As families across the nation prepare for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, not every family is in a festive spirit. They are remembering Thanksgiving, when at gatherings from east to west, holiday meals that were meant to be filled with gratitude and togetherness were shattered by the specter of addiction. Whether it was the aunt who passed out in the upstairs bathroom, the cousin who started a fight during the family football game, or the child who never made it to the meal at all, holidays were marred by addiction. They want the upcoming holidays to be different, but doubt they will be.
I will get calls over the next weeks begging for a space in the treatment center I founded and run. I will be asked to “make it better” so that Christmas and New Year’s will be true celebrations – of family, recovery, and transformed lives. I will hear about men and women who love drink or drugs more than their families. I will be told stories of the great “party days” that have degenerated into blackouts, accidents, and loss of health. In almost all cases, I will hear from families who love their uncles, cousins, parents, and children, but don’t have the least bit of understanding about what addiction is or how it is treated – and this is where we have failed as addiction treatment professionals.
In the last few weeks, a story about a research study conducted across several universities in the United Kingdom has been picked up by news agencies around the world. This study shows that a single gene may be to blame for an inability to limit drinking in mice. This report is being heralded in the popular press as a breakthrough for addiction treatment. Why? Because if a single gene was responsible for addiction and that gene could be identified, then addiction might be relatively easy to treat. But the truth is that addiction is a very complicated disorder. There are more than three dozen genes that have been identified as related to addiction and the relationships between these genes are still unclear. There is no “magic bullet” to “cure” addiction.
Perhaps more important is something that addicts have known for a very long time – that drinking or drugs are not really the problem with addiction. Yes, that’s right. Alcohol doesn’t “cause” alcoholism. There’s an adage in Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “If drinking was my problem, when I quit drinking, I shouldn’t have had any more problems,” – but addicts do have problems long after they quit drinking or using and return to drinking or using when those problems persist. Relapse, in medical circles, is considered almost inevitable. This is because the drug to which a person is addicted is only the symptom of the real problem. In order for anyone to recover from addiction long-term, the underlying issues that caused a person to reach for alcohol or drugs must be dealt with. That is the key to true addiction recovery.
The Scottish Drugs Forum just reported the results of a study and concluded that treating people for the traumatic or painful life situations that caused them to depend on alcohol or drugs to feel better is the most effective form of treatment available. This research confirms what my addiction researcher and I wrote about in our book on addiction recovery – that in order for long-term recovery to be possible, the archaic pain that fuels an addiction must be resolved. Addiction, while it certainly has genetic influences, is at its core a psychological response to pain. To be effectively treated, it must be treated as such. Even on a biological level, addicts who are profoundly addicted – those who need to use daily/multiple times per day – are not using because they “like drinking more than their families” or are “choosing to destroy their lives” – but because they are making an effort to keep pain at bay. Addicts do not have the capacity to deal with the pain in their lives. Understanding this is the foundation to providing quality addiction treatment.
If your loved suffers from addiction, yes, get him or her help before another holiday comes and goes – but know what you’re looking for in an addiction treatment program. To get your loved one real and lasting help, you must know what addiction is at its core, a problem of pain, and recovery is a turn toward hope.