Although the spotlight of drug addiction is sometimes shined on celebrities, drug and alcohol abuse spans beyond Hollywood—families across America and around the globe are struggling with this cunning, baffling and incredibly powerful disease.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol is the cause of the death of more than 100,000 Americans every year.
Scientific research seems to have settled the longstanding debate: addiction is a disease of the brain and not a matter of willpower (or lack thereof). It doesn't discriminate—men and women from all ages and walks of life can become chemically dependent.
"Addiction is the number one problem in our society today," says Jim Seckman, MAC, CACII, CCS, clinical director of MARR, Inc. a drug and alcohol rehab center in Doraville. "So many societal problems are either the direct or indirect result of addiction: the high cost of medical care, overwhelmed legal systems, pornography, child and spousal abuse, inundated law enforcement, an increase in violent crimes, overcrowded jails and prisons and the breakdown of the family system."
Joel Bagley, CACI, executive director of Purple, Inc. in Lawrenceville, believes strongly in educating the community about addiction. "Because this disease is so commonplace, I believe that many people assume they will either know what to do when it affects them or dismiss it entirely as a moral issue," he says. "The sooner our communities can be educated about the truths of this disease, the sooner we can begin to heal millions of lives."
Understanding the Disease Model
The NIDA defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Alcohol and drugs alter the brain's reward system by flooding it with dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in behavior, cognition, movement, motivation, emotions, mood and sleep patterns. Stored by certain nerve cells, dopamine is released upon stimulation.
The brain guarantees life-sustaining activities are repeated by associating them with reward or pleasure. When the pleasure center is activated by drugs and/or alcohol, the brain recognizes that something significant is taking place and must be remembered. The brain then teaches the user to repeat the activity over and over again; however, the user begins to develop an increased tolerance in order to achieve the same euphoric effect.
Unlike natural activities that release dopamine—including food, sex and exercise—drugs and alcohol can release two to 10 times more, which is why they are highly addictive. "Because neurotransmitter levels are immediately altered, normal functioning of the brain is thrown off. This sets up a pattern of dependency just to try to establish normal levels," Seckman says. Over time, an addict's brain produces unusually low levels of dopamine, and he or she has a difficult time experiencing pleasure naturally.
Addiction: Mars vs. Venus
It's no surprise that men and women differ in many ways, but for years they were lumped in the same group when it came to addiction research. Women were believed to abuse substances in the same way men did, and it wasn't until the early 1990s that experts began to notice some stark differences. "Over the years, society has placed a stigma around chemically dependent women. Despite the advancements that have been made in the addiction treatment field, many women have a tendency to isolate even more due to the embarrassment and shame associated with their addiction," notes Jennifer Angier, CEO of Foundations Recovery Network in Roswell.
Not only are addicted men and women genetically predisposed for chemical dependence, but they use drugs and/or alcohol as a means of coping with life's challenges as well. In fact, some individuals suffer from co-occurring disorders (COD), such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, major depression and bipolar disorder. "While drugs and alcohol may have helped the person deal with the symptoms of his or her disorder early on, substance abuse eventually leads to its own problems and unmanageability," Seckman says. "This compounds the already-intricate set of issues with which the person is struggling."
Because women have an innate desire for connection, their addiction is closely linked to their relationships. "Men seem to compartmentalize their addiction, whereas substance abuse in women radically impacts every part of her life, including her identity, roles and relationships," Seckman says. According to the Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) Network, substance abuse in women is multifaceted and often results in violence, sexual abuse and a multitude of other complicated conditions. The disease is so fierce, in fact, that it has the ability to rob a woman of her maternal instinct.
This is certainly not meant to downplay addiction in men, however. From 2004 to 2005, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported in its National Survey on Drug Use and Health that men were nearly twice as likely to have a substance use disorder than their female counterparts. During active addiction, it is common for a man to endure more legal and job-related problems, and he is more prone to seek professional treatment since substance abuse in men is less stigmatized.
Impact on Health
Undoubtedly, addiction takes a toll on a person's health. "Perhaps it's the risk-taking behavior that accompanies substance abuse that has the most devastating effects on the body," Bagley says. "Driving under the influence, unprotected sex and the sharing of drug paraphernalia are just a few of the behaviors that put one's health at great risk."
Of course, the physiological factors vary between men and women in active addiction. Women experience greater damage (i.e. medical, psychological and emotional) earlier in their drinking and/or drugging careers; the disease of addiction in women can progress quickly and suddenly; and the mortality rate for chemically dependent women is 50 to 100 times higher than their male counterparts.
Addiction Treatment and Recovery
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction, like other chronic diseases, often includes cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, it is progressive and can cause disability or premature death. The good news is recovery from addiction is 100 percent possible. "The purpose of addiction treatment is to meet the addict where he or she is in life and provide the care that is needed," Angier says. "We want clients to trust the process—to help them see that there is hope."
Some facilities, such as MARR, offer gender-specific treatment to address the underlying issues behind addiction. "Because it is clear that men and women drink and/or use for different reasons, we believe gender-separate treatment programs are essential for lasting recovery," Seckman notes.
Community-based organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) help individuals who struggle with addiction achieve and maintain sobriety.
Recovery from addiction is a family affair. "We often say that addiction is a family disease, as family members develop unhealthy patterns of behavior in order to cope with the chaos, anxiety and shame that are produced by the addict," Seckman says. However, if the family receives treatment, the system will tend to stabilize.
Most rehab facilities incorporate family recovery into their programs. Additionally, community-based organizations like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon provide support for families affected by a loved one's addiction. "By the time the family embarks on their own recovery, they have endured months or years of dysfunctional behavior that has become normalized. It takes conscious effort and time to replace these toxic behaviors with healthy responses," Bagley notes.
Oftentimes, awareness is the best defense against addiction. "Nearly everyone has known—or will know—someone who struggles with chemical dependence," Angier adds. "By decreasing the stigma through education and seeking help from qualified professionals in the community, families can uncover the truth about this deadly disease. Today, they have a choice."
Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network – www.attcnetwork.org
Al-Anon/Alateen – www.al-anon.org / www.alateen.org
Alcoholics Anonymous – www.aa.org
American Society of Addiction Medicine – www.asam.org
Co-Dependents Anonymous – www.coda.org
Families Anonymous – www.familiesanonymous.org
Jennifer Angier, CEO, Foundations Recovery Network – www.foundationsrecoverynetwork.com
Jim Seckman, MAC, CACII, CCS, MARR, Inc. – www.marrinc.org
Joel Bagley, CACI , Purple, Inc. – www.purpletreatment.com
Nar-Anon – www.nar-anon.org
Narcotics Anonymous – www.na.org
National Institute of Drug Abuse – www.drugabuse.gov
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – www.samhsa.gov
Helpful Advice for Family and Friends
What you should know
Janet Fluker, LPC, director of the Family Recovery Center at MARR, offers tips for friends and family members of addicts.
1. Focus on taking care of yourself.
2. Get support from others. Lean on trustworthy people who can offer support, love and advice.
3. Set boundaries with the addict. Don't do anything that makes you uncomfortable.
4. Stop enabling. Don't do anything for the addict that he or she could do sober.
5. Safety first. If you find yourself or your children in an unsafe situation, leave and call 911.
6. Let go of control. Remember the three Cs: "I didn't cause it," "I can't control it," and "I can't cure it."
7. Live your own life. Go on vacation, enjoy time with friends—be the person you want to be.
8. Ask for help! You cannot begin the recovery process alone, so start by asking for support.