Addiction can be scary, overwhelming, and confusing. It is a baffling and devastating thing to have something that can make you feel good also destroy your life from the inside out.
The vast majority of the time, addiction doesn't go away on its own. Untreated, it's extremely dangerous – even life-threatening. The leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. is drug overdose, specifically of prescription drugs and heroin. Drug overdose fatalities in the U.S. in 2014 reached an all-time high. There are nearly 90,000 alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. on a yearly basis, making it the fourth largest preventable cause of death in the country.
It's also important to understand that addiction is not a sign of weakness. Scientific associations classify addiction as a brain disease. Research supporting such a classification characterizes addiction as a chronic, relapsing-remitting illness. Such research demonstrates that those prone to addiction show abnormalities in different neural pathways in the brain.
How does addiction happen?
Addiction can start in any number of ways: drinking or taking drugs for fun, taking a drug try to help with a behavioral issue or other issue in life (i.e. taking a stimulant to focus better in school), experimentation (just trying something out), or because the drug was prescribed by a doctor.
Whatever the initial impetus, it's critical to understand that addiction can get out of control even when the initial drug or alcohol use was within your control. For example, while alcohol is still the most abused drug in the U.S., millions of people become addicted to prescription medications like OxyContin and Vicodin on a yearly basis. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that over the past two decades, there has been a 300% increase in the number of people dependent on prescription painkillers.
The physical effects of substance abuse are alarming. Organs vulnerable to damage include: the liver, heart, circulatory system, lungs, kidneys, intestinal tract, and brain. Birth defects are associated with the use of prescription opioids by pregnant women. Untreated alcoholism slows new blood cell production causes a decline in bone density. Drug and alcohol abuse is terrible for the human body.
Just as distressing is the mental and emotional impact of drug and alcohol addiction. Without drug or alcoholism treatment, relationships suffer. Difficulties arise with friends, spouses, and family members. Addicts often have or develop financial issues, as their spending on drugs or alcohol increases. Some drug and alcohol addicts eventually break laws and get into trouble with the law, frequently in an attempt to procure more of the substance (or due to their behavior while on it). Addicts often have problems at school, work, or in the home, since they often spend more and more time and energy getting more of the drug rather than handling life tasks.
It's common for addiction to eventually infiltrate every part of a person's life, until they are spinning out of control. The fact is, it doesn't always matter why an addiction has formed. What matters is getting the right help to stop.
What does treatment do?
Drug and alcohol rehab centers have been proven effective when it comes to ending addiction. This is especially when attending an alcohol or drug treatment center is followed up with ongoing support, such as substance abuse treatment therapy and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) outlines certain foundational elements of substance abuse treatment. These are:
- It must be easy to get treatment. Because drug and alcohol addicts are often wary or frightened of getting treatment (including going to rehab), it must be easy for them to get help when they're open to it. The sooner treatment is received, the higher the chances are of success.
- Addiction is a disease, not a choice. Repeated and prolonged drug or alcohol abuse can change the structure and function of the brain. Substance abuse treatment should take this into account (particularly with respect to relapse prevention).
- Treatment can be effective even if it isn't done voluntarily. Family interventions (including outlining consequences of the addict not seeking treatment) as well as intervention on the part of the criminal justice system or the addict's place of work, can still lead to effective substance abuse treatment and recovery. The most important thing is getting the person the right help as quickly as possible.
- Rehab and recovery should be tailored to the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to alcoholism and drug treatment, rehab and recovery. The more a rehab and substance abuse treatment program matches its interventions and services to the person's life and circumstances, the better the outcome will be.
- Substance abuse treatment must address more than just the drug or alcohol abuse itself. Rehab and substance abuse treatment should help with the person's overall life situation, not just addiction recovery. This means rehab and treatment must address medical issues, emotional and psychological needs, social life, and mental health, as well as individual circumstances involving the person's gender, culture (ethnicity), and age.
- Rehab must last as long as needed. The right period of time should be determined by individual needs, not by a specific rehab program or drug treatment center's standard duration. Research shows that most recovering drug and alcohol addicts require at least 90 days of care for successful outcomes, and sometimes several courses of substance abuse treatment is required. It's critical that someone recovering from addiction stays in treatment (doesn't leave early) in order for it to be effective.
- Medication is an important part of the rehab process. Depending on how severely someone was addicted and to which substance they were addicted, pharmaceuticals can be helpful in detox and overall recovery. Medicines like methadone and buprenorphine can help those overcoming heroin addiction and other opioid dependence. Naltrexone has proven effective for those overcoming heroin addiction as well as alcohol addiction.
- Individual and group therapy is essential to effective substance abuse treatment. Counseling helps patients create and maintain healthy relationships, build skills to prevent relapse, and establish new patterns to stop drug activities and establish healthy patterns instead. Therapy is critical for both problem-solving as well as community-building, and should be a substantial part of drug and alcohol rehab and addiction recovery.
- Those with a dual diagnosis must be treated for both addictions. People who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction alongside mental illness should go to a dual diagnosis treatment center to have both treated concurrently. It's critical for individuals who struggle with a dual diagnosis to receive substance abuse treatment that also includes mental health treatment, and vice versa.
- Medical detox is just the beginning. Substance abuse treatment may begin with detox, but simply removing physical toxins doesn't help shift long-term drug and alcohol abuse. For those with acute drug and alcohol addiction, medical detox is necessary, but further treatment is needed to establish long-term sobriety.
- It's important to monitor drug use during treatment. Tracking drug and alcohol use during the substance abuse treatment is critical, to help the patient stay clean during the healing process. Urinalysis and other monitoring processes help patients overcome cravings, since they know they will be accountable for drug use. Monitoring also helps with early detection of relapse so treatment can be adjusted accordingly.
- Drug and alcohol addiction recovery is long-term and ongoing. Over the course of substance abuse treatment, it's not uncommon for recovering drug and alcohol addicts to suffer a relapse. Recovery often involves multiple courses of addiction treatment, and is significantly aided by participation in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
How does treatment work?
It's again important to emphasize that for addicts, consuming drugs or alcohol is compulsive. It's outside their control, and they are not "bad" people for having gotten addicted. Research demonstrates that two in three people in treatment for drug or alcohol abuse report undergoing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse as children. Thus the majority of those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are attempting to numb very real emotional or psychological pain.
Every person who struggles with addiction is different, and as such, treatment should be based on the individual – there is no cookie-cutter format for addiction recovery. The best treatment is that which supports the person in establishing a full and fulfilling life.
The heart of substance abuse treatment is helping recovering addicts identify and move past the physical, emotional and psychological issues underlying addiction. Both inpatient and outpatient rehab help people establish new patterns and gain the skills necessary to get and stay sober long-term. This means that in addition to individual or group therapy in rehab, a patient may require medical attention, family therapy, career guidance, social and legal services, and parenting assistance. For most, ongoing support and care gets the best results, with treatment shifting in intensity based on the person's changing needs.
What happens after treatment?
Choosing to get sober is a brave and worthwhile act. It's taking your life back, one day at a time. Recovery doesn't occur overnight, but it is possible no matter how severely you were addicted.
Quality drug and alcohol rehab programs provide people with a safe space to examine, process, and eventually heal the root causes of addiction. Those who want to be healthy and substance abuse-free must engage in self-care and learn new behaviors that support them. The good news is that not only is this possible, but those who take rehab and recovery seriously frequently become independent and thriving members of society.
If you or a loved one has developed an addiction, seek help. Millions of others have been through a similar struggle and come out on the other side. The journey towards sobriety is just that – a journey – but support is available every step of the way.
You are not alone, and you don't have to suffer anymore. Get treatment.