Addiction is often misunderstood, mostly because the majority of us don’t really know the underlying reasons of what causes addiction. It’s a common belief that addiction happens when a person uses drugs, alcohol, etc. on a regular basis, that person will develop a physical dependency, and when cut off, will experience painful withdrawal. However, that definition doesn’t paint the whole picture. Yes, addiction can create physical dependencies but the act itself, whether it’s drinking or doing drugs (even if done repeatedly), isn’t what causes addiction – it’s caused by learned behavior.
In Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz, a different outlook is presented on addiction. Instead of addiction being seen as a moral or personality shortcoming, it should be looked at as a sort of learning disorder. The truth is, the vast majority of people who drink alcohol or do drugs don’t become addicts. Addiction happens when a person “learns” that a substance helps them cope or makes them feel good. Pain, whether it’s from unresolved past trauma or depression and anxiety, is much more likely to be the root of addiction than the alcohol or drugs alone.
Due to misconceptions about addiction, different viewpoints have sprouted on how to treat it – one of the more popular ones being that an addict must “hit rock bottom” to get better. This idea of “rock bottom,” however, is a pseudo-scientific concept which many treatment programs have been based on. The problem with this idea is that there are many addicts who don’t hit rock bottom (e.g. they’ve maintained their jobs, personal relationships, etc.) yet they’ve been able to quit their addiction and maintain sobriety.
Hitting rock bottom as a foundation for treatment can in fact be dangerous. For example, there have been cases in recent history of where this concept was used by treatment programs to cut off addicts from loved ones, or in some egregious cases humiliate and degrade the addict, in an effort to break them so they’ll be more willing to change. In the end, this only caused unnecessary pain and anguish with little to no results to show for it.
Szalavitz claims in her book that hitting rock bottom and other pseudo-scientific practices are largely used to marginalize addicts, to set them apart and humiliate them. Addicts, however, are more likely to recover when they still have connections – not when they are separated from the people and things that they love. Furthermore, isolation can cause more pain which feeds into their addiction as a way to cope.
That is why we make it part of our mission to include the support of loved ones in our treatment programs because we’ve seen that the old way of cutting off addicts as “tough love” often doesn’t work in the long run. Part of being human is craving connection, and when we deny connections to addicts, they will seek that connection elsewhere through drugs, alcohol, or whatever. Imagine what would happen if we gave addicts compassion and support instead of isolation and judgment – lives would truly change for the better.