavior or enabling their addiction, but it does mean having compassion, rather than disdain. So much is at stake. This is truly a life or death situation.
The personal and family tragedies related to addiction are heartrending and quite often desperate. The struggles to break addiction and restore lives are uniquely challenging. The scientific breakthroughs now taking place to help us understand, prevent, and successfully treat addiction are nothing short of astonishing.
Addiction is now understood to be a brain disease because scientific research has shown that alcohol and other drugs can change brain structure and function. Advances in brain imaging science make it possible to see inside the brain of an addicted person and pinpoint the parts of the brain affected by drugs of abuse — providing us knowledge that will enable the development of new approaches to the prevention and treatment of addiction.
As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients. Treatment approaches tailored for each patient’s drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can lead to continued recovery.
Mr. G. Michael Errico holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. He has been working in the addiction treatment field specializing in the treatment of opioid addiction utilizing medication assisted treatment for the past twenty years. He is the co-founder and President of Addiction Medical Solutions which owns, operates and provides consultation services to the treatment industry. Addiction Medical Solutions operates several medication assisted treatment facilities including Access Recovery Solutions in Delray Beach, Florida.