Why a person gets addicted to drugs: The humanness of addiction

Holly Parker, Ph.D. places addiction in a larger human context, calling for compassion, understanding, and support. Her argument? The stigma linked to substance addiction is a form of social denial about just how human it is to turn to alcohol and drugs to steer clear of what hurts. More here.

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By Holly Parker, Ph.D.

Advancing towards the light

As a psychologist, people grant me the awe-inspiring gift of letting me into their inner world where I walk alongside them as they take on what stings, saddens, and constrains. Certainly, there are sundry moments of laughter, celebration, joy, and simple amusement, but hardship hovers like twilight. And the journey’s aim is to advance toward daybreak.

In the resolute words of Winston Churchill,

“When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

We keep going…

But, what about the forms of social and inner stigma that people face when struggling with drug or alcohol problems? This article highlights how humans are united in both their efforts to ward off emotional pain as well as their use of unhealthy coping tools for that purpose (at least at times), with alcohol and other drugs being one such device.

Continue reading to learn how to think about addiction in a more humane way. At the end, feel free to send us your questions. We try to answer or respond to all comments personally and promptly.

Addiction is a widespread problem

Put most simply, addiction is an extremely widespread problem. One of the hells that humans live is the consuming grip of alcohol and other drugs. Over my work and life, I’ve known, connected with, and helped a number of people who’ve struggled with their relationship to substances. Right here in New England, an opioid epidemic is robbing hundreds of people of their lives, prompting measures to expand treatment availability and reduce stigma.

Thank goodness.

Judgment turns people against themselves

Stigma smears people. When we stigmatize people we transform them, as the sociologist Erving Goffman once said,

“…from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one.”

And sadly, stigma customarily targets people grappling with alcohol or other drugs. Examples of common perceptions and reactions include:

  • Substance dependence is a character defect.
  • It’s not safe to be around people with a substance addiction.
  • It’s best to stay away from people who have a problem with drug or alcohol use.

Individuals can also turn stigma inward on themselves. I’ve heard exceedingly good people talk about themselves in incredibly bad, judgmental, disparaging ways because of their addiction. Phrases such as:

  • “I’m weak.”
  • “I’m messed up.”
  • “I’m not normal.”
  • “There’s something wrong with me.”
  • “Why can’t I drink like a normal person?”

… these ideas float in the air at some point or other.

Essentially, stigma is a destructive and tragic epidemic in itself, burdening and sapping people in its wake. It’s linked to discrimination, diminished health and wellness, and lowered odds of reaching out for help.

And it also reflects a collective denial of one crucial truth: People who struggle with alcohol or other drugs are no different from anyone else. The self-protective attempt to evade psychological pain is one that all humans share.

Why addiction is a human adaptation

It’s instinctive to recoil from what hurts. Touch a hot stove and you’ll get burned. The next go around, you’ll don oven mitts if you’ve got a glimmer of self-preservation. And just as we attempt to guard ourselves physically, it’s natural that we strive to protect ourselves psychologically as well.

In fact, we need the ability to turn down the dial on what emotionally sears us. It’s the mental equivalent of oven mitts. Sure, we don’t want to turn down the dial all of the time, just like we wouldn’t want to perpetually wear oven mitts. But we need to be capable of turning down the dial, and we have varied ways of doing it. Some ways are healthy, other less so. Most of us have a blend of both. For example, we humans can evade life’s emotional hot stoves through:

  • sex
  • work
  • exercise
  • the internet
  • gaming
  • binge TV-watching

Some tactics even get popular names. “Stress eating” and “retail therapy” might ring a bell.

Moreover, people without substance use difficulties also use alcohol and other drugs to cope. The phrase “I need a drink” is culturally well-known. Here are some sobering stats:

– Virtually all of us (90%) in the United States have had a drink.
– Within the last month, 25% of us have binged on alcohol.
– And 7% of us heavily drank.
– By the time we’re 25, almost 65% of us have tried an illegal narcotic, and about a quarter of us have taken opioids for non-medicinal reasons.

People who wrestle with substance use aren’t weak, hazardous, or somehow different from other folks. We’re all united in the well-intentioned, self-protective, human endeavor to ease distress when it becomes too weighty. Virtually all of us have moments when our efforts take a less than healthful turn. And when it comes to inherently addictive substances, the odds of getting stuck on an unhealthy path are arguably greater.

Support and understanding instead of social stigma

Not only is stigma toward people with substance use problems damaging, it embodies social denial of the humanness of addiction and substance misuse.

Alcohol and other drugs are a widespread method of turning down the dial, as are other unhealthy strategies that people lean on. The path toward troubles with substance use is complex but ultimately understandable, and people touched by it deserve empathy, kindness, and support. In the end, as we strive to buffer ourselves along the sometimes rugged road of life, we’re all traveling together.

And we keep going…

Humanness of addiction questions

What’s your standpoint on the social stigmatization of addicted individuals? Please feel free to post your questions and personal experiences regarding addiction stigma in the designated section at the end of the page. We value your feedback and try to provide a personal and prompt response to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to your questions, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

About the Author: Holly Parker, Ph.D., is author of “When Reality Bites: How Denial Helps and What to Do When it Hurts”, Hazelden Publishing. She is a psychology lecturer at Harvard University and an associate director of training at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass. She received her doctorate in experimental psychopathology from Harvard University and subsequently sought additional training and accreditation in clinical psychology.
© 2016, Holly Parker, Ph.D.


Reference Sources: SAMHSA: Mental and Substance Use Disorders
BostonGlobe: Baker, health chief detail plans for opioid fight
PubMed: Stigma predicts residential treatment length for substance use disorder
PubMed: The stigma of alcohol dependence compared with other mental disorders: a review of population studies
Research Gate: Anxiety, bulimia, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and schizophrenia: what do you think about their aetiology, dangerousness, social distance, and treatment? A latent class analysis approach
PubMed: Stigma, prejudice, discrimination and health
Research Gate: Stigma, discrimination and the health of illicit drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 88(2), 188-196
Oxford Journals: Stigma and Treatment for Alcohol Disorders in the United States
NIH: Alcohol Facts and Statistics
Monitoring the Future: National survey results on drug use, 1975 – 2010
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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