Addiction – Why, When, & How

Theories and opinions abound as to why some people turn to drugs or alcohol and others do not. We believe everyone at some point chooses a maladaptive method to cope with problems, trauma, or unwanted thoughts. For people who become physically and mentally dependent on drugs or alcohol, they can and often do go to extremes in order to self-medicate and escape reality. Some well-known experts believe addiction is a result of brain development and begins as early as conception. Stress and/or experiences during a mother’s pregnancy and through early childhood are thought to play a part in people turning to drugs and alcohol. Many substance users’ thoughts and feelings were formed at a time when they couldn’t consciously recall a specific memory. We often hear people say that a child will not remember things that happened before the age of four or five. This is not true and they can; it is called implicit memory, i.e., the memory of an experience without the ability to recall it consciously. We know that the concept of implicit memory and certain other theories about memory carry weight in the scientific community. 

Why do people become addicts and alcoholics?

Most substance users have numerous similarities in their thoughts and feelings. Most are also selfish and believe if not for them, the sun would not rise and the world would not turn. They hold themselves as the smartest people who know everything about all things. Master manipulators, they oftentimes do not tell the truth. Most have low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and become people-pleasers to avoid feelings of rejection and to ensure that people like them. Above all, many sense there is a hole in their life, a void that cannot be explained. Even though many substance users turn to drugs and alcohol as a result of experiences they can recall, we along with others believe it is rooted in unconscious memory as well. As individuals search for coping mechanisms to fill this feeling or void, they find a magical connection and a solution when they ingest their drug of choice for the first time.

These theories do not entirely explain why a substance use disorder does not occur in others as a result of having similar experiences. Not all people who experience pain, be it before one has the ability to remember or not, turn to drugs or alcohol. Although science has not determined with certainty if addiction is genetic, overwhelming evidence supports the idea of susceptibility to addiction when others in the family bloodline had a substance use disorder or mental disorder. 

Why do addicts/alcoholics use drugs/alcohol?

In the section above, we explained various reasons why people use drugs or alcohol. Many clinicians and other experts focus considerable research on answering this question. What you do not hear much about is the reasons people use drugs or alcohol that go beyond self-medicating for unwanted feelings, trauma, or thoughts. Another common denominator we have found in working with substance use disorder clients and their families is that addicts and alcoholics attempt to inflict pain and hurt onto the people who caused that pain and hurt. Substance users feel inadequate because they know something isn’t right without knowing exactly what. They know or at least sense that this feeling of inadequacy comes from the people who are supposed to love them the most. Before addicts or alcoholics can identify the source of the pain that led them to substances, they instinctively assume that their family has caused their feelings and the situation. Regardless of whether the family is responsible for any of it, the substance user believes it to be so. Since addicts or alcoholics feel bad, they’re going to make family members feel worse. They feel unloved, unnoticed, and worthless. They claim you don’t love them and proceed to destroy themselves: “Do I have your attention now, family?” This is what goes on in the minds of many addicts and alcoholics, at least all those we have had the opportunity to work with. When we talk to their family members about this, they are speechless and say, “That is our loved one to a T.” Many families report that no one has ever explained to them why the behavior of their loved ones was intended to hurt themselves and their families. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is the equivalent of taking poison while waiting for the family to die.

In addition to the elusive feelings brought on by drugs and alcohol and the quest to hurt the people that love them the most, another common denominator that both substance users and families share is a dependency on chaos and drama. Addicts and alcoholics are just as addicted to the lifestyle and rituals as they are to the substances. In time, the family’s consistent reactivity to the chaos and drama becomes the new normal. Addicts and alcoholics cannot function any other way, and they make sure the family can’t function either, making them neurotic and turning their world upside down. This illusion of a puppet master controlling the family paves the way for continued drug and alcohol use. The addict and the alcoholic utilize guilt, shame, hope, fear, and victimization as the primary manipulations to inflict pain, chaos, and drama to keep the family in a state of confusion, disarray, and neuroticism. 

Why do addicts and alcoholics blame everyone but themselves?

Because if it is someone else’s fault, then they are victims and thus able to justify the drug and alcohol use since they are not the problem. Substance users work very hard trying to fix, manage, and control people, places, and things. When things don’t go the way they wanted or expected, watch out and brace for their wrath. Addicts and alcoholics spend considerable time gossiping about others while pleading their case and explaining how they were hurt. They never want to look at their own actions that may have caused the problems they lay at others’ feet. Substance users believe they can do whatever they want, and how dare anyone retaliate. Anyone who holds a contrary opinion is wrong and needs to pay. As they stay in a perpetual state of resentment and bitterness, addicts and alcoholics continue their substance use while continuing to relive the wrongs supposedly done to them. An alcoholic and an addict allow themselves to run amok in a family’s life like a tornado, but should you make one mistake, you will never hear the end of it. The addict and alcoholic believe that if the world and the people in it would just conform to their way of thinking, all would be well. Until then, everything that goes wrong is just someone else’s fault, not theirs.

family intervention

When does an addict or alcoholic hit bottom?

Bottom is a feeling, not an actual event. Hitting bottom occurs when the family and others stop allowing the substance user to operate and control with impunity. Although events cause substance users to reach bottom, it is the feeling of an event that allows them to think about making a change. To addicts or alcoholics, addiction functions as a game. They use drugs and alcohol, and families react in a counterproductive way. The more families react, the more addicts and alcoholics continue their addiction and the associated behaviors. As we stated above, substance users are on a quest to destroy the people they feel have caused their pain. They are striving and excelling in the chaos and drama. However, when families stop reacting and become healthy, they take away their loved ones’ ability to blame them. In other words, the family decides to hold a mirror to the substance user instead of focusing on themselves. The family has the ability to end part of the game. If the addict and alcoholic continue to use drugs or alcohol, the family will have at least required them to take ownership of their problems. Accountability and owning consequences are a necessary part of addiction recovery. Substance users are not going to consider change in the contemplation stage absent a reason to do so. If the family takes away the microphone and the stage, the addict and alcoholic have nowhere else to perform their show. They may still use substances, but it will at least nudge them to start thinking about who needs to do something differently. The family may not have direct control over when the substance user hits bottom, but they have complete control over being held hostage and eliminating the reactivity that the substance user feeds off.

When does an addict or alcoholic ask for or want help?

Wanting help and having to get help are not the same. Most addicts and alcoholics consider quitting even when one might think they never will. They tell a lot of people they want to stop, just as long as one of those people isn’t you. They don’t want you to have that happiness. And if they do tell you they want help, they often create false hope, stringing you along so you continue to behave the way they need you to in order to continue the addiction until they are “ready.” They manipulate and use false hope and scold you if you try to push the issue. So, when and how do we get to the magic moment when they ask for help? For starters, it doesn’t just miraculously happen because you took the advice of someone who told you to wait.  Nobody can say the exact time and place it will occur. What we do know is that in order for substance users to consider treatment, they have to see the need for it. If the environment they find comfortable remains static, then they most likely will continue with the status quo. If the family continues to provide that comfort while accepting the chaos and drama, then they will most likely continue. If families allow substance users to make them feel guilt and shame, then the situation will most likely continue. Substance users asking for help under these circumstances is highly unlikely. Until the addict and alcoholic are allowed the opportunity to take ownership for their behaviors and be held accountable for their actions, they are probably not going to see a need to ask for help.  

Interventions often result in the person accepting the help offered. One of the primary reasons for this is the family takes a united stand and comes together as a force greater than the addicted individual. An intervention provides a degree of closure for the family and often ends part of the game for the substance user. It also allows the addict or alcoholic that stage they so desperately want to be on. The attention the intervention brings to the substance user is something needed and longed for. Waiting for the loved one to ask for help is almost always an ineffective strategy. The question is not so much when, but what can I do differently so that he or she can see the need to seek help?

How can I make someone stop using drugs or alcohol?

If you could do that, you would most likely be in the same category as God. You could rewrite medical journals and put an end to one of life’s biggest challenges. At the end of the day, the only one who can make the decision to stop using drugs or alcohol and then follow through on it is the substance user. The same applies to each individual because the only person we have control over is ourself, and many don’t even have that. With everything we know about addiction, what works and what doesn’t, we know some concrete things. The bottom line is this: substance users will not do something differently if they do not see the problem or the need to address it. Nobody just stops drug or alcohol use because life is improving. People consider stopping when things are getting worse. The more an addict and an alcoholic are able to blame others, remain victims, make others feel guilt and shame, and keep others in a state of chaos and drama all while sheltered from consequences, the less likely they are to stop. 

Al-Anon teaches people they have no control over the addiction, which is true. However, those connected to the substance user do have control over what they do about it. An addict and alcoholic almost never stay in active addiction without help from others. To help someone see the need to stop, the family and those close to the substance user can enter into recovery themselves and learn what they can do differently. If the substance user wants to use drugs or alcohol, he or she can, but the family does not have to make it easy. When a family is divided, and all have a different opinion on how to address their loved one, nothing effective gets accomplished. A family expects their loved one to surrender to a treatment center and stop destructive patterns of behavior. A family should consider a similar path for themselves. A group of people who are not on the same page and who have divergent opinions are no match for the substance user. To help him or her stop, the family has to stop the enabling behavior. A family should surrender to professionals and stop listening to non-professionals. The worst place a family in an overwhelmed state and in the line of fire can seek advice is among themselves, other affected family members, and non-professionals with an opinion.  

Why Families Wait or Do Nothing

There are countless reasons why families wait or do nothing. To answer this question would require a doctoral thesis. Upon reflection, would a family wait or do nothing to address any other crisis, whether medical or not? If your house was on fire, would you wait to call 911 or not call at all? If the substance user were injured, would you have to think about seeking medical attention? When it comes to helping someone with an addiction, the family often waits or does nothing—why? In the examples above, getting help for someone doesn’t affect the person who is initiating the help. In cases of addiction, however, a principal reason families wait or do nothing is because their codependency has made it all about them. It is no longer about getting the substance user help; it is rather what will happen to me and the other family members if our loved one does get help? 

One of the necessary intervention strategies in group counseling is therapeutic confrontation. If you do not address the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, then the 800 lb. gorilla runs the group. The group doesn’t get better, nothing changes, people do not want to come to the group anymore, and eventually people go back to their own problems because the group was an unhealthy, chaotic environment. The same applies to family systems. When the family makes it all about themselves and avoids the intervention or the therapeutic confrontation with the substance user, the 800 lb. gorilla eats them alive. Families are more fearful of the outcome (unknown) the intervention will bring than they are of the current situation. And if the person gets better, then certain family members are no longer needed in the relationship because they no longer have a purpose. The hero role loses center stage, the martyr is no longer a victim, and the primary enabler has to watch the loved one get better without the enabler’s help. If you dealt with any other serious illness or medical problem this way in regards to a minor child, you could and would be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Because the loved one is an adult, and it’s an addiction, you won’t be charged—and yet a crime has occurred. That is not a shaming exercise; that is a fact.

In reality, the majority of people accept help on the day of or shortly after the intervention. The outcome is largely dependent on families following through with the curriculum. The sad truth, unfortunately, is that most families do not move forward with an intervention or any other attempt to help their loved ones in need of substance use disorder treatment. Including the reasons stated above, it is important to note what happens and why families do not intervene. It is far easier to have one person accept help for a known problem than it is for a group of people to initiate the help they need without realizing they are just as much a part of the problem. Until the family agrees to surrender and follow the same professional guidance they expect the substance user to adhere to, things will progressively get worse.

Addiction Recovery with Family First Intervention

We are here to help your family get started on a new path. We recognize that the family’s recovery is as important as the recovery from addiction. The longer you try to solve the problem on your own, the more complicated the situation becomes. Allowing addiction intervention professionals to help you reset expectations and take a different approach can help both your loved one and your family achieve healthy change. Contact us to get started.

The most formidable challenge we professionals face is families not accepting our suggested solutions. Rather, they only hear us challenging theirs. Interventions are as much about families letting go of old ideas as they are about being open to new ones. Before a family can do something about the problem, they must stop allowing the problem to persist. These same thoughts and principles apply to your loved one in need of help.

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