Insights After Reporting on Addiction for 3.5 Years

I felt that paradox of shock and recognition that shadows the human experience of time when I realized I had been writing and researching on addiction for Handshake Media, Inc. for 3.5 years.

Laurel Sindewald waves to leave at Maia Szalavitz's visit to Blacksburg, VA

Anne Giles and I have worked diligently together on investigating and reporting on addiction. I have felt like a detective, or a mythbuster. Anne, in her work as an addictions treatment advocate, would come across a new concept or quandary, or a common belief about addiction, and she would task me with investigating. While researching and writing for Handshake Media, I have authored 26 articles on addiction and addictions treatment. After hundreds of hours of research over the past 3.5 years, Anne asked me these questions.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a disorder or disease of the brain, of varying severity, that compromises willpower and executive functions, sensitizes the brain’s stress system, and desensitizes the reward system. Addiction is defined by a person’s inability to stop a behavior despite negative consequences.

What causes addiction?

Addiction happens when a combination of risk factors (e.g., genetics, past trauma, attachment style, co-occurring disorders, and a poor socioeconomic support system) coincide with a person’s use of substances or behaviors regularly to cope with stressful situations in place of other emotion regulation strategies.

What treats addiction?

Each person requires a personalized treatment plan based on his or her individual situation, developed in consultation with his or her doctor. Three main components can be listed, however, that are often helpful for most people most of the time for recovery from addiction.

  1. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). Foremost, medications are available that directly or indirectly treat the brain problems that develop with addiction. Counseling is not required for treatment of addiction with medications to be effective.
  2. Individual or Group Counseling. Adherence to medical treatment in general averages to around 50%, and addiction is likely no exception. Counseling may help people stick with a treatment plan, and to meet their abstinence or harm-reduction goals. People with substance use disorders (the medical term for addiction) may also need assistance with developing new emotion regulation skills and strategies to replace the behaviors and/or substances they previously used when stressed. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are two treatment options available, and may be especially helpful for people with co-occurring disorders. We don’t know whether counseling directly affects the changes in the brain resulting from addiction, but by supporting abstinence or harm reduction, counseling may play an important part in indirectly affecting those brain changes over time.
  3. Recovery Support Services (RSS). RSS is not actually treatment, but may be helpful in supporting people in recovery. Some people find support groups (also known as Mutual Help Groups or MHGs) to be helpful for social support in building a new recovery lifestyle. While 12-step groups are the most common support groups available, they are not for everyone, and they are not the only option. SMART Recovery is a secular, CBT-based support group teaching concrete skill sets to help people reduce or stop any kind of behavior. RSS is not limited to MHGs, however, and may include legal, housing, or nutritional assistance, and help with dependent care.

Is addiction a condition that would benefit from healing? Can it be healed?

Yes, addiction is a condition that benefits from healing because there are brain changes involved that require medications to stabilize, and eventually alter them. The term “healing” also implies an element of long-term care, which is helpful because the brain changes involved in addiction happened over time, and new changes also require time.

Addiction can be healed, and remission is considered stable after 5 years. Much as a habit or learned behavior can eventually be changed, an addiction can be changed too, but requires a deal of time and patience with mulligans and suffering. The brain networks of connection will always be there (one never forgets how to ride a bike or drive a car), but over time other networks will be stronger or will predominate.

Why do some people with addiction behave badly?

I believe people with addictions who behave badly are suffering – in pain – and do not know how to cope with that pain or adequately express it. When they use a substance, their ability to make decisions is further compromised and they are unable to stop or control the behavior. As addiction progresses, they lose more executive function in the brain and are unable to stop or control behavior, whether they are presently using the drug or not.

What might prevent people with addiction who behave badly from doing so again?

I think that first of all, people with addiction require a medical treatment plan for a brain condition involving medication and counseling as individually required. All co-occurring disorders must also be treated appropriately, and past trauma if in evidence. People with addiction may need help with an action plan to regulate emotion when they are upset, instead of using. Many people may require socioeconomic support, legal defense, and job training to have better lives in recovery.

I believe people with addiction also need compassion and forgiveness from those they love, even if harm has been done. Tough love is not helpful, and may worsen a person’s addiction. If a person is constantly focused on repenting for past deeds or making amends, how can he or she focus on the full-time self-care required to prevent a relapse, much less to build a new life worth living? I believe forgiveness frees a person to stop self-punishment for past actions, and to instead practice self-love and self-care.

I know that my position of compassion for people with substance use disorders is fairly uncommon, because unfortunately, addiction often has concussive effects on families and communities for generations. People who are close to people with addictions may be physically or emotionally abused, stolen from, cheated on, molested, raped, or otherwise traumatized – trust broken. People are suffering who did their best to help their loved ones with addiction, over and over, and yet those loved ones behaved incomprehensibly, cruelly, despite all efforts.

The elephant in the room of addiction is raw suffering, and hopeless defeat.

My position comes from these years of research, and hard-won experience, knowing and loving people with one or more addictions who hurt me or other people I love. Yet, while my personal experience tallies with the research I’ve done, it’s the research that I rely on when I report on addiction. Good research is based on careful methodology, transparency about funding and potential bias, and conservative conclusions from carefully-analyzed data. The research I have reviewed, compiled, and reported on pulls together information about hundreds of thousands of cases of addiction. Any experiences I have are singular data points, and only helpful when viewed as a very small, biased sample of the whole, complex picture.

So, what do I advocate after 3.5 years of research and reporting no addiction?

I strongly advocate compassionate delivery of evidence-based treatment, a focus on harm reduction rather than abstinence, dollars allocated toward treatment and not punishment or incarceration, and love-love for people with addiction—never tough-love.

Photo from Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia

Speak Your Mind