There are many differing opinions about addiction and the reasons why people become addicts. Some people view addiction as a moral transgression, others as a weakness. However, more and more professionals are realising that addiction is an illness and, in the case of alcoholism (and alcohol is merely a drug in liquid form), is recognised by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as exactly that.
This article is written by Simon Leigh MSc, FDAP, UKRC Registered Independent Counsellor specializing in the treatment of Addictive Disorders.
In fact, the whole American culture surrounding the disease and treatment of addiction is so diametrically opposed to the denial and shame of the British population that I wonder how long it will take for us to catch up.
Misconceptions about addiction
There are also misconceptions about which addictions are worse than others as well as some which should not really be taken seriously at all. For example, many people will view heroin addiction far more gravely than say an addiction to cannabis even though they are both illegal drugs.
Yet the risks of using heroin are greater than smoking cannabis because there are the added dangers of accidental overdose and the consequences of sharing needles (contracting HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis etc) but the emotional pain and suffering of the cannabis user can be just as great as the Class A drug user often resulting in failed marriages, careers and relationships as well as severe depression and even suicide.
This is not to mention the growing evidence providing a positive correlation between the consumption of cannabis and mental illness including psychosis and schizophrenia.
Conversely, excessive drinking can actually be revered in certain circles as alcohol is legal and therefore socially acceptable. Sex addiction is often mocked as a “non-addiction” but suddenly a lot of people are waking up to the dangers of gambling due to the recent poker epidemic hitting our screens and the ease of on-line betting. All of these addictions are basically the same – the problem is not the substance or behaviour that people are addicted to but the illness itself. If, for example, an alcoholic was to simply abstain from drinking alcohol, there is a very high probability that they will cross-addict to using a different substance or behaviour (for example drugs or gambling).
Addiction is an illness
Let’s get some facts straight. Addiction IS an illness. It affects approximately one in ten people in this country. Whether someone is addicted to a substance (drugs or alcohol), behaviour (sex, gambling, shopping, relationships, self-harm etc) or food (over-eating, anorexia or bulimia) it is a progressive illness and must be taken seriously and treated properly. As with any other illness, it does not discriminate between age, gender, intelligence, class, religious beliefs or race.
It is a mental condition that renders the user powerless over their behaviour and is not simply a matter of will power. There is a school of thought that suggests that addicts have an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain which prevent them from processing their feelings appropriately. Consequently, they turn to a substance or behaviour to “medicate” themselves as they lack the coping mechanisms that the rest of society take for granted. Furthermore, addiction is an illness that affects whole families. That is not to say that every member of the family is an addict, but that the destructive behaviour of the addicted member will have a negative impact on those around them.
Addiction stigma in the UK
However, there seems to be a disproportionate level of shame and secrecy surrounding addiction in the UK. In my experience people will often talk about how their son, daughter, husband or wife suffers from illnesses such as diabetes or cancer but are too ashamed to admit that a member of their family suffers from addiction for fear of what others may think. Consequently, this not only prevents the suffering addict from receiving the help that they need but reinforces the unimaginable sense of shame that they already feel about themselves.
When dealing with addiction there are some essential questions which need answering namely:
With regard to available treatments there are a number of trained specialist addiction counsellors who offer both individual and group therapy. In addition there are numerous treatment centres (rehabs) across the country and abroad. Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous etc are also extremely important resources and are free of charge. However, there are some things to consider when seeking help.
Firstly, an addiction “rock bottom” can very often appear identical to clinical depression and, as such, many GPs frequently prescribe anti-depressants. This is, in my opinion, often the wrong approach when tackling addiction. Apart from giving an addictive drug to an addict, it is merely masking the underlying problems rather than addressing them and either the addict stays on anti-depressants for years or goes back to using some other addictive substance or behaviour when the supply of medication is removed. This is usually not the fault of the prescribing GP but a result of only being shown the presenting symptoms and not being made aware of the history of addiction.