In Search of Healthier Storylines - by Florence Sprague

Everybody has a story, a story with many branches. Sometimes another person’s storyline parallels our own closely enough that we can easily relate to the twists and turns, detours and redirections that it follows. Other times a life wanders into unfamiliar territory and it is so easy to judge or misinterpret.

Addiction is a concept that I struggle with. It is something that I have had the immense good fortune to have been able to avoid. I know that at times I get hooked on a computer game and for a period of time will expend too much time trying to conquer it until the novelty and charm inexplicably wears off and I am pulled to other ventures, but that is minor and avoidable; it is orders of magnitude from true addiction.

I also know intellectually that the human body develops tolerances and needs for certain categories of chemicals from nicotine to alcohol to opioids and others with exposure. I know the allure of alcohol to ease social anxiety and the desire of some for “fun” sensations and of others for escape from emotional pain. However, I also know that when I read the personal stories of those who struggle with addiction as a reality, not a concept, that I swing between sympathy for their tragic experiences and sarcastic rejection of their explanations. When I read of a man or woman prostituting self to get drugs I know that I still do not truly understand the overwhelming power of addiction. On the other hand, when an addict is reported as saying “the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt my family but I stole from them to support my habit,” I think “no, the last thing you wanted was to leave your need for drugs unmet. If you don’t want to hurt your family-get help.” And then I think of individuals I know of who have been in and out of rehab repeatedly and the debate over whether an alcoholic recovers or is always recovering and many more unresolved aspects of different types of addiction.

So, what is the best way to frame a healthy and respectful perspective on addiction? How can one be fair, kind, supportive, and still hold others responsible for their behavior? We all need forgiveness and empathy at times in our lives.

Do you like cilantro? It is an herb that people seem to love or hate. I recently learned that for some people, this dislike is connected to their genes, though the understanding of how is less than complete.  This problem can be addressed. Those folks can simply not eat cilantro and I can avoid serving it to them if I am aware. It seems that there may be a genetic predisposition to becoming addicted to something, whether it is gambling, alcohol or drugs, but what then? When I had surgery I was given a prescription for OxyContin (or oxycodone?) but I disliked the slightly loopy way it made me feel and was only too happy to cut back pain relief to ibuprofen as soon as possible. Yet others like and even seem to crave that loopy feeling and quickly become addicted. Still others become addicted only after prolonged use for chronic pain and subsequent dependence. So is it genetics that keeps me safer or fear of addiction contributing to a willingness to use lesser painkillers or just good fortune?

One explanation I saw online reflects this complexity. “Many Genes Influence Addiction. Scientists will never find just one single addiction gene. Like most other diseases, addiction vulnerability is a very complex trait. Many factors determine the likelihood that someone will become an addict, including both inherited and environmental factors.” In acknowledging that addiction is a complex disease this site goes on to say that genes create a greater susceptibility, not an inevitability.

And so I am still challenged. Challenged to not prejudge someone who may have an incredibly difficult time resisting. Challenged to be compassionate in supporting someone trying to control and overcome addiction while not becoming an enabler. Challenged to help minimize the environmental factors that can trigger a descent into addiction—and here it can be for those close to us and for our wider community. Contributing factors can be very personal such as mental illness or they can be larger and external or environmental such as poverty, abuse, lack of opportunity and more.

Do you have a better handle on this than I? If so, please share. “The opioid crisis” is all over the news. One of the many factors that will be needed in confronting this crisis will be the awareness and involvement of all of us. Those who manufacture, distribute and profit from drugs bear major culpability, but we can all support individuals and can all search for ways to reduce the pressures on people that make them crave a release only to become trapped.

Where does your story intersect with stories of addiction? How can we help direct more stories on safer and healthier paths?