There are many reasons families don’t immediately take action when a loved one is exhibiting signs of addiction. A lack of education about what addiction is (and isn’t) is a contributing factor. And so are feelings of shame.

In our society, there’s an undeniable stigma around addiction. We still cling to the false belief that addiction is a character flaw or a lack of willpower. It’s not, and the science is clear on this. As Harvard Health writes:

“Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. Recovery from addiction involves willpower, certainly, but it is not enough to ‘just say no.’”

In our experience, if we look deeply enough into a family tree, we are almost certain to find at least one person with an addiction of some kind. A Pew Research Center study released in August 2017 shows just how widespread addiction is. It found that 46 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member who has been addicted to drugs. Keep in mind that this study focused on drugs and not alcohol. Add alcohol to the mix, and we imagine that the number would be close to 100 percent.

How is it possible that every family is somehow connected to drug or alcohol addiction? We believe the link is mental health. We’ve helped hundreds of families through the addiction-recovery process, and what we’ve learned is that in almost every case of addiction, there is also an underlying mental health concern.

It some cases, these mental health conditions are acute: there may be a bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. More frequently, however, addiction is related to the much more common issues of anxiety and depression.

Let’s use the example of a high school student who is experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress. She may even be depressed. Like many teenagers, she tries alcohol for the first time and feels immediate relief.

What’s she’s feeling is less stress, but she doesn’t recognize it as that. She just knows she feels better after she drinks alcohol.

The question is, what was actually driving her high levels of anxiety and stress? If the answer is an underlying mental health condition, she’s at risk. The drinking may have started as a harmless, innocuous way of letting off some steam. But at some point, it can cross from a social activity to a dependency. It becomes her solution to treat her underlying mental health condition; one she didn’t even know she had.  

No one knows exactly when the switch flips from social use to dependency, but once it switches, the addiction becomes its own individual issue. The brain has been altered enough that the disease of addiction takes over. We are now facing two separate issues: a substance use disorder, as well as the underlying mental health condition that drove the substance use.

When we start working with a family, we must first prioritize the addiction that’s present in a loved one. As a society, we understand this portion of the process clearly. We know that without long-term sobriety, there is no healing from addiction. That’s because addiction is an immediate danger, and we’re seeing the evidence of this continue to mount through the opioid epidemic. How many great stories of recovery were never even started because of a pill that was, unbeknownst to the user, laced with a lethal amount of a chemical like fentanyl?

It’s not the removal of a substance that creates healing, however. In fact, it often makes things worse. Recovery Coach Thatcher Shivley describes that dilemma beautifully in his article, “The Difference Between Alcoholism and Heavy Drinking.”  As he writes, ”We have to make sure that people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction are able to address their real problem.”

What is this real problem? It’s different for each individual, but we like to explain it this way. It’s said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s connection — social connection, family connection, the connection to purpose in life, etc. These are the pillars of mental health.

We have to remember that no one sets out to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Something has driven a person to this way of coping. It’s our job at Feinberg Consulting to help an individual who is addicted to drugs or alcohol understand what exactly happened, and why it happened.

Of course, we can’t start there. Typically, families are coming to us in the midst of an addiction crisis. We need to interrupt the addiction cycle. That usually starts with an intervention and a recommendation for the appropriate addiction treatment.

Once again, it’s not enough to simply take away the substance that an individual turned to for comfort from what likely seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. We have to work with the person to develop the tools, skills, habits, and healthy coping mechanisms they need to overcome their unique challenge. But first, we have to protect these individuals. We have to help them stop using drugs and alcohol and keep these substances out of their system.

Remember it’s never too early to get help for a loved one who is struggling. And when we think of addiction as a mental health condition rather than a character flaw, it makes it so much easier to make the right choices. We start operating from love rather than shame. When we do that, the chance of life-long recovery is so much higher.