Have you known someone that has had an addiction and wondered, “What made her become addicted?” Or, when hearing about celebrities’ multiple DUIs, drunken stupors, or judge-mandated treatment, do you ask yourself, “Why are they doing that? They’re ruining their life.” Many of us have made similar remarks when watching someone we know or love fall into the addiction cycle. “If they really wanted to quit, they would. They just don’t have the will power.”
So, is addiction a choice? Is becoming addicted not having the strength or necessary will power to stop using, to stop craving the substance? Many times I hear family members say, “Well, if he loved me enough, he’d stop. He just doesn’t have the will power to stop using.”
The disease of addiction affects millions of people – some of those you know and wouldn’t even suspect have a problem. Addiction can seep into any of our lives. It is not just a disease for the poor, homeless or mentally ill. It’s a disease that is not picky or selective – it is an equal opportunist that has the ability to seep into any one of our lives through abusing or over-using alcohol and/or drugs – even prescribed medications that are seemingly safe to take.
Vulnerability to this disease varies and is based on differing factors. It can affect one person and pass another. It can take hold of one family member’s life, but make no impact on his brother’s. It can skip generations or show first signs in a family with no history of addiction present. Primary factors are genetics (family history of addiction), age of first use, environment and existing mental health problems. Secondary factors may include: childhood experiences (trauma, abuse, neglect and grief), teenage tobacco, alcohol and/or drug use, stress, fatigue, lack of coping skills, social/peer pressure, and poor self image. These factors could affect any one of us, right? But, some people, even with some of these factors, still do not become addicted when drinking or using occasionally or even moderately. But, some do.
Some people can’t afford to test the waters with one glass of wine or doubling up on their prescribed medication. Most people that have completed a treatment program know that they can no longer drink or use drugs in moderation. They have to find other ways to enjoy life instead of relying on mind-altering substances to “enhance” their life experiences. They have made the choice to give up alcohol and/or drugs forever. They have learned tools to use in order to gain the coping skills, the discipline, the structure, and the education necessary to make that choice not to use.
It is hard to determine how the disease of addiction will affect someone or whose life it will consume. However, when you know the factors involved that may predispose someone to this disease, we can begin to make choices that eliminate the risks for addiction. One can choose not to drink in college if their father was an alcoholic. A teenager already using tobacco may make a wise choice not to try pot knowing that it has the potential risk for being a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs. A woman recovering from back surgery may choose not to double up on her pain medication when she is aware that her grandmother had psychiatric illnesses that caused her to over-medicate. The will power and courage to understand this disease and to make the best decisions based on your own personal factors comes into play long before the addiction takes hold.
So, the big answer is … be smart not strong. Be aware and mindful of potential risks – take inventory of red flags, signs and symptoms, and negative consequences.