When parents ask both professionals and friends about what to do about their child who is struggling with addiction they often get the answer, “they have to hit rock bottom.” This means that you cut them off and wait until they see that their life has gotten so bad that the only way out is to ask for help. The idea of hitting rock bottom makes sense if the person you are dealing with has the ability to recognize where bottom is for them.
According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, though the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs. This means that for many, the brain has changed in such a way that making decisions about what is rock bottom might be impossible. Unfortunately many families, including ours, have learned the hard way that rock bottom for many not be living on the streets or catching diseases, but instead may be death.
Addiction has long been considered a personal choice and a moral failing. It was believed that a person can simply decide to stop using just as we can decide to stop any other bad habit. When my nephew died from his addiction and we shared about it publicly, many people said that his parents had simply failed to raise him right. They said that he made the choice to die. Fortunately the science of addiction has advanced considerably in the last six years since then. As defined by the NIDA, “addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs.”
So why do we insist on the all or nothing treatment mentality? Why don’t we have that attitude with other treatable diseases with both genetic and behavioral traits? Why don’t we wait for those suffering with other chronic, treatable diseases to hit rock bottom? The answer is stigma. There is a stigma of shame and embarrassment attached to addiction. Many believe that people who become addicted deserve to wallow in their shame until they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do the right thing. Many believe that we are better off letting people who are addicted die because they have no value in our society.
Fortunately, the stigma is beginning to fade as more families speak out about their losses to overdose; as more people speak out about their struggle with addiction; as more research is done; as more people openly celebrate their ongoing recovery, however they found it; as fewer parents say “not my kid” and accept that prevention is crucial; as we recognize that every human life deserves dignity and is worth saving. We have to forget rock bottom, meet them where they are, and guide them, without judgement, back to the surface and the light of hope.
This article was written by Betsy Tant with Henry’s Fund.