What Many Don’t Get About Addiction

Here’s the thing most people miss about addiction.

When somebody is addicted or hooked on some substance or behavior, that substance or behavior becomes the most important thing in the person’s life. In essence, it becomes the only thing.

The person might pretend that other things — income, personal relationships, hobbies — are just as important, or even more important. He might not believe it when he’s saying it, and might actually lie to you. Or he might be lying to himself, bringing you along for the ride.

But the point is: This is what makes something an addiction. Irrationally of course, it becomes the person’s top or only value in life.

That’s why it’s so hard to nail down whether someone has “a problem” with a behavior, habit or substance. The “diagnosis” is usually inferential. In other words, you have to know lots of details about a person’s habits and behaviors, so you can expose contradictions between what the person says and even seems to believe, and actually does. People’s words often lie, but their actions do not. If everything the person does throughout the day somehow centers on getting to the object of addictive desire (alcohol, casino, whatever it is), then you know you’re dealing with an addict; but because even loved ones cannot read others’ minds, this can be very difficult to ascertain.

One of the traps loved ones of addicts get into is when the addict seems to have changed — and then later it turns out it was all a fabrication. “How could she have fooled me?” is the question.

However, if you look at the addict’s behavior through the perspective of the definition I’m providing here, it makes a lot of sense.

The addict, for whatever reasons, really, really wants his fix. In order to gain that fix without the unwanted yet entirely expected objection of significant others, the simplest route is simply to keep it a secret. Because secrecy is not always possible, then lying fills the void where the secrecy fails to prevail.

People who don’t have an addiction look at the person with addiction and think, “I haven’t normally known her to be a liar. I’m questioning my judgment here. Am I imagining it, or is the problem behavior still there?”

Some addictions are easier to hide than others. Some addictions involve brain-altering chemical substances; others do not. Some addictions are completely illegal; others are not. There are many variations in circumstances and factors involving addiction. But if you look closely at anyone who struggles with one, you’ll find this common denominator, I guarantee: The addiction is the most important thing, no matter how much they act and speak to the contrary.

I have run this theory by many formerly addicted people I have encountered over the years. I have never yet been told I’m wrong. Whether I’m talking to a Twelve Steps person who firmly believes that alcoholism is a disease, and you “recover” only by means of a Higher Power of your subjective understanding; or whether I’m talking to someone operating strictly on facts, logic, reason and common sense, the person usually (if not always) concedes that the addiction was the most important thing, at least at the time.

If a loved one has an addiction, then it’s crucial to understand you cannot get into their minds and value different things for them. You cannot alter a person’s hierarchy of values for him or her. I find that a lot of people falsely believe that “good” intentions override all else. As a result, they believe that simply by loving an addict, providing “unconditional regard,” or sending them to rehab programs, and the like, all of these seemingly good intentions will somehow replace the basic fact that the addict really cares more about this addiction than anything else. This is why you see so many treatment failures with rehab, and why so many drop out of AA and NA. None of these things are relevant or psychologically operative when the person is still in the mindset of, “I want what I want, and that’s that.”

And nobody or nothing external can change this mindset for the person. This is really hard for people to accept. And it’s understandable. If a loved one has a terrible disease, such as cancer, ALS, or Alzheimer’s, who wants to accept it? But you know that you have to do so. With addiction, while most people insist they do believe it’s a medical illness, they still turn around and try to reason the person out of the supposed illness. The fact is: Addiction is neither an illness nor a conscious, reason-based choice. It’s a condition the addict permits in which emotional desire overtakes reason, at least for a time. It’s not a deliberate choice, in most cases; it’s more of a state of negligence.

The resistance to what I’m saying by the loved one of the addict generally boils down to, “So what am I supposed to do — stop caring?” The person might as well be saying, “I feel that my desire for this loved one to change his ways is all I need; if you say otherwise, you’re simply mean.”

There’s nothing mean about simply acknowledging the truth. When and if the majority of us start to do so in the realm of addiction, perhaps we’ll hit upon more creative ways to address the problem. But one thing remains certain: Whenever anybody overcomes their addiction, it’s their own doing. Like it or not, we are self-determining creatures.


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