If only life was a true reflection of the fairy tales our mothers read to us as small children. There was a problem, with courage and determination it was overcome, and everyone could then live happily ever after. The illusion was that there was only one problem, and that if it was resolved, everything else would be perfect. Unfortunately, the myth does not mirror reality, and it certainly does not describe recovery from addiction.
It is often appropriate to ask whether addiction is the problem, or the symptom of something else. This question does not discount the fact that addiction is a chronic disease, but acknowledges how other issues are often the triggers for drinking and using. If these “co-occurring conditions” are not recognized and addressed, recovery is hard to achieve. It is for this reason that St. Joseph Institute believes that “treating” addiction without an equal or greater emphasis on addressing these other issues in a person’s life is poor healthcare practice. It is like placing a Band-Aid on a wound that has not been cleaned and medicated. In the end, the patient does not get better and the condition may get far worse.
Not every issue that triggers the desire to use drugs and alcohol is a mental health condition that can be diagnosed and classified. That is not what is important. What matters is that something is causing pain or distress – both of which become invitations to self-medicate.
Listed below are some of the common “companions” to addiction that need to find resolution, so that recovery can become easier, and the temptation to use again lose some of its power.
Depression. Escaping feelings of sadness are a common reason to drink and use. Ironically, drugs like alcohol only make depression worse.
Anxiety. Studies on university campuses show the strong link between the social anxiety that accompanies modern life and the use of drugs and alcohol.
Pain. Human nature drives us to escape pain with all possible haste, rather than learn ways of reducing pain through lifestyle changes or natural means. Our aversion to pain has made the United States the world’s largest consumer of opiate medications.
Relationships. Nothing creates more emotional distress than relationships that are not working well. Rather than learning to build better boundaries, communicate effectively, or resolve conflict, many people simply medicate their relationships.
Bipolar. Some mental health conditions cause distress and the best medications are still imperfect. Millions of America’s use their drug of choice to self-medicate their mental health issues.
Stress. Managing the stress of daily living should never be an optional activity. However, all too often we let it build to unhealthy levels, and allow stress to feed addiction.
Boredom. A surprising number of people use drugs and alcohol to cope with boredom, rather than find activities, hobbies and other outlets for their pent up energy and frustrations.
Sex. For many addicts and alcoholics, their drug of choice has been an integral part of their sex lives. Concerns about the impact of sobriety on inhibitions, performance, and the quality of the experience need to be resolved.
Self-worth. Guilt, shame, a lack of validation, rejection, are issues that can drive addiction in the hope that using will fill the mental void.
Trauma. The deep “psychic” pain that comes with abuse, PTSD, and other forms of trauma become fertile ground for addiction. Without resolution, these hurts often become the “justification” for using drugs and alcohol.
We must realize that addiction does not live in a vacuum. It is fed by the events in life. If the issues that have a powerful impact on our lives are not addressed, they become the constant “siren’s call” to use again. Attempting to treat addiction in isolation is often a futile exercise. Is it the “problem” or the “symptom?” I suggest the answer doesn’t matter. To find wellness the addicted person must deal with both the chicken and the egg.