Why Addiction Has Nothing To Do With Being Weak

I grew up listening to singers glamorize drug use. From Eminen to Weezer to The Eagles, no genre was free from the lyrics that my young brain soaked up in curiosity. In contrast, my teachers and parents warned me of the dangers of drugs. During an 8th grade health class, my peers and I gasped at the black lungs of a smoker and eagerly signed a waiver promising we would never do drugs. I nodded emphatically when my parents, with a cigarette between their fingers, made me promise I’d never do drugs.

Fast forward ten years, and I’m sitting on the front steps of my house smoking a cigarette while my friends battle addictions with meth, heroin, and alcohol. Without experience, it was hard to wrap my head around the concept of putting a drug before everything else. Before friends, family, work, school, even food. Drugs have always been on the outskirts of my life, though. I heard about distant relatives I hadn’t seen in years who were “strung out.” I listened to my friend when she broke down in sobs and told me that her boyfriend was in rehab for heroin addiction. I listened, and I tried to understand without judgement.

I knew logically that addiction is in the brain and is not a question of someone’s bad morals. I knew logically that individuals with substance use disorders are self-medicating for a pain that I know all too well as someone with a mental illness. I knew that logically and yet… quiet strands of judgment tended to bubble up here and there when I encountered a belligerent drunk and the like.

“DRIVE!” My friend demands, pointing in the direction of the closest liquor store with a shaking hand. I am caught between not wanting to enable her and knowing that alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. I think about the worst feeling I have ever felt and ask myself, “If there was a chemical that I knew would make me feel better, would I do it?” That is the predicament of individuals with a substance use disorder. It is not about being strong. It’s about surviving.

She told me her story one late night. A story about a little girl whose father left her with an emotionally unavailable mother. A story about a young woman who was in so much pain, she wanted anything to numb her. So she had a drink. And then another. And another. And now, she feels stuck. Because without it, she can’t sleep. She shakes and throws up. She wakes up sweating in her bed after another nightmare.

To me, I see a woman who has a unique story that led to her predicament. I see a human being trying to survive in a world that too often feels cruel. To everyone else, she is merely an angry alcoholic.

Every individual with a substance use disorder has a story. They all want to stop. None of them want to destroy their life. None of them want to hurt those around them. None of them want to break family ties and spend holidays alone. None of them want to end up living in an abandoned house, going to the pawnshop so often that they’re on a first-name basis. But that’s too often the story, isn’t it?

If you or no one close to you struggles with addiction, it can be easy to dismiss individuals struggling with substance use as weak. It can be easy to see them as lazy and irresponsible. It can be easy to make these harsh judgments without understanding what it’s like to have a chemical hijack your brain, manning the controls day after day. Drugs change the brain, affecting the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These parts of the brain are used for decision making and motivation, among other things. That’s not a lack of willpower, but a brain disease. An illness like depression, diabetes, or cancer.

When my friend is yelling at me, demanding I drive her to the liquor store, it hurts. I try to separate my friend from her illness, from the messages her brain is sending her. I know that she is not weak. I know that she has a disease. I know that I can’t enable her, but I also can’t cure her. So, I take her hand, and I say, “You need to get help.”

And I hope, behind her disease, she hears me.

Written by Josie Thornhill.