It’s Been Awhile Since I Could Hold My Head Up High

Want to feel really sad? One-third of all the people on Earth have some kind of addiction. 

Addiction counselors and psychiatrists used to talk about ‘the addictive personality’,  as if there’s one and only one specific personality type that becomes addicted. There are some characteristics that are more commonly associated with developing addiction: risk taking, anxious or sad temperaments, inability to tolerate distress. The most common high risk factor for addiction is experiencing trauma that affects coping abilities. If a person’s support system is disrupted or they never had one, that person is more likely to develop an addiction. 

Entertainment and media often portray people with substance use disorders as people with moral failings or as criminals. But addiction is a neuropsychological disorder, more often than not accompanied by mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Adverse Childhood Experiences–ACEs–are instances of household dysfunction and mistreatment that a person experiences in childhood. A child’s neurological development is disrupted when they experience chronically stressful events such as neglect, abuse, witnessing household violence, or having a parent with a mental illness. The child’s ability to cope with negative emotions may become impaired, so they have to come up with other coping mechanisms. By adolescence, such a child can turn to substance abuse as a way to deal with their life.

In other words, children who experience trauma such as witnessing a sibling being beaten and blaming themselves for that event, or who is made to change schools and lose friends over and over, or lack stability in their home life due to a poorly handled divorce, who never get approval from a critical parent or parents, have higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. Of course, not everyone who suffers Acute Childhood Experiences develops an addiction. That’s because there’s not just one cause for developing addictive behavior. Many factors contribute to addiction.

Genes play a role. If you have a relative who has or has had a substance use disorder, you are more prone to develop one yourself. Males are more likely to be vulnerable to addiction and adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time. There may be other biological factors in play as well, and not everyone who has a history of addiction in their family will become an addict. But if you are a son of an alcoholic and the grandson of an alcoholic, your risk factor is high, especially if you toss ACEs into the mix.

Strong family relationships and/or strong social support groups can protect you from developing a substance use disorder. Troubled parent-child relations and family disruptions increase your risk. Living through two years of constant upheaval with no support system and no chance to create one can make a person vulnerable. Being spirited away from the grandmother who loved you unconditionally would increase that vulnerability. Having easy access to drugs or alcohol in your home, at work or school or in your community increases the risk of repeated use.

Mental health conditions such as PTSD, ADD, Anxiety, and depression increase the risk, as does the inability to deal with strong emotions. Learning to tamp down your emotions so you won’t be mocked for being over-sensitive would be included here, because you learn to not deal with emotions to protect yourself. And again, trauma and abuse increase the risk immensely. 

The use of drugs and alcohol can actually reshape brain function, essentially increasing the craving and need for the substance and weakening self-control.

There is some good news: the alterations to the brain can be reversible if the use of the addicting substance or activity is discontinued. Relapse is now considered a part of the recovery process. There is belief that a recovering addict can use the substance or activity in moderation once they have learned how to deal with the causes of the addiction.

Addiction is not a moral failing or sign of poor character. It is a sign of someone with inadequate coping tools trying desperately to cope . 


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