Broken link in a chain

What You Should Know Before You Say 'Addiction Is a Choice'

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They say: Addiction is a choice and you should just stop.

I do not understand the belief held by some that one chooses to become addicted. If addiction is defined as a compulsion to do something or behave a certain way repetitiously regardless of the negative consequences, I find little logic in anyone doing this by choice. Especially if it interferes with the well being of one’s life or hurts the ones we love.

My education and experience tells me addiction doesn’t start out as an act beyond our control. It begins in a slow, progressive notion and we often don’t even recognize its enormous growth until well beyond the awareness of many of those around us. Which, for a time at least, we will adamantly deny.

At first, we try something meant to give us a pleasurable experience and we enjoy the way it makes us feel. We like the giddiness of that first glass of wine after a stress filled day, or that rush of excitement in a winning hand at blackjack. And then we do it again and achieve the same results. And eventually, like it enough to create meaning around it. 

We organize birthday barbecues and football parties where consuming large amounts of alcohol is an acceptable way to “celebrate” the occasion. We plan “family” trips to Vegas yet don’t see the outside of those dark walls for days because we are one step away from hitting the jackpot.  Euphoria and fulfillment and the broken promise of happily ever after are just beyond our reach.

We ignore the onlookers who frown at our behaviors and we discount their judgment as simply not knowing how to “have fun” or live on the edge. What we don’t realize is our behaviors have stopped being “fun” long ago, and we are wickedly close to falling off the edge, but we are forever chasing that euphoric feeling that swept us off our feet in the honeymoon phase of our distorted relationship with addiction.

What we also fail to recognize in our blindness of addiction is that not only are we continuing to do it because of the the way it makes us feel, we are equally doing it for the way it makes us not feel.  Research is only growing about addictions being a common yet detrimental escape from the unwelcomed experiences of our past. An incomplete mourning for the loss of something or someone meaningful to us that subsequently changes the direction of our life path.

An unexpected death of a close family member or friend, a difficult divorce, an unwanted move or loss of a job can all take considerable chunks of well being out of a previously unscathed being. These adverse experiences can happen in our childhood or as an adult and can weaken our whole existence and life motivation. Especially when those around us are equally effected and unable to help mend our pain because of their own.

It is of no surprise anxiety and depression frequently intertwine in the tumultuous relationship with addiction. And so begins the infinite cycle of turning to our addictions to numb the pain, which further inflames the anxiety of our choices and fuels our depressed state of being. Only causing us to turn toward our addiction all the more.

Soon we learn to escape our fears and insecurities with our addiction because we feel forcefully giddy and excited about what we are doing at that moment that brings us pleasure. And we create misconceptions — that somehow we will achieve ultimate satisfaction and perpetual happiness. Or at least we won’t think about the pain. At least not today.

Eventually this relationship with addiction evolves from giving pleasure and avoiding pain to becoming a necessary evil to merely exist. The compulsion sets in and our minds become fixated on our unquenchable urge for that next drink. Oftentimes, our bodies develop a physical dependence we can no longer ignore. So we drink to stop our hands from shaking. We do it to feel “normal” again, at least enough to function in our daily routine. We gamble away that last dollar to suffice the unattainable desire to double our wins. To win back that lost tax return that was meant to pay our mortgage. To get back that feeling of euphoric satisfaction and enjoyment we felt when we first met our addiction.

In the end and without help beyond ourselves, addiction overpowers us with a curse that becomes so strong, nothing and no one in our own innately selfish-driven world can stop us from it. Not our spouses, our children, our parents, our failing health or our careers. Not one thing can stand between our addiction and our mind. We have succumbed to a curse that is larger than us and it becomes stronger than our ability to make any choice to stop. We stand to lose it all and that still might not be enough to stop the insanity. The curse destroys all that was good in our lives and renders us hopeless for a better tomorrow.

Therefore, what they should say…

Addiction is a disease that needs help to recover.

According to multiple health reports published within the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Harvard Health Publications, researchers now recognize addiction as a chronic and reoccurring disease that changes both neurological brain structure and overall cognitive function. This transformation happens as the brain experiences a series of chemical changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and the lessening of its effect with continued use of that which once gave us enjoyment, and ending with a drive toward compulsive behaviors attempting  to sustain it.

What we once found to be pleasurable in its infancy is altered within our brains to result in a compulsion for utter destruction in the part of our brain we rely on for emotion and pleasure. Our brain is no longer functioning the same way as before we became addicted. So we act on our compulsions because pleasure becomes impossible without intensifying our addictive tendencies.

This alteration in our brain and resulting compulsion is real, and when intermingled with the weakening grip on our addiction and all that once had meaning in our lives, it destroys. And it knows no social, racial or economic barriers.  It can creep into the least expecting community, impact whole cultures and span multiple generations.  Whether it be personally impactful, or through the far reaching ripple effect that results because of it. Ultimately, no one escapes unharmed. Addiction is that strong.

But there can be hope. Hope that there can be change.

To say addiction is a choice and not a disease that needs help is only further perpetuating the stigma that has carried on for decades, and for many, has contributed to loss of time spent having a life worth living. Or worse, of living any life at all.

Recognizing addiction as a potentially life threatening disease that requires continuous effort to recover successfully can allow us to make a much needed paradigm shift in our morally judgmental way of thinking. And to dispel the assumption that all those who suffer continue to do so by their own choosing, can begin to awaken the possibility that recovery exists. But it can not be done without a sincere commitment to end the stigma that at times prevents many from venturing toward the narrow path of healing.

I believe this commitment may include reaching beyond the current treatment models with floundering success rates and incorporating additional unorthodox and holistic methods that are slowly gaining more acceptance in the professional recovery communities. We can begin to focus on tailored recovery modalities because no longer can we assume that the traditional ways will always work for everyone.

My personal and still very raw experience with addiction and recovery has yet to be shared, but there is no doubt in my forever recovering mind the addiction that was in my path was not there by any ounce of my own choosing. My path to destruction came upon me as the horrific and overpowering curse that it was and mentally stole a mother from her children for 18 months of their lives I can never get back. It rendered me helpless for weeks on end and ultimately ended the career I had spent 15 years building for the person I mistakingly thought I wanted to be. It swallowed my joy and buried deep into my unconscious mind all that I once loved. It changed the unscathed child I yearned to be and morphed me into a monstrous entity my conscious mind will never want to know. 

Regardless of what society continues to say about addiction, my personal truth will always be I didn’t willingly choose addiction. Rather the disease of addiction chose me. And it was only through the brokenness of my entire being and the insanity of my disastrous mind that I found the miraculous help and saving grace that gave me strength to overcome my addiction that almost became stronger than my will to survive.

This post originally appeared on Kel’s Penzu

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In Memory of My Mom, Who Was Never Able to Find Her Light

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Today my mom would have been 71.

She died when she was 52.

Much too young, but I’m sure to her much too late. When you live in chronic debilitating mental pain day after day, eventually you surrender. And when you do, one of two things can happen: you die, or you find life again.

I used to always ask myself why do some people make it through darkness and others don’t.

Throughout the years I have wanted to die. The pain from mental illness and addictions is deep. When you are in that dark place you just want the pain to end.

I watched my mom for as long as I can remember struggle with addiction and mental illness. The doctors fed her pills and more pills, gave her shock treatments and hospitalized her too many times to count with no success. Her many suicide attempts were not a cry for help. They were a desire for her pain to end.

I understand that today through my own addiction and mental health issues. When I was younger I did not.

Some people can find their light for life again. Sometimes people have remission. Some just don’t.

I, for whatever reason, have been one of those people who claw and crawl my way out of the big black hole of anxiety and depression time and time again, and have been able to stay clean and sober as well.

My mom died from her battle to mental illness and addictions like people with cancer can die by their illness.

I am still here. I will be the voice she lost. I will keep trying to slay my own dragons and fight “our” disease.

I will remember her pain. I will remember her tears. I will remember her holding on all those years with no relief.

She now has peace.

In memory of my mom, Diane: 1945 — 1997

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
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The Fear of ‘Feeling’ After Losing My Brother

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I lost my brother 31 days ago.

It’s not as if I misplaced him. Or that he’s hiding away somewhere ready to emerge from the shadows. No, he is gone. Still I find it nearly impossible to say the words he diedDead is so harsh, so raw, so final. So instead I say I “lost” him or that he “passed away,” somehow hoping that will soften the blow, even if only to myself.

My brother could make me laugh like no one else with his sharp wit and dry humor. He could frustrate me like no one else with his stubborn bullheadedness. He was bright, articulate and funny. I loved him to the moon. He was chased by demons. On May 28th, they finally caught up.

It’s worse that I found him.

When I say I “found” him, I mean I found his body. Devoid of his spirit, cold and stiff and lifeless on the floor. It is a memory I will never forget — yet one I refuse to remember. Like some intangible recollection that fades away as you try to reach out and grasp it. My mind alights on that image and immediately flits away, diverting the unthinkable elsewhere. Anywhere. It’s not even conscious anymore, it’s automatic, like a light switch flicking off so as not to let you see too far into the dark.

I haven’t cried in 29 days.

The first few hours I broke down, sobbing, hugging myself in a puddle on the floor. I felt so much guilt. I played over and over in my mind what I could have done differently. What if I would have checked on him earlier? What if I had called 911? What if I would have helped him up that afternoon when he stumbled and fell over, instead of cynically asking him not break anything and retreating to another room.

What if…?

You see my brother was an addict. Sometimes drugs, but mostly alcohol. A lot of alcohol, consumed in binges.Perhaps if I would have tried harder, felt more compassion …sympathy… empathy? Maybe I wouldn’t have found him that last morning lifeless on the floor surrounded by his “killer” in the form of countless empty bottles and cans strewn about the room.

Like most families, ours had tried for years to get him help. And I think at times he tried too. I know he didn’t enjoy living the life he was living. He truly wanted something more. Like Jekyll and Hyde — so bright and full of life, and then so dark, grappling with monsters that lived inside his head.

On the second night after, my mom arrived, shattered and broken. I knew I had to be strong for her, for me. For my family, for my friends, for people that I barely knew and those I hadn’t even met. I couldn’t lose it, couldn’t break down…no, it’s more that I wouldn’t. Because that’s what I do, what I’ve always done, smile through the pain.

 

And from that point on, I crammed everything away and slammed the door.

 

Until that day I hadn’t even realized it was possible, so seemingly effortless to completely compartmentalize your emotions and shut them away from everyone including yourself.

If you met me on the street you would never know I just lost one of the people I loved most in my life. I laugh, I smile, I go on with life as normal. I keep my mind occupied. I run, I read, I clean the house and walk the dog.

I never let myself be alone with my thoughts for too long for fear of wandering down the wrong corridor and getting lost.

At night I wake sometimes from nightmares. Effigies creeping in, slipping though the cracks and cruelly taunting me while I sleep.

A few days ago I read a passage in “The Pier Falls” by Mark Haddon. He so succinctly puts into a few profound sentences what I can’t seem to put into actual emotion.

 “…but there was a part of his memory which he simply did not visit, and of whose existence other people could only guess, like a locked cellar in a large house from which inexplicable noises might occasionally be heard during the quieter parts of the night, the precise nature of which were irrelevant because the door was bolted fast and only a fool would go down that narrow, mildewed staircase.”

My biggest fear is the dam will break and everything will come flooding in all at once. The feelings, the fear, the rage, the guilt, the raw emotion, all crashing down upon me, suffocating me under its weight.

My second biggest fear is that it won’t. Not ever. That I won’t ever cry, won’t ever hurt, experience pain or anger. That I won’t ever really feel anything again, and be removed from the things that make life rich — real joy, genuine happiness or love.

People tell me that I’m strong.

But what is real strength? Is it facing your demons, or vanquishing them?

I don’t have the answer to that question. Someday, perhaps, I will.

And that’s the thought that saves me.

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The 5 Most Important Things I've Learned in Recovery From Addiction

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I’m a 32-year-old with anxiety and depression, and I have been living in recovery from addiction for just over a year. I went into recovery without knowing much about it. Here are some of the important lessons I have learned.

1. I needed to want it more than anything.

When I started rehab, I assumed everyone else was on the same page as me. This was not the case. People are in rehab for many reasons, and some of them might not be ready to quit. They could be there for their families, legal reasons, health, et cetera — not necessarily because they want to get better. For me, there was no option other than recovery.

2. You can’t judge another person’s recovery.

I was a bit surprised to see the judgment of others within the recovery community. Some people look down on those who don’t go to 12-step meetings. Some don’t approve of replacement drugs. I’ve seen someone quit a recovery program altogether, because she claimed there was too much judgment and drama involved.  I find it easier not to judge anyone. We’re all in this together, after all, with a common goal of living free of addictions. With this attitude, I’ve made some unlikely but wonderful friends.

3. The stigma around addiction is still present.

I am lucky that I haven’t had too many bad experiences with the stigma surrounding addiction, personally, but I still see it all the time. In particular, I have noticed a lot of people in recovery do not advertise they’re in recovery. There’s still a lot of shame attached to addictions. I need to recover out loud. I feel like I have a responsibility to help others who might be suffering in silence, like I did for so many years. I believe the only way to solve the stigma problem is to talk about recovery.

4. There’s more than one way to recover from addictions.

When I was in rehab, I was told to go to 12-step meetings. These are great for some people, but they might not be for everyone. There is a lot of pressure to get a sponsor and work the steps. I like to say my sponsor is a committee — family and friends, my therapist, an addictions counselor, various doctors, a psychiatrist. I like the odd meeting, and they’re awesome for finding friends who don’t drink, but I have a bit of an issue with the concept of anonymity. I will always respect the anonymity of others, but I believe it perpetuates stigma, so I don’t go to a lot of 12-step meetings. I engage in many other recovery-friendly activities and try to live a fairly healthy lifestyle, and it’s working for me!

5. Recovery really is possible.

For a long time, I figured I wouldn’t bother quitting drinking because what was the point? I’d just go back to drinking again eventually, like always. I didn’t know any other way, and I thought I was too old to learn. I am happy to report I was wrong. It’s been a year and a quarter, and I’m still going strong. I’ve met so many people who have been in recovery for several years.

If anyone reading this is struggling and feels hopeless, I want you to know an addiction doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I never even imagined I could be as happy as I am today.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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What I Wish People Realized About Loving Someone With an Addiction

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I’m writing this piece because I grew up with a mother who was an addict, and unfortunately have seen the way people talk about others who have addiction.

Here’s what I wish people understood:

1. It’s a mental illness.

It took me almost 23 years to realize it, but yes, addiction is a mental illness. A person doesn’t chose to be addicted — the addiction chooses them. Although a person does chose to do something they may have thought would be a one time experience, addiction actually changes the brain in fundamental ways.

2. It’s important to forgive them.

Again, it took me almost 23 years to realize this, almost 23 years of watching my loved one in and out of jail, relapsing, going through withdrawals, stuck in the couch for weeks at a time with no motivation to anything but use the bathroom, all to realize I can’t continue to live another day being bitter. It’s their illness that’s bringing them down. It was hard and I’m sure it’s hard for you, too. If you’re like me, you’re angry, upset, maybe even guilty because you feel like there is something you’re suppose to be doing to help them. For me, I could help this person by forgiving them and letting go of that bitterness. 

3. It’s important to love them.

It’s hard to watch someone you love destroy themselves in the inside and outside. It can be hard to love them after all the pain and hurt they’ve caused you — I get it. But they’re counting on your love and support. Without it, they may feel hopeless. If you want your loved one to fight their addiction, it’s important to encourage them with love. Through the withdrawals, relapses and their sobriety.

4. It wasn’t their choice.

I understand it was the person’s choice to take the pill or drink the beer. I used to believe that meant addiction was her choice, too. But it’s not. Addiction isn’t something we choose. They do have a choice to get help, but it takes time, encouragement and strength. Addiction isn’t just addiction — it’s often coupled with depression, anxiety and vulnerability. 

It’s important to dispel the misconceptions, and give people who have been affected by addiction more understanding.

The author and her mom.
Alexis and her mom.

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To My Dad During Year 3 of His Sobriety

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Ever since I was a child I knew something wasn’t quite right. I did everything in my power to get you to notice me, to see I was your little girl. But nothing I did would ever matter because you had something that would always take precedence over us.

I’d get your smile for just a moment sometimes. If I was lucky I’d get your undivided attention too, but that was fleeting because your secret would always be number one. I heard mom crying at night after another fight, a fight over your secret, which really wasn’t a secret at all. I memorized your face while you were sleeping away your secret, afraid it was all I would have to remember you by. The memories of a once youthful face, now weathered and worn by life’s path.

I used to dream up a new father, one who always happened to have your face. One who would show up when promised, and not leave me waiting alone at another softball game. I’d envy all the cheering fathers, with faces so bright and proud, and wonder what I did wrong. Why was I always the child left waiting and wanting for something I’d never get?

But then I got older and realized what addiction really was. I realized I had a father all along, he wasn’t what I wanted, but he was what I had. I learned to love what I was given after life’s secrets were revealed. In November 2012 after 30 years of struggling with your secret, you said you could do it no more. For days I had tears streaming down my face, thinking I’d never see you again. I wanted to take back every moment in time I ever thought something bad about you, just so I could relive it and see you again. But a few days later we got a call that changed our lives — you checked into rehab and you’ve been sober ever since.

A year ago this past December I met you for the very first time. The real you, the person who was hiding behind secrets, after 27 years of wanting and wishing for something more it was sitting right in front of me and I didn’t know what to say. But I know what I can say now.

The author and her father.
The author and her father.

I’ll never understand the pain you experienced or why you made the decisions you did, but I’ve come to realize those decisions aren’t mine to understand. I want you to know I consider you a hero now. It’s funny to say, but I think I considered you a hero all along. You fought something so hard, something I’ll never fully understand and you won. You win each day by waking up, and you win each day by going to bed, knowing you lived another day without your secret invading your life once again.

Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, occupations and walks of life. You come in the form of someone battling something so intense it consumed your entire life. When I look back at this picture of the day I met you for the “first” time, I can’t help but smile. It was the first time you made a promise to me and kept it. The promise you made was to come to my sons first school concert, and you did. Talk about coming full circle. If anyone gets to experience the real you, full of kept promises, I can’t think of anyone better than your grandchildren. I can’t wait to continue getting to know you, and experience all these things I never got to before. I love you dad, and we are all here now to walk alongside you for the rest of your life of recovery.

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