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In August 2016 I got a phone call that forever changed our lives. I answered my phone at work to hear my husband say, “Jason’s dead.” “What?! What are you talking about?” “He’s dead. He overdosed and he’s dead.” I’m pretty sure my heart stopped in that moment. How could this happen? We had just spoken with him the night before. He was in recovery. He was more than 30 days sober working to break his addiction. But he was gone.
Our Culture Is Misinformed About Addiction
I saw a video on Facebook a couple of years ago now that really stuck with me. It was two guys sitting in a car, one of them yelling at the other. See, the second guy was an addict and the first was his “friend.” The friend was telling him how selfish and ridiculous he was. He shared that addiction isn’t a disease. According to the friend, it’s a selfish and stupid choice that affects others. He went on to say that calling substance abuse anything other than a selfish choice is a slap in the face to those who have a “real” sickness (like cancer or diabetes) because they can’t control their struggle – and this friend believes that addicts can.
Friends, let me tell you how incredibly misinformed this way of thinking is. You see, I used to be that friend. The one that would tell you to “just quit.” The one that would say you’re being selfish and that you needed to think of someone else for once. I would have been the first one to write you off as a waste of time and space. A useless, non-contributing member of society.
But I was oh so wrong.
When I first met my then boyfriend’s brother, he was healthy and well and had a good job. He was a funny guy and cared deeply for his family. He picked on his little brother (my boyfriend at the time), but if push came to shove he would have dropped everything to be there for us. I was so glad to call him my brother-in-law when Gilbert and I married.
To be honest, I don’t even know when it happened. It was more of a slow progression. And we didn’t really catch on until he was so deep in that we couldn’t do much but watch helplessly as his life fell apart.
It started with needing money. He’d ask for $10 here or $20 there. Eventually, he claimed he needed help paying bills. We were oblivious to the fact that most of the money we gave went straight into his veins. Had we known, we would have certainly made different choices.
How could we have been so blind? We’d never been this close to a drug addict before. We didn’t recognize the signs at first. We knew he was struggling, but we didn’t know what was behind it all, we didn’t know just how far he was falling.
Watching my brother spiral out of control and lose literally everything he had ever worked for – his car, his house, his belongings, even his child who was taken away by the state – we felt so helpless. We didn’t know how to reach him.
By the grace of God alone, Jason started coming to Celebrate Recovery in the summer of 2016. We were mending our relationship with him. Gilbert and I had learned a lot about addiction in our time at Celebrate Recovery and we had a much better grasp on how to love our brother well in his struggle.
The Truth About Addiction
Technically, yes, substance abuse is a choice in that it’s not usually forced upon us and we can choose whether or not to use the substance. But it’s not just that simple.
My father was an alcoholic, my brother-in-law was addicted to heroin, and I’ve known several others who have struggled with addiction to a number of different substances. Some of these have fought and won the battle, while others have lost their lives to it. Addiction is more than just a choice.
I don’t think there’s a single person anywhere that woke up one day thinking, “I’d really like to become addicted to something, destroy my life, lose everything and everyone I care about, and maybe even die.”
Addiction is often a symptom of much deeper rooted issues that even the addict may not be able to put a finger on.
People struggling with addiction have a lot more going on below the surface than any of us could possibly imagine. They battle demons, both self-made and those put on them by others. They may struggle with depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, fear, and so much more. They might even have a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors.
Addiction is a disease that often is beyond our control. It consumes you until you cannot see a way out anymore. And while it may temporarily numb the pain you feel, long term it only drags you deeper and deeper into despair until you can’t remember what it’s like to be happy and healthy anymore.
My father had two young daughters and my brother had a 6-year-old son. I don’t believe for one second that they didn’t love us, that they didn’t wish they could be better fathers, that they didn’t pray for a way out so they could feel better and be better.
I’ve never met a person who wants to feel so low that drugging and drinking seem like the only solution.
How Can We Help Our Addicted Loved Ones?
So does addiction make them weak, stupid, selfish? No, it makes them human. We all have our vices. Unfortunately, some vices can become much more devastating than others. That doesn’t mean that someone else with a less “dangerous” vice is somehow better or smarter or stronger. Those with addictions (whatever they may be) need the support and love of friends and family. Not one more person to tell them how much of a screw up they are.
This is a life long battle. Even those who have left their addiction must continue to choose sobriety every single day. Those who are successful continue to attend support groups, meet with accountability teams, receive medical treatment if necessary, for the rest of their lives. It’s a constant struggle. And one wrong choice, one slip-up, one small relapse could mean the end of their lives.
So if you have a loved one who is struggling with an addiction, educate yourself, first and foremost, about addictions and how they affect a person and those around them. Addicts need people to love them. But you have to be cautious because the last thing you want is to become an unknowing and unwilling participant in their addiction by way of enabling. That’s why it’s imperative to understand addiction and to draw clear boundaries to protect yourself and your loved one.
Yes, substance abuse is a choice, in the same way that a poor diet, lack of exercise, or too much sun exposure can lead to diabetes, heart disease, or skin cancer. But it’s so much deeper than that. Addicts are struggling with things that many people may never understand. But you don’t have to understand in order to love them well. You can walk with them and help them find a way out. Because, believe me, they are looking for one. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, regardless of how visible or devastating our sin is. Let’s remember to build each other up and continue to pull our loved ones out of darkness, not push them further into it.