Destructive conditioning, on many levels, is making it impossible to halt the addiction epidemic. This is a big statement, but the facts tell the story. In the last 20 years, we’ve lost almost a million people to addiction. And it’s not just opioids that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. It’s alcohol, tobacco, prescription and illegal drugs. Dozens of substances, and foods, are addictive, harmful, lead to chronic illnesses, and death. And we don’t talk about how those numbers hurt every family.
Why don’t we educate people about how substances hijack the brain
If addiction were any other disease, we would be teaching children and their parents how each substance changes brain function in young people. Few schools, high schools or colleges teach students that their brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. That means children and teens who use drugs and alcohol have impaired emotional and behavioral growth and are at risk for addiction, but how many people know that? These are facts we’re not teaching that every family needs to know.
15% of high school students are already addicted and at risk for death before the age of 20. Middle school students deserve to know exactly how drugs and alcohol impact their bodies and brains.National Institute of Drug Abuse
No one teaches girls the facts about alcohol
Did you know that girls process alcohol at twice the rate of boys? One drink for a male equals two drinks for a female. Alcohol is processed and affects girls’ brains more quickly, and stays in their systems longer. That means girls get drunk faster and stay drunk longer than males. This basic fact is not taught anywhere. Most of my friends do not know it.
Destructive conditioning tells us alcohol is the only way to have fun
The opposite is true. One in four college students is sexually assaulted as a result of drug or alcohol use. Because girls aren’t taught the basic biological fact that they can’t drink safely, they think alcohol is fun and part of growing up. They don’t believe that assault or accident will happen to them when they drink in high school, college, and as young adults in the workplace. Even worse, women are blamed when they get drunk or are assaulted.
Destructive conditioning destroys families in other ways
For decades millions of families just like mine have been destroyed by addiction because we get enmeshed in unhealthy behaviors without knowing it’s happening. And then, when we’re deeply and dangerously enmeshed, we don’t know how to get out of it. Unless you attend 12 programs you’re unlikely to know that substances and alcohol use changes us all. My family had to work very hard to restore health and relationships, and we did it by learning a new way to think and to live. 12 Steps programs, therapy, counselors and even physicians. It takes a lot to accept and take action against a persistent disease.
Every day I hear stories from family members who tell me these 6 basic things in this order.
- I didn’t know my loved one was using.
- Well, I knew my loved one was drinking or smoking pot, or occasionally taking pills; but he/she was assured me it wasn’t serious. I didn’t know.
- Use escalated, but I didn’t know my loved one was getting worse until problems with school, work, accidents, or the law started happening all the time. I didn’t know what to do.
- My loved one’s behavior worsened. He/she lied, was abusive and manipulative and when confronted, he/she promised to stop. I thought we could deal with it. He/she promised it would get better, if only I would do this or that. I didn’t know I wasn’t to blame for what happened to him/her.
- I didn’t know that constant crises and abusive behavior were going to be my new normal with my loved one. I kept believing my loved one when she/he promised to stop.
- My loved one needed me for something every day; money, cover stories, rides, legal support or other forms of rescue and bailing out. More than one rehab cost us a fortune. Now, I’m desperately afraid if I stop helping, rescuing, paying for things and doing what my loved one asks of me, he/she will die.
As parents, children, lovers, or spouses, all we want is for our loved ones to be all right, to be as they were, to recover. And many of us will sacrifice everything we have to try to make that happen. Only one in nine people who need treatment, receive treatment in this country. Others get treatment but don’t recover. Family members often feel responsible for the outcome.
Two things make us helpless in the face of addiction destructive conditioning and fear
How can we overcome the I didn’t know syndrome. Telling the story of what you didn’t know makes you perpetually hopeless and helpless. It keeps you stuck in what might have been, instead of what is. I can only speak for myself as a parent who once said I didn’t know, but do not say it now. I know I became codependent. I know that what I did often wasn’t helpful, and what I ultimately did when I understood addiction better was helpful. Knowing is your solution, whether you are coping with a child, an adult, a parent, a spouse or yourself. Here are seven things you need to know to overcome destructive conditioning of addiction.
- Know how substances impact body, brain, and behavior
- Get the facts about what’s happening at home, work and school
- Don’t fall for or accept any lies, not even your own
- Focus on getting the truth, and getting help for yourself first
- Don’t try to cope with a loved one’s substance use on your own
- Get assessed by a doctor, therapist or counselor
- Become recovery literate
Recovery does work when the pieces prevention, education, and support for healthy living are all in place. Even if your loved one can’t recover, you can.