Substance use addiction will enter your life

Change your perspective now.

In our lifetime, addiction is likely to touch every one of us, either directly or indirectly. Almost 20 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017One out of every eight adults struggles with both alcohol and drug addiction simultaneously. While the COVID-19 pandemic eroded our normalcy, jobs, routines, outlets, and connections, alcohol use rose, and the opioid epidemic rages onward. If you don’t already know someone who struggles with alcohol or drug use, you will at some point in your life. It might even be you. 

Drugs have been around for centuries, but addiction is a more modern phenomenon. Medicines that have become more potent over time offer an antidote to an emotional intolerant culture that also provides increased isolation, inequality, and oppression. When in pain, we seek relief.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

The year 2020 has highlighted many of our country’s obvious systemic problems. Common among them is the flawed and harmful disparities is the unequal treatment between privileged and oppressed—our dysfunction highlights where we’re getting it wrong.

Misunderstood by outdated and yet-all-too-popular narratives, substance users are still shamed and judged for their attempt to cope. With different environments that offered outlets for their needs, relief through drug-use might not have been a necessary path. Yet trauma, oppression, and limited resources that predated drug use often go unnoted in incarceration sentences.  

Notably, shifting our understanding of trauma and substance use, a broad range of helpful or harmful coping skills might make more sense. What helps someone get out of warped cycles of pain and attempts to cope with that pain? Support. Sadly, addicts receive a lot of confusion, frustrations, and judgments, sometimes from people who love them. 

It’s not an easy feat to be in a relationship with or love someone abusing drugs or alcohol. Life can sometimes feel unsettling, frightening, and at times, enraging. Witnessing someone self-destruct or harm themselves can be excruciatingly painful, leaving you feeling helpless and afraid. In our confusion and anger, we naturally want to either deny that it’s real, try to make it stop, fix it, or avoid it. We turn away, and we shut down out of fear and misunderstanding. The emotional responses to loved ones’ addiction are valid, but they’re cannot be the focus solely. Drug use and the harmful behaviors are problematic, but so are the typical responses from people in relationship to them. 

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Relationships are like systems: different players have roles and interact with the other, causing a chain of reactions that either function well or don’t. Like in any organization, if your foundation is strong, navigating turbulent times isn’t stressful. However, if the foundation has flaws, as soon as something goes array, like a blown circuit, deadly virus, or substance use, problems inside the system will be apparent.

In play of addiction, the user and the drug often play the scapegoat. 
When problems surface in the relationship, and the addiction often gets the spotlight. It’s easy to blame the drugs for issues that were already there. Illicit drug use is an easy target to blame for many problems within our individual and collective systems. 

One client often talked to me about the pressure she felt to get out of her addiction primarily to calm her family’s anxiety about her heroin use. Meanwhile, other family members denied their unaddressed problematic relationships with different drugs; Highlighting her drug use deflects others’ issues. My client’s family distress left her preoccupied with anxiety and distracted from her treatment. She felt caught inside a family pattern where she prioritized others’ care, neglecting herself, and feeling like a failure. Heroin was the only place of relief from her mind that told her she was a shameful problem and utterly messing up her life.  

Ignoring the user’s need for compassionate support, the tension in the relationship causes friction and sometimes ruptures ties completely. The misunderstanding of drug addiction and problematic responses from the environment around drug use is the biggest tragedy. Both parties are often frightened and misaligned with what is helpful; both are harming their relationship. When in recovery, most substance users take much of the blame and responsibility for problems of the past, branding themselves with the given and shame-filled label “addict.”

Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

We are powerless to change relationships problems until we accept that all issues are co-created.  Society’s response mimics the family’s view of drug addiction, with an attempted war on drugs and glaringly unequal access and funding for treatment. These views and approaches, dangerously narrow and shallow, are not working. The movement to change our approach to how we respond to substance use is long overdue. 

One of the best things you can do to help change addiction is to open yourself to education about the complexities of the struggle. We don’t blame someone who gets diagnosed with cancer, cut off from them, makes attempts to control them, or demand they take responsibility before offering support. We treat their illness with kindness and attention, and we should provide the same approach to drug use addiction. 

In most of our life’s problems, our messy feelings are what usually get in our way. We can cause real harm when we act on those messy feelings, whether we use drugs to cope or react to people who use drugs. 

Never pausing to consider bolder questions, shift perspectives, and open to curiosity, relationships remain fractured, insight untapped, and nothing changes. We can’t fix something in a system until we know what’s not working. As a society, we have not been curious enough about substance use disorders or ask what the dysfunction is trying to communicate. As with most things in life, you can never understand anything until you get up close to it. Drug use or not, as a human, it will undoubtedly serve you to understand your messiness. 

There are massive numbers of humans who are hurting and turning to drugs for relief. They have suffered trauma, live with oppression, and lack primary resources like compassionate care and direct human support. They often don’t have outlets to express themselves. Where we invest our energies, we can grow and change. Curiosity and kindness is the fertilizer for helping addiction treatment, which could have a profound impact on the opioid epidemic. Longer-term perspective shifts around drug use and has the potential to foster a healthier and just society. Offering a compassionate perspective to anyone, whether they use drugs or not, our world would be a vastly different place. When substance use addiction enters your life, mind your preconceived notions, and stay open to all you don’t fully understand. It will matter more than you know.

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