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Understanding Your Loved One’s Addiction

John Schaffer, LPCC

Medically reviewed by

John Schaffer, LPCC

February 11, 2019

Addiction is a disease of the brain characterized by a compulsive and destructive need to use drugs or alcohol. Within this state, a person cannot curb or stop their consumption even when they want to. Here, patterns of abuse continue despite a person’s knowledge of the harm and detriment to their life, and that of those around them.

When confronted with addiction, many family members and friends struggle to comprehend what’s driving their loved one’s behaviors. For many, nothing is more heartbreaking than watching your loved one suffer from a debilitating disease. Addiction doesn’t just affect the user. As your loved one descends deeper into addiction your life becomes greatly changed as well.

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction arises from biological, behavioral, emotional, mental, and social influences within a person’s life. The exact cause of addiction cannot be defined in any one way across the board. Just as every person’s life and experiences are different, so is the manner by which their addiction develops.

Science illustrates that addiction is a disease of the brain. The NIDA writes that “addiction is a developmental disease—it typically begins in childhood or adolescence.” They continue, reporting that “scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40% and 60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.”

These factors increase the risk of addiction:

  • Biology
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Early trauma and/or abuse
  • Economic status
  • Ethnicity
  • Family history
  • Mode of drug administration
  • Presence or lack of parental guidance
  • Peer pressure and stress
  • Substance use at a young age

Individually or in combination, these risk factors may lead a person to drug abuse. Inversely, an individual may have several of these risk factors and never develop an addiction. No one factor guarantees addiction.

Is Addiction A Choice?

Far too many people believe that addiction is a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Cautioning us on this line of thought, NIDA asserts that “quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will.” While it’s true that most people voluntarily decide to use drugs or alcohol at the onset, over time their behaviors are increasingly shaped by elements which are out of their control.

How Does Addiction Change Your Brain?

Every drug of abuse alters your chemistry in some way. The extent of this change varies on your unique biology, the intensity of abuse, and the drug itself. Prolonged and chronic use can lead to increased tolerance, long term dependence, and withdrawal symptoms.


More of a drug is needed to create the same pleasurable effect.


A person’s physiological systems cannot function normally without the drug.


Intolerable harsh symptoms felt by the body and brain if drug use abruptly stops, or if untreated by a professional. Withdrawal usually occurs if the individual abruptly stops or reduces their drug use. Untreated, withdrawal can make quitting very challenging.

Addiction actually changes your brain’s structure and chemical systems. This disrupts cognitive functioning by impairing:

  • Behavioral control
  • Decision-making skills
  • Judgement
  • Learning
  • Logic and Reasoning
  • Memory
  • Self-Control

Each of these factors are heavily tied into addiction and a person’s ability to monitor the thoughts and behaviors surrounding drug use.

Learning To Cope With Your Loved One’s Addiction

Addiction shapes a person’s life into agonizing extremes. A person wants to quit using, but they can’t. They slip into despair because they know their drug abuse is damaging their career or relationship, but continue using as these things crumble around them. Their unstable mental and emotional states lead to substance abuse, but continued abuse actually worsens these conditions.

As you witness this destruction, it can be easy to embrace negative emotions. You may feel angry and betrayed or even that you’re to blame. At this point, it’s important that you do not take responsibility for your loved one’s addiction. Recovery hinges on a person accepting the reality of their addiction, so that they can develop the initiative for change. Sometimes a person fails to reach these conclusions on their own. If too much time passes without change, or if the situation becomes dire, an intervention may be your best option.

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Can Addiction Be Cured?

Commenting on this question, NIDA notes that “as with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed.”


Certain medications are used to alleviate symptoms of withdrawal and cravings or utilized as maintenance medications.

Therapy and Counseling

Critical components of treatment and recovery that come in many forms and occur in an individual, group, and/or family setting.

Outpatient Treatment

This format allows individuals to remain at home while they undergo treatment. It may be sufficient for less severe addictions or for those who’ve recently relapsed.


Certain drugs like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and strong opioids may require a medical detox.

Inpatient Treatment

Residential drug rehab, or inpatient treatment, grants your loved one the opportunity to be completely immersed in a supervised, sober environment 24/7.

Relapse Prevention

Relapse can happen to anyone. Learning how to manage urges while implementing coping and stress-relieving techniques can help an individual to stay strong in the face of temptation.

Aftercare Support

Good aftercare includes access to social support programs, peer mentors, counseling, group education, and sober outings, all of which are designed to keep a person focused on their recovery.

How Can You Help Your Loved One Become Sober?

Sobriety is a multi-step process, one which takes commitment, support, and resilience from all parties involved. Individuals who have active family support report greater optimism, fulfillment, and generally have higher success rates within treatment.

Encourage your family member from the start. Remind them of what they’re fighting for, and most importantly, let them know you’re standing by all along the way. Be mindful of setting a positive example. Attending a self-help group yourself will show them that you’re committed to change and a more positive life.

Use Your Knowledge For Power

Understanding risk factors for addiction can help you to get your loved one the treatment they so desperately need. Reach out to us for more information on interventions, detox, treatment, and individual drugs of abuse. Contact today.

National Institute for Drug Abuse - Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

National Institute for Drug Abuse - Understanding Drug Use and Addiction

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