A Life without Choice

“Addiction doesn’t negotiate.”

Eric Clapton


If there is a more effective way to destroy a human soul than addiction, I’m not sure I want to know what it is.

People can become physically addicted to all sorts of substances:  alcohol, illegal drugs like heroin and meth, or legal drugs like opioids that promise relief from chronic pain and replace it with chronic dope-like dependency.

It’s not only the addicts who suffer.

Brothers, sisters, parents, children, grandparents and friends are often trapped in the addict’s loop of desperation, anguish and crushed hopes.

Throughout my career in journalism, I’ve been able to see first hand what addiction looks like.  I’ve seen the twitching.  I’ve smelled the vomit.

Guitar legend Eric Clapton endured addiction to both heroin and alcohol.  At his peak, he reports he was spending $16,000 a week on heroin, and yet was convinced he wasn’t addicted.  He could quit any time.  He just didn’t happen to feel like it that day, week, month, year.

Through the years I’ve known a few of the extraordinarily lucky addicts able to completely melt their chains.

But truth be told, their numbers are few. Surprisingly, drug treatment programs don’t have to report their successes or failures, but there is widespread consensus that the failure rate for drug treatment programs is around 80%.  That is a startling number.  Four out of five addicts who receive treatment end up going back to their drug.

And yet we tell the addicts we love that they just have to be stronger, tougher, braver, more religious, etc.  The implied message is always the same:  If you just tried harder, and loved us all a little more…

Against such well meaning but ignorant points of view, Mr. Clapton’s comment at the beginning of this column is a cold slap in the face.

Addiction requires the rewiring of the addict’s brain.  Once the drug has successfully completed the rewiring, the brain believes the drug is as important to life as breathing.  Telling the addict he can quit if he just tries harder is like telling yourself you’d get over your cold if you just held your breath for five minutes.  Go ahead, give it a try.

Here’s the truth:  Whatever the addiction demands it will get, and the ricocheting pain in families is overwhelming.  Just like the addict, those who love him come to share his battered hopes, his whirlpool of guilt, his explosive anger, and his crushing weight of shame.

If I knew someone with a family member in the grip of addiction—and I probably do, but they’re doing such a good job of keeping it secret that I don’t know about it—here’s what I’d say:

What you’re going through is the worst thing in the world.  Worse than cancer.  Worse than a debilitating accident.  Because no matter how hard you try to think otherwise, somewhere inside you is the ugly voice saying that somehow it’s your fault.  You should have done better, mom, dad, Grandpa, Grandma, brother, sister, son, daughter.

But even though you won’t believe me when I say it, the truth is that it’s not your fault.  Your addict tried a chemical substance.  Who knows why?  Despite all the warnings we all occasionally do stupid things because we think we’re indestructible.

And we’re not.  And some get trapped in something they can’t control.  And now they’re not the person they once were.  Some are, in effect, nearly dead—the original them is nearly gone.  And maybe some part of them will come back, but it may not.   It may not.

Getting used to that idea is the hardest part.  In the process, do you find yourself grieving for your addict’s life as if he was already dead?  Or do you look at the dimmed eyes in front of you as if they still sparkled?

I can’t answer that question.  But if that’s the situation you’re in, and if I knew about it, I like to think I’d have the good sense to give you an honest hug and sit on your couch and let you rant yourself hoarse as often as you’d like.  Because that’s what good friends do.  Even though they can’t really understand, the good ones are willing to try.

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