Very few things, if any, are both as prevalent and “invisible” as the substance abuse pandemic gripping both the nation and the world. Almost every single person in the country is touched by someone who exhibits addictive behavior, and the collateral damage of their addiction. Most realize this, but due to factors including stigma and stereotypical belief that addicts follow a certain “type” that can be avoided rather than confronted, many think of the issue as an “us versus them” scenario.
Research however shows clearly that addiction is a universal problem which crosses all boundaries of socioeconomic, geographical and educational backgrounds.
The American Psychiatric Association definition of addiction is “Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.”
This addresses the addictive behavior itself, but is limited in that there are myriad causative factors such as emotional or physical trauma which lead to addiction, and often the addict is running not necessarily to the addictive substance, but rather away from that trauma causing factor.
Michelle Webb, of OVP in Ohio, said the most effective approach in treating addiction is to realize that these causative factors exist, and to treat the whole person rather than the obvious symptoms of the disease.
“Our goal here is to make it as much like home as possible,” Webb said. By doing so, the person suffering from addiction can feel as though they are in a safe place with private rooms away from the stigma and the (at least perceived) judgement of the public eye. Working forward from that safe place, Webb said they are able to treat the person on an individualized basis, focusing on their individual plan of rehabilitation.
Webb said OVP uses a broad spectrum of treatments with goal of helping overcome not only the addiction but also the underlying causes of that addiction.
“We offer medical assisted treatment and medical detox, but we are also offering counseling, 12-step meetings and case management services,” Webb said. “Our goal is to treat the whole person, and not just the one symptom.”
“We used to think of someone who is addicted as someone who is homeless, with low education and poor socioeconomic status,” Webb said of the outmoded and inaccurate view of addiction. “But that is no longer the case, if it ever truly was. We now know that addiction affects all walks of life, all socioeconomic classes, and all races and genders. It isn't limited to just one group. And the addiction isn't limited to one type of addiction, either. We treat people who are addicted to alcohol, marijuana and opioids. Even food, at times, can become an addiction.”
Two types of addiction to focus on for treatment are physical and psychological addiction, Webb said, but it can be difficult to separate them because in many cases the two are intertwined and both causative factors in the addiction.
“Physical addiction, basically, is something which would cause withdrawal symptoms if stopped,” Webb said. “For most, but not all substances, the physical withdrawal is fairly short-lived. When you are talking about opioids, for instance, the physical aspect is short-lived, but the psychological aspect takes much longer to treat.
“That isn't to say that the short time frame means that withdrawal is easy, because it is not. In fact, it can be quite miserable for the addicted individual. But because the psychological aspect is so hard to get over it adds complications. Most people start using to avoid pain and discomfort in some way, so if we don't treat the psychological aspect that goes with it, then that is a reason why you see relapses. It may be that they don't want to spend their lives ‘high,’ but they are still trying avoid that cause or situation that led them there in the beginning.”
“Research has shown that there is a stronger link between past trauma and addiction than there is with anything else and addiction. If you don't treat the trauma, then you aren't going to treat the issues,” Webb said.
The desire to return to a life that does not include addiction comes with certain pitfalls. Those suffering from addiction in many cases might hesitate to seek treatment for their addiction simply because they hesitate to draw attention to themselves and invite being stigmatized by the public to which they wish to return.
“The stigma can be a problem,” Webb said. “Along with access to programs. Fortunately, we are seeing an number of programs that are stepping up to help out with that, but the stigma is still a very huge thing. You can't talk to any group of people without some saying that they (the addicted individuals) are just weak, or its some character flaw with that person.”
Webb said those descriptions of addicted individuals are simply not accurate.
“It is a disease,” Webb said. “It is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You wouldn't look at someone with diabetes and say, it’s just because they are weak. But people do with someone who is addicted.”
Webb said in order for true and lasting healing of addiction to take place, both the addict and the community needs to work past the stigma, to be supportive about treatment and recovery without enabling the behavior. This, she said, is the path to win back our communities from addiction.