Addiction- It’s an Illness

Being the daughter of an alcoholic, it was a bitter pill to swallow. It seemed to me that she was making a CHOICE to drink her life away and leave me behind in the process, but during my recovery of Bipolar Disorder, I learned quite the opposite. Addiction and alcoholism ARE mental disorders themselves and should be treated as such. It is easy to blame the person that is using as being irresponsible. It is easy to think that all they have to do is put down their drugs and alcohol and everything will be fine, but truth be told, it isn’t quite that easy. Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder and addiction are brain disorders in themselves and should be treated as such. The stigma that follows these specific disorders is troubling, especially since so many people cannot put themselves in the shoes of an addict.

According to the National Institue of Drug Abuse, addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain – they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs. The National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse says alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using it. Addiction is a brain disease, pure and simple and while the initial decision to use drugs or alcohol may be a choice, a person simply doesn’t know if they will succumb to one of these brain diseases or if they will simply be able to “walk away”.

It may be simple to some. Just “don’t do it”. However, there are common risk factors that can lead to addiction or alcohol abuse according to the National Institue of Drug Abuse. Risk factors can include; aggressive behavior in childhood, lack of parental supervision, poor social skills, drug experimentation, availability of drugs at school, and community poverty. With that being said, if you look at that risk factor chart, there are things one can do to try to prevent addiction and they include anything from good self-control to community pride. There are ways to prevent children from falling victim to addiction and they largely include education programs. According to the National Institue of Drug Abuse, there is a genetic factor as well. Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.

It is easy to judge what you do not understand. I am proof of that. I judged my mom for years. I never understood her disease, her pain. On top of the fact that she was an alcoholic, she suffered from other mental illness as many people do. In 2014, 20.2 million adults in the U.S. had a substance abuse disorder and 7.9 million had both a substance abuse disorder and another mental illness according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There is some debate whether which one causes the other or if they occur together.  There are a lot of people that “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol because they simply do not understand what is going on in their brains or the stigma of mental illness keeps them shamed and afraid to seek help. Most think that their addiction is a sign of weakness and that it is their own fault. They stigmatize themselves and make it almost impossible to crawl out of the depths of addiction.

There is much, much more research I could do on the matter, but the bottom line is an addiction is a mental health issue and should be treated as such. If you know someone or are someone that is struggling with addiction or alcoholism it IS possible to get treatment and help. You are not alone. There are people that understand that it is a disease and are willing to help or just lend an ear to listen. I sometimes wish I would have taken my mom’s alcoholism more seriously. I wish I had known then what I know now. I have so much resentment from my childhood years that had I known all this, the resentment might not be so strong. She still made her own choices and I am proud to say that by the end of her life she was free of her addiction. Cancer had been her “saving grace” so to speak in that regard. Just remember, you don’t always know what another person is going through and before you even begin to make a judgment, think twice. As for my mom, I miss you every day and I know the demons you struggled with were strong. I should have been there for you just as much as I wish you were there for me. In the end, you won. You ended up being one of the strongest women I’ve ever known in my life and I will forever find motivation in that.

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