Nina had always been the life of the party. Her winsome attitude and good looks assured that most everyone liked being around her. Recently, however, social functions had become increasingly awkward and troublesome. At happy hour with work colleagues, she was slurring her words, making inappropriate comments, and stumbling over her own feet. The first few times friends passed it off as just having “one too many”, but the other night Nina became belligerent with the bartender when he told her he couldn’t serve her anymore. She stormed out of the bar and into her car in spite of the protests of friends. When she didn’t show up to work the next morning everyone was terribly worried. Later, she telephoned to say she’d gotten a DUI.
Staci always loved playing blackjack online. In fact, her husband used to play too, but lost interest when the newness wore off. He never thought much more about her continued interest until Staci’s credit card statement came in the mail last week. The card was over its credit limit with a dozen charges to different online gambling sites, all within the past month.
Eric’s hard work and dedication made his pathway to corporate success a virtual guarantee. Overtime, long nights at the home office, weekend hours – he was proud to do whatever it took to get the job done. The family understood his ongoing requests that they stay out of his home work space. However, lately his late nights in the den had been getting longer and more frequent, and he seemed more demanding than no one else use his computer. After the family laptop battery died last weekend, Eric’s son thought he would use the computer in the den to print his science research. When he clicked on the internet browser, pornographic images were staring back at him.
Addiction is a disease.
Addiction is a chronic, but treatable, brain disorder. Once the threshold has been crossed, people who are addicted cannot control their need for alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, gambling, and more – even in the face of negative health, social or legal consequences. The brains of addicted people have been so altered that the absence of the stimuli (alcohol, drugs, etc.) “makes a signal to their brain that is equivalent to the signal of when you are starving,” says National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkow. It is “as if the individual was in a state of deprivation…It’s as powerful as that.”
How to know if you are addicted.
The cycle of addiction looks like this:
- Emotional, Intellectual, or Physical Triggering: Some cue stirs addicted persons in such a way that acting out becomes a consideration. It could be running into an old friend, seeing an image on the internet, or some other situational element. Though many triggers may involve unpleasant images or sensations (and thus, produce in the addicted person a desire to escape), many triggers are pleasant or neutral. Often, when addicted persons achieve recovery, they have altered “people, places, and things” that were formerly triggers. For triggers that cannot be altered externally, addicted persons must learn how to manage them so as not to give in to the experience of craving.
- Craving: The longer addicted persons ruminate on both the trigger and the responding consideration of use, they begin to experience the sensation of craving. Craving is similar to feeling an itch that begs, pleads, and eventually, screams to be scratched. It promises relief, and in fact, some relief is experienced for a short while, until craving sets in again, stimulated by another trigger. If addicted persons experiencing craving don’t have help learning to manage their impulses while craving, they enter into rituals.
- Ritual: The processes addicted persons undertake may seem chaotic, but often, they are so predictable and repetitive they are actually ritualized. Each time an addicted person craves, they go through patterns ultimately leading to acting out. These patterns may be elaborate or simple, but they are patterns nonetheless. If uninterrupted, the ritual always leads to relapse.
- Using: After passing through the above stages, sometimes with only a marginal level of awareness that they’ve done so, addicted persons “use” – e.g., go to a casino (gambling), visits an explicit website (pornography), take a drink (alcohol), etc. As mentioned above, they do often experience relief (though long-term, chronic addicted persons may experience relief and secondary triggers/cravings almost instantaneously), followed by periods of shame, sadness, and guilt.
- Guilt: Ironically, addicted persons tend to believe that feeling bad about their mistake is the appropriate response to acting out. While there is some truth to this overall, the kind of guilt addicted persons tend to experience is actually usually counter-productive, and can in fact be the very emotion (trigger) that starts the entire cycle over again. Often, intervening at this point immediately after a relapse is the best starting point.
Perhaps the trickiest part about helping someone with addiction is that addicted persons can often be the last to seriously acknowledge the level at which they are in fact addicted. That is, addicts may often laughingly acknowledge that their drinking, drug use, etc. is problematic, but never fully emotionally or intellectually engage that reality. For example, it is not uncommon to hear an alcoholic refer to him/herself as such (“I know I’m an alcoholic!”), yet balk at others who point out the troublesome nature of their drinking. This kind of denial is often crazy-making for individuals who love and care for addicted persons and can lead to co-dependence. But denial is part of the illness of addiction, and without help, insulates the addicted person from the kind of emotional, intellectual, or spiritual realizations necessary for true and lasting change.
Another difficult concept surrounding addiction is the stigma associated with it. In spite of compelling research suggesting otherwise, many still believe addiction is some type of moral weakness, character flaw, or inherent sin. While their is certainly some level of overlap between concepts, addiction itself is a treatable disease. Without having a realization of this kind, however, addicted persons and their families often feel pressure to hide addiction, cover it up, or make excuses for it. Ironically, these kinds of responses are known as “enabling”, and ultimately keep the addictive cycle going.
If you or someone you love is addicted…you need to get help. Here are some good ways to know:
- One: Life seems to be interrupted by the problematic activity (drinking, sex, etc.) – difficulties with school, work, relationships, seem to happen with regularity or increasing frequency.
- Two: The problematic activity is engaged in with increasing frequency or intensity – e.g., it takes more alcohol to get drunk, more marijuana to get high, more or more risky/dangerous sex to achieve orgasm, longer hours in the casino trying to get the “big win,” etc.
- Three: When unable to partake in the problematic activity, the person experiences emotional (irritability, anger, sadness, etc.), physical (shivers, muscle tension, headaches, etc.), or intellectual (interrupting thoughts, difficulty concentrating, etc.) sensations that characterize withdrawal.
- Four: The problematic activity is undertaken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was originally intended, or their are unsuccessful efforts to “cut back”. More and more time is being taken up with preparing for, participating in, or recovering from (emotionally, physically, financially, or otherwise) the problematic activity.
- Five: The problematic activity continues in spite of negative consequences physically, legally, financially, psychologically, etc.
In addition to seeking St. Louis Addiction Counseling at Change, Inc., here are some resources on the web you may like to consult:
- Alcohol Addiction – Alcoholics Anonymous
- Narcotics Addiction – Narcotics Anonymous
- Sex Addiction – Sexaholics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous
- Tobacco/Smoking Addiction – Quitza (Online Smoking Cessation), Nicotine Anonymous
- Gambling Addiction – Gamblers Anonymous
- Overeating Addiction – Overeaters Anonymous
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