There’s a proverb that goes, “God said take whatever you want, just pay for it.” This is just another way of saying that for everything in life we choose or do, there is a cost. When you’re young, you don’t know the costs of the many options out there for fun, excitement, and pleasure. There is a steep learning curve for teens and young adults as they explore the world around them and all it has to offer. Yet with all its risks and craziness, adolescence is also a time of being adaptable, curious and resilient. But oddly, unlike many other activities where change is expected, when it comes to addiction, we forget just how resilient and changeable we really are.
I can remember my first drink like it was yesterday. I was in 8th grade and had gone to a friend’s house after school. Her parents weren’t home and she asked me if I wanted a drink. I had tried sips of my parents’ drinks when I was younger but never had my own. She made me a screwdriver that was very strong. It tasted disgusting to me, but I felt mature and sophisticated and I drank every last drop.
The warm feeling crept up on me as I was halfway through the second drink. I felt happy and silly. I don’t remember what we talked about but we were both laughing hysterically when her mother got home. I was nervous, but realized that my friend had cleaned up and her mother suspected nothing. Clearly my friend had done this before.
By the time my mother came to pick me up, I was feeling less than giggly. I told her my stomach hurt and I wasn’t hungry for dinner. She assumed I had caught a bug at school and sent me to bed. And there it was, even then, a cost for my couple hours of carefree fun with alcohol.
Try to think of something you like to do that doesn’t have a trade-off or cost of some kind. Even activities that are considered very positive by today’s standards have inherent costs. I have always liked to work-out, and I’ve had to adapt my workouts over the years to accommodate for my age, fluctuating weight, and physical limitations.
When I was young working out took up an enormous amount of my time, so the trade-off was simply that; I had less time to do other things. As I began working and starting a family, I was no longer willing to pay the price of devoting 3 or 4 hours to working out. Instead I would limit my workouts to a 30 minute run or yoga session. The cost for running became too steep when I sustained a painful hip injury, so I had to settle for walking. It was an adjustment, but the costs of walking were much more tolerable.
Many people view addiction as a strange disease that happens to certain people who drink or use drugs. They think that those afflicted by this supposed disease are susceptible to it due to a whole host of factors: genetics, trauma, high stress, and/or mental health issues to name a few. They say you can tell when someone is truly addicted because they will keep using in spite of the serious consequences they have endured; the fact they keep using is proof of their addiction. They also think that once you have contracted the “addiction disease” it is progressive and incurable so you must deal with it for the rest of your life, like other chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. But what if addiction is nothing more than a strong preference for the activity of ingesting substances? That would mean those that do it, heavily and frequently, do it because they like it on some level and are willing to accept and pay the costs — much like marathon runners do.
My sister ran marathons throughout her 40s. She would spend hours running in all kinds of weather. She once sustained a serious shoulder injury from a fall on an icy road, but she kept running. After each marathon she would need several days to recuperate. Her thighs, knees, shins, ankles, and feet would ache fiercely, and she would have trouble walking. To me this was insane. Why would you keep doing something that caused you so much pain and discomfort, and is actually damaging to you? There is a plethora of research that shows the damage long distance running can do to your joints and organs, but no one views running as an addiction in the same sense they view heavy substance use. When she finally decided to reduce her running, my sister didn’t see a therapist or head to a meeting. It never even occurred to her she needed to, nor does it occur to anyone stopping or reducing an activity they really love to do but have decided to change other than substance use. They simply change because they are no longer willing to accept the inherent costs of that activity, and therefore believe they can be happier making a change.
Some people see this explanation of addiction as overly simplistic, but when you look at the research and data that has been done on addiction over the past 60 years, you can’t deny it fits. As we reported in our book, The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, “The US Government has conducted several epidemiological studies that surveyed tens of thousands of people to find out about their mental health and substance use histories. Every such study that’s been done has found that most people, treated or not, eventually resolve their substance use problems. (Heyman, 2013)” When digging into the data, “most people” turns out to be 90% (and more depending on the substance used) of those once fitting the criteria for addiction who no longer fit that criteria. They stopped their addiction, and according to these same studies just 10% – 20% got formal help. So in other words, the majority of people who stop or reduce their substance use do so exactly like my sister did when she chose to cut back on running, and I did when I stopped running and began walking instead.
If addiction were truly a progressive, incurable disease that renders people completely powerless over substances, then everyone who ever qualified as addicted would use substances continuously until death, but they don’t. They wouldn’t be able to stop or reduce their use, yet the vast majority, more than 90%, do stop or moderate their use to levels where they no longer fit the criteria for addiction.
As I said in the beginning, adolescence is a time of exploration. It is the time in life where we learn rapidly what we like and don’t like. It is the time we begin to discover who we are and who we want to become. And for many this exploration includes using mind-altering substances. Instead of using lies and half-truths to try and scare young people to abstain, why not teach the truth: that substances have their place in this world. They are neither categorically good nor categorically bad; they can tickle your mind briefly, but they have no magical powers to heal your woes, make a bad day good or a good day better, or enslave you. You may like the feeling of being high or buzzed which may make you want to do it more, but just like any other activity if you begin to do it to the exclusion of other things in your life, the costs will mount, the activity will begin to bore you, and you may find yourself in a rut of habitual behavior you want to change. And here is the important part – when you’re ready to change it — know that you can simply make the decision to change, and move on with your life.
Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to www.TheFreedomModel.org for more information or call 888-424-2626.
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