Chicken or the EggIf only life was a true reflection of the fairy tales our mothers read to us as small children.  There was a problem, with courage and determination it was overcome, and everyone could then live happily ever after.  The illusion was that there was only one problem, and that if it was resolved, everything else would be perfect.  Unfortunately, the myth does not mirror reality, and it certainly does not describe recovery from addiction.

It is often appropriate to ask whether addiction is the problem, or the symptom of something else.  This question does not discount the fact that addiction is a chronic disease, but acknowledges how other issues are often the triggers for drinking and using.  If these “co-occurring conditions” are not recognized and addressed, recovery is hard to achieve.  It is for this reason that St. Joseph Institute believes that “treating” addiction without an equal or greater emphasis on addressing these other issues in a person’s life is poor healthcare practice.  It is like placing a Band-Aid on a wound that has not been cleaned and medicated.  In the end, the patient does not get better and the condition may get far worse.

Not every issue that triggers the desire to use drugs and alcohol is a mental health condition that can be diagnosed and classified.  That is not what is important.  What matters is that something is causing pain or distress – both of which become invitations to self-medicate.

Listed below are some of the common “companions” to addiction that need to find resolution, so that recovery can become easier, and the temptation to use again lose some of its power.

Depression. Escaping feelings of sadness are a common reason to drink and use. Ironically, drugs like alcohol only make depression worse.

Anxiety. Studies on university campuses show the strong link between the social anxiety that accompanies modern life and the use of drugs and alcohol.

Pain.  Human nature drives us to escape pain with all possible haste, rather than learn ways of reducing pain through lifestyle changes or natural means.  Our aversion to pain has made the United States the world’s largest consumer of opiate medications.

Relationships. Nothing creates more emotional distress than relationships that are not working well. Rather than learning to build better boundaries, communicate effectively, or resolve conflict, many people simply medicate their relationships.

Bipolar. Some mental health conditions cause distress and the best medications are still imperfect.  Millions of America’s use their drug of choice to self-medicate their mental health issues.

Stress. Managing the stress of daily living should never be an optional activity.  However, all too often we let it build to unhealthy levels, and allow stress to feed addiction.

Boredom. A surprising number of people use drugs and alcohol to cope with boredom, rather than find activities, hobbies and other outlets for their pent up energy and frustrations.

Sex. For many addicts and alcoholics, their drug of choice has been an integral part of their sex lives.  Concerns about the impact of sobriety on inhibitions, performance, and the quality of the experience need to be resolved.

Self-worth. Guilt, shame, a lack of validation, rejection, are issues that can drive addiction in the hope that using will fill the mental void.

Trauma.  The deep “psychic” pain that comes with abuse, PTSD, and other forms of trauma become fertile ground for addiction.  Without resolution, these hurts often become the “justification” for using drugs and alcohol.

We must realize that addiction does not live in a vacuum.  It is fed by the events in life.  If the issues that have a powerful impact on our lives are not addressed, they become the constant “siren’s call” to use again.  Attempting to treat addiction in isolation is often a futile exercise.  Is it the “problem” or the “symptom?”  I suggest the answer doesn’t matter.  To find wellness the addicted person must deal with both the chicken and the egg.


roadblockThere is no point in being less than honest.  Recovery is hard work.  It requires discipline and change – things that most of us resist, not just addicts and alcoholics.  To overcome addiction it is important to recognize that there is a battle taking place with a powerful, chronic disease.  It can be beaten, but let down your guard, and it will come storming back to destroy your life in countless ways.

When someone you know enters treatment and starts the journey to sobriety, it’s important to be supportive.  It is also necessary to be on guard for the times when their addiction tries to pull them back into using.  Addiction is good at lying, manipulating and tugging at your heartstrings.  So be alert, and ready to help the addict/alcoholic stand firm against the “voice” of their addiction.  Here are some of the ways in which the “stinking thinking” of addiction can lead to relapse.

This is too hard.

The early days of detox are not easy.  Even though medications are used to treat the pains, nausea, headaches and other symptoms, there can be some tough days.  The body is craving the lost drug, and it plays with the mind to get it back.  At St. Joseph Institute we have heard a thousand stories: “I’m just too homesick,” or “your programs not right for me” (even though they have not started their program), or “I shouldn’t be here because I’m not really an addict.”  Resist the instinct to rescue.  It is the drugs that are talking. After the first 3-5 days, life gets much better.

I’ve got it.

After the first week in treatment, when the symptoms of detox have started to fade away, the person in treatment starts to feel better than they have in years.  Thinking is clearer, and life starts to hold more promise.  At this stage of recovery it is easy to start believing that you can easily beat your addiction and it’s time to head home and get back into life.  Unfortunately, recovery from addiction is not that easy or that fast.  There is work to be done and skills to be learned.  The brain has to begin rewiring the way that it works, and the addicted person needs to start living life differently.  I’m sorry to say that almost everyone I know that left treatment at these early stages was using again in a very short time.  Treating addiction does not come with many short cuts.

I don’t need to make changes.

There is a saying in AA that has been around forever: “nothing changes if nothing changes.” Staying in recovery requires that you let go of those things that kept pulling you toward your addiction:  people that you used with, places where you drank, the things that keep reminding you of drugs and alcohol.  If change doesn’t happen, recovery usually doesn’t happen either.  The addicted person needs to examine every area of their life and honestly take stock of what keeps triggering their addiction and needs to be changed.  Sometimes it is a lot of little things, while for other people major change may be necessary, such as leaving a job or moving to a new home.

Who needs help?

Often the hardest part of recovery is accepting that you cannot do it all by yourself.  Left on their own, the brain of an addict or alcoholic will often find ways to justify or rationalize a return to using.  By accepting support from others, the times of weakness and temptation can be overcome.  Over and over I hear the same story.  “When I stopped going to meetings, when I began to isolate, when I didn’t call my sponsor – that is when the relapse began.”  Recovery is a team sport, everyone needs help to stay on track and ensure that pride doesn’t become the obstacle to long-term sobriety.

No shortcuts.

Research confirms that the longer a person stays in active treatment, the better their chances of leaving addiction in the dust.  It is not surprising that doctors, pilots, lawyers and other professions that are required to stay in treatment for 90 days or more have a success rate over 90%.  Doing the hard work early can save years of torment — moving in and out of recovery, leaving a trail of broken relationships, lost jobs, guilt and sadness.  Recovery does not come without a fight, but the people who have achieved lasting sobriety will explain that it feels better than winning the lottery.

Michael Campbell, MS, APR is Co-Founder & President of St. Joseph Institute

Sober-MerciesSome would call it human nature, but perhaps it is more accurately described as a human weakness.  I’m referring to our common desire to sugar-coat the truth, making things appear better than they are.  People in recovery know what I am talking about.  To everyone except a select few, the years of active addiction are often described as “not that bad,” at least compared to other people who could be mentioned. When asked about their recovery today, the most frequent response is “great,” or “my life could not be better.”  Denial, the most obvious symptom of addiction, can easily become the mask behind which we hide the truth.  Life is hard, imperfect, and there are always struggles – which does not mean that it isn’t wonderful and precious.

Recently I received a book mailed to me by the publisher:  Sober Mercies by Heather Kopp.  The subtitle is “How love caught up with a Christian drunk.”  I set the book aside, fearing that it would be like some others I have read that provide a bit of personal sharing and then launch into a sermon that is far too long and much too self-righteous.  A few nights ago I picked up the book, ready to give it a quick scan before confining it to an obscure corner of my library.  Boy, was I wrong!

I spent the next day with this beautiful little book and want to recommend it to everyone in recovery — or hoping to find the road to recovery.  Heather Kopp does not make her story pretty, she does not make herself look like a saint who by some accident lost her way, and she does not pretend that she has all of the answers.  What she offers is an honest description of a journey through addiction into recovery.  Along the way, Heather embraced true humility, and is brave enough to share her thought, fears, failings and faults with her readers.  Through this honesty she helps us reflect on the important questions that must be tackled by everyone seeking lasting sobriety.  The book is filled with wisdom, but we see it in Heather’s growth and healing, not through lecturing or a presumption that she has discovered “the cure.”

Heather Kopp is a Christian and she speaks about her faith.  The book discusses the importance of discovering and trusting a “higher power.”  The reader is able to share in Heather’s struggle to understand who God is and how he intervenes in her life.  As the story unfolds, we see God travel from Heather’s head to her heart.

I encourage you to buy this book.  Read it and share it with others who are in need of recovery, or who have begun the journey and want to see it to the end.  Because this story is REAL it has great power.   Let it touch you as it touched me.

You can find Sober Mercies on Amazon or at Heather Kopp’s website — which includes some excellent articles.

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