Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (for example, alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (such as gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
The word addiction is used in several different ways. One definition describes physical addiction. This is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so that drug no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). An alcoholic walking into a bar, for instance, will feel an extra pull to have a drink because of these cues.
However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People commonly use drugs, gamble, or shop compulsively in reaction to stress, whether or not they have a physical addiction. Since these addictions are not based on drug or brain effects, they can account for why people frequently switch addictive actions from one drug to a completely different kind of drug, or even to a non-drug behavior. The focus of the addiction isn't what matters; it's the need to take action under certain kinds of stress.
Some clients notice that certain emotional states underpin their use of substances or compulsive behaviour. Work stress and relationship difficulties are often cited as reasons why people medicate with drink or drugs or gambling or compulsive spending. Sometimes the reasons are rooted in childhood, with feelings such as low self-worth, depression or anxiety being noted.
Whatever the behaviour or behaviours, and the reasons underneath, it is important to seek help from a practitioner who understands the complicated nature of addiction and the shame and secrecy surrounding the condition.
Family members and Alcoholism/Addiction
Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family's unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics.
Living with addiction can put family members under unusual stress. Normal routines are constantly being interrupted by unexpected or even frightening kinds of experiences that are part of living with alcohol and drug use. The alcohol or drug user as well as family members may bend, manipulate and deny reality in their attempt to maintain a family order that they experience as gradually slipping away. The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control. Little things become big and big things get minimized as pain is denied and slips out sideways.
Support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are available for the friends and family of people suffering from addiction (alcohol and drugs, respectively). While these support services are important for making connections with others who may be trying to navigate day-to-day life with addiction in the family, so is seeking professional therapy. Individual therapy for each family member, not just the addict, is important for the mental health of both the addict's spouse or partner and children, and meeting with a therapist as a family can help improve communication among family members, rebalance the family dynamic and give family members a safe environment to express their anger, fear and other concerns.
Some clients are unconsciously drawn to form romantic relationships with addicts or alcoholics. As they notice their own self-esteem diminish, the more he or she will compromise their own needs and wants in a mis-guided attempt to maintain the relationship.
Such cycles are painful and destructive. Therapy with an expert who understands some of the underlying dynamics which pre-dispose individuals to such relationships, can help break harmful patterns.