There is No “ADDICT” in Addiction
Huh? Yes, the words “addict” and “alcoholic” are misnomers. Then what do we call people who have substance abuse issues…they are simply “PEOPLE with substance abuse issues”. Separating the person from addictive behaviors is a key perspective to have in anyone’s recovery.
Having abused alcohol, attending thousands of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and saying, “Hi, I’m Dennis and I’m an alcoholic” seemed like the right thing to do because I didn’t know any better. Now, it’s akin to saying “I’m Dennis, and I’m an high blood pressure-aholic”. It’s a condition that I manage through medicines, exercise and diet, but it doesn’t define who I am. So why should I have to label myself as an alcoholic to be accepted in the recovery community – or worse, label another individual as an addict or alcoholic.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study jointly conducted from 1995-1997 by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, showed ACEs are common. Almost 2/3rds of participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. The ACE score, a total sum of the various categories of ACEs, was used to assess cumulative childhood stress. Study findings repeatedly revealed a relationship between the more ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes across the course of life – including addictive behaviors. The greater the number the adverse events, the greater the likelihood of addiction and other unhealthy behaviors in adulthood.
Having a father who was a drinker and was physically and emotionally abusive during my childhood, was something I hid from everyone – including my wife, children and friends. Trauma – especially in childhood – is a strong predictor of addictive behaviors in adulthood. So, a more accurate statement would be, “I’m Dennis, who experienced childhood trauma and used substances to deal with this pain”. Having talked to hundreds of people in active addiction and those in recovery – most will admit to unresolved traumas.
While I was in treatment, there were a handful of “old guys” who abused alcohol, but I was stunned by the number of young men ages 20-29 who had been in treatment four, six, ten, fifteen times for opiate and heroin addiction. Having four children in this age range, I wanted to understand the lure of heroin, why these young men – many of which grew up in caring, loving homes – were using heroin and other substances? The trauma or ACE test didn’t seem to apply to them. Why was that? The bottom line was these young men lacked purpose and meaning in their lives. In reality, their parents took care of everything. These men didn’t have any real responsibility and were drifting through life knowing mom and dad would take care of them. And these frustrated parents, who didn’t understand why their kids were using, just kept putting them in one treatment program after another – hoping that this time, their child would “get it” and stop using substances – as any parent would hope.
Addictive behavior is a complex issue affecting brain chemistry, physical and emotional health, and the choices that people make while in active addiction. And every person is unique. We come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, have unique childhood experiences – many of us with trauma – some of us with no significant traumatic events that we can identify. But we do have some things in common. The first is that we tend to be more sensitive than others (which may explain why one sibling may exhibit addictive behaviors and others do not). And none of us growing up thought, “I want to abuse substances or have an addictive habit control my life”.
So why should we label ourselves as “addicts” or “alcoholics”? Because it’s convenient. Because people don’t understand that addictive behaviors are a symptom of something else. Labeling is ingrained in our culture, many times unconsciously. And it’s just easier to throw people into a category than to really understand why they have behaviors we don’t understand.
While I was in treatment, attendance of 12-Step meetings was mandatory. Having spent ten years in A.A., the language used simply no longer resonated with me. When introducing myself, I want to say, “I’m Dennis whose essence is a spiritual being having a human experience. This human experience is being a dad, son, brother, husband, partner, and an entrepreneur. And part of my human experience is dealing with childhood traumas and using alcohol to escape the root causes of that pain that I refused to look at.”
When I attend an A.A. meeting, there is a quote from Chapter 5 of the Big Book which is often read which states, “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.” This verbiage is like nails on a blackboard. Judgement, condemnation and presumed victimization.
How does this serve anyone who is trying their hardest to become sober…and relapsing or having multiple relapses reflect on their character? RECOVERY IS HARD WORK – IT IS NOT SIMPLE. Recovery is a journey. Slips or relapses are part of the recovery journey. Who are we to judge another? Have we walked in their shoes? Do we know the pain of unhealed traumas? Do we know that this person may be lost, who may not know their purpose or meaning in life?
We are people, just like those who do not have addictive behaviors – so does labeling or judging ourselves or another by using the term “addict” or “alcoholic” serve us or them? No.
What does serve us is separating the person from the addictive behavior – and this distinction is hugely important. The shame and guilt of someone who is in active addiction, or is struggling in recovery, is a leading cause of person continuing in the addiction cycle. This person punishes themselves enough, not only through their usage, but dwelling on the underlying guilt and shame.
The simple questions are: Does continuing our addictive behaviors serve us? Is it worth the pain and suffering we inflict on ourselves, our family and friends who worry about us? Is it worth throwing away our long-term happiness? Are we willing to recognize that our usage is a symptom of something else…and are we willing to do the work to uncover the root causes of our pain and discomfort?
By separating the person and addictive behavior helps us, and those we love, pave the way toward happiness and gives the spirit fertile ground in which to appreciate, explore, and expand on the strengths we already possess – to flourish – and to fulfill our greatest potential.
Dennis Hofmaier, MBA, Founder of Higher Path Sober Living. Dennis began HPL after his own experience with recovery from alcohol, and the lack of follow-up that met his own personal needs. From that experience, HPL was created with professionals who believe in individual-based recovery. Dennis is a certified SMART Recovery facilitator.