What Is Addiction?

All kinds of compulsive behaviors are now being labelled addictions. Until recently, addiction has been a term reserved for compulsive behaviors that involved alcohol or drugs that have significant withdrawal symptoms. A distinction was sometimes made between "physical" and "psychological" addictions.

"Classic" addiction often views addiction as a property of a substance and not a combination of substance, genetics and most importantly the person and the environment they are currently in. In large part, drugs and alcohol are ways to manage our lack of connection and the feelings we want to have or really don't want to have.

Substance abuse often comes down to shame about who we are or who we're supposed to be. All too often, we fail to see the difference between who we are and what we've done. We turn something we should feel some guilt for having done with shame for who we actually are. I didn't just do something wrong. I am something wrong. This is much easier to do when we're young and have less experience to make the distinction.

Nearly 21 million Americans, or just over 10% of adults, are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. More than two-thirds of them are addicted to or abuse alcohol. People in the United States use two-thirds of all illegal drugs worldwide. The top three drugs involved with addiction are marijuana, opioid pain relievers (like oxycontin) and cocaine. Meth, heroin and rave drugs like MDMA (Molly/Ecstasy) are also widely abused. The relative popularity of different drugs changes slowly over time.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term use causes changes in your brain's neurochemical systems and affects functions that include: learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory and behavior. It especially affects behavior that requires moral judgment and self-regulation or self-control for the worse.

Are You Addicted?

Answering "yes" to any one of the four questions below suggests you might have a problem with addiction. If you think you might have a problem, you most likely do, and you should talk to your doctor or another professional about your thinking, feelings, habits and behavior.

  1. Do you use more of some substance or engage in some behavior more often than in the past?
  2. Do you have strong cravings or withdrawal symptoms when you don't have the substance or engage in the behavior?
  3. Are you ashamed of or concerned enough about your behavior that you have lied about it, tried to hide it or misled people about your use?
  4. Is your substance use or behavior having a noticeable or significant effect on your work, finances or relationships?

How It Can Feel

People experiencing addiction have many experiences in common no matter how different their lives and journeys are. Feeling isolated, different, defective, screwed up or a no good and worthless failure can come up frequently. Sometimes it's why someone starts using and sometimes it's because of the downward spiral of addiction itself. Feeling hollow, empty, meaningless and burned out can also develop over time.

In the early days of use, things might have been much different. People often feel relieved or feel really good for the first time in a long time or ever. You've found something that makes life good, maybe even really good or better than sex good. You really want to keep doing whatever it is that's working for you again and more often.

Feeling good doesn't last long. It gets expensive. It doesn't get you there as easily or at all anymore. You try harder, but it doesn't work. It starts impacting your relationships, your job, your finances and your health more and more. Even hanging out with your new addicted or like-minded friends doesn't help very much. Your brain has maxed out on whatever you're abusing, and it just can go where you want it to anymore, but you can't stop either because there are physical and emotional consequences for that.

People who are addicted, often try to stop, with varying degrees of determination, when they get to this stage. They inevitably find it very hard. Their mind and body are at war. Powerful cravings, physical pain and sick feelings can make it very hard to stay away and stay sober. Something important enough to keep working at it and to endure the cravings, suffering and disappointments that keep coming up has to be found. Everyone is different and a deeply personal, strongly meaningful reason is required.

Loving the Addicted

How do you help someone who's addicted? How do you help yourself when you're in a relationship with someone who's addicted? You've already figured out they behave differently when they're loaded and often make "promises" they can't keep when they're sober. You may or may not have finally recognized that you can't make them stop and that helping them when they've made promises doesn't work. Sometimes it can even really backfire on you. So, what do you do?

Although you can't make them change, you can help by quietly supporting their efforts to choose change. Helping them talk about what they look forward to with sobriety or what's making them want to change, when they bring it up, can help.You sounding anything like you're trying to make them change ultimately won't. They already know you're not happy and that you want them to change. Pushing someone, even if you don't think you are, makes them dig in their heels, resist and fight back.

What helps more is you working on you. You have plenty of room to grow and get stronger. We all do. This doesn't always motivate the other person to change, but it does make you healthier, happier and better able to handle what happens, even if it's that this relationship fails. This means that you stop living in codependent ways.

Ending Codependency

Codependency revolves trying to "help" and sacrifice for a dysfunctional person. You go out of your way to show "love," but it winds up helping the other person stay stuck and not change. They can even use your help as an excuse because you aren't doing enough, you aren't doing it right or you just don't really believe in them. Codependency like this is often called "enabling," since it ultimately helps the addicted person keep doing what they do. Signs of codependency include:

  1. Taking responsibility for the addicted person by feeling that in some way you're responsible for their choices and behavior, or you're responsible for their thoughts and feelings. It's your fault if they aren't happy, screw up or do bad things. No matter what, if you did the right thing, the outcome would have been different. You might also do things like cover things up and lie to protect them. Sometimes the other person will tell you this is your responsibility even if you haven't acted that way already.
  2. You put the other person's feelings first. You don't have good boundaries. You don't take care of yourself. You ignore your feelings and values. You make bad choices and even do things you think, or even know, are wrong to "support" the other person.
  3. You keep holding on to the relationship to avoid being "abandoned," rejected or alone. You seem to need the other person's approval, and you keep trying to please them regardless of the treatment you receive in return. You keep making excuses for abuse, mistreatment and a lack of consistent loving behavior.
  4. You have trouble recognizing or talking about your feelings. You may not recognize, or you minimize and discount, your ongoing unhappiness, fear or anger. You may focus on "fixing" the other person instead. You pay as little attention to yourself as you can.

If you're someone who has been codependent or an "enabler," VeryWellMind offers the following healing statements to practice living by:

  • I no longer have to deny the presence of addiction in our family.
  • I no longer have to control the addict's using.
  • I no longer have to rescue the addict.
  • I no longer have to listen to the addict's reasons for using.
  • I no longer have to accept or extract promises.
  • I no longer have to seek advice from the ill-informed.
  • I no longer have to nag, preach, coax, or gesture.
  • I no longer need to allow the addict to abuse me or my children.
  • I no longer have to be a victim of addiction.

How to Start Your Recovery

You need to find and get connected to a group of people with similar experience. Not only will finding a community help you overcome isolation, it will really show you how you are not your shame, your mistakes or your bad behavior. We have a variety of AA, NA and Celebrate Recovery groups here in this area. Talk to the people you know and start looking for a group that works for you. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be a place to get started.

Self-help toolbox and resources

AA and NA meetings in the area

Celebrate Recovery groups


Jo Harvey Weatherford, Rewriting The Story Of My Addiction (TEDxUofNevada)

Dr. Jud, Hacking Your Brain's "Reward System" to Change Habits

Johann Hari, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong (TED)

Dr. Brené Brown, Shame & Empathy

Dr. Brené Brown, Listening to Shame (TED)

Dr. Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability (TED)


Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD, Understanding Addiction and What It Feels Like to Be Addicted

Harvard Health, Understanding Addiction

NIH, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts

Kristina Ackermann, Loving an Addict or Alcoholic: How to Help Them and Yourself

Buddy T, 10 Things to Stop Doing If You Love an Alcoholic

Stuart McMillen, Rat Park


Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough" (2007)

Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (2016)

Prayer for the Week

Help me pay attention to way I'm thinking and feeling this week, especially about myself and the people I'm connected to. I want to see where I'm sabotaging myself, isolating myself or hiding in shame. Help me see the story of my life in a new more positive and hopeful way. I want to start to understand how my story can help others more. Amen.