-- Anonymous October 2013
Addiction is a challenge to overcome. There is a reason why it can take multiple attempts to kick an addiction. You hear about people who stopped smoking cigarettes cold turkey, or conquer an addiction after (re)committing to their faith. These stories happen, but more common is the personal struggle and loss of what is important in life due to an addiction. How do you handle someone struggling with addiction? First, let's understand the underlying process of addiction.
For me, all addictions have the same psychological underpinnings. Whether we are talking drugs, alcohol, porn, or any other vice, they all have the same root. Addiction is a mixture of a biological predisposition + a void in one's life + inadequate and inefficient coping skills and resources. Before I say more about this addiction mixture, there is a great presentation on TED Talk about addiction and the brain. It's a an excellent resource.
Biological predisposition. I believe people have a predisposition to everything. Whether it's depression, obesity, or artistic ability. There is a potential within us for anything. Factors (e.g., environmental, family, biological) in our lives moderate the maturation and expression of a predisposition. These factors over time can lead to a sensitivity and affinity to certain predispositions.
Personal void. Every person I have worked with who is struggling with addiction has a personal void. Whether it's a chaotic childhood, loneliness, attachment issues, or a failure to manage daily stress, there is a glaring void in their lives. An addiction serves two purposes: 1) it superficially fills the void and 2) it pushes personal inadequacies out of consciousness, for that moment.
Ineffective coping skills. You can argue that any psychological issue is the result of having limited coping skills. With addiction, the same applies. The specific, unhealthy behavior gains an addictive quality because it is helping the person cope with something that had been unmanageable. This is what makes addiction so hard to overcome, it's difficult to let go of an effective coping mechanism, even if it's unhealthy. A major component of addiction treatment is understanding triggers and how to cope with these stressors..
So how do you talk to someone with an addiction?
In a previous post, I wrote about how to have a difficult conversation with someone you love. Similar rules apply to addiction, but there are differences.
- Speak gently and non-critically. You are talking to someone with limited coping skills and an inability to manage daily life. Keep the stress level low.
- Be consistent and honest. You don't have to be critical to say the person's choices have negatively impacted their life and yours.
- Speak with love. Make sure it is clear that you are approaching them out of love. “I'm talking to you about this because I love and care about you.”
- Ask for honesty. It may not work, but it's worthwhile to see if the person is in denial or wants help.
- Listen. Allow the person to talk. Ask questions that are open-ended, that allow for dialogue.
- Have resources ready, and be prepared. If the person has a specific addiction, do some research and see what supports are available in the area.
- Establish boundaries by taking care of yourself. Support the person, but not at the expense of you. This will be the first exercise for the person to learn about healthy boundaries.
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