Editor's Note: The Citizen continues its series on the impact of drugs in the Lakes Region and American society in general with a look at addiction.
LACONIA — Like diabetes and cancer, substance abuse and addiction are diseases, say local experts, and a reflection of a human truth that some people will always look for solace, joy, meaning or release in a pill, bottle or chemical.
But substance abusers also find — and cause — a great deal of misfortune.
“Why are people prone to using drugs? To feel good,” said Jacqui Abikoff, executive director of Horizons Counseling Centers in Gilford and Plymouth. As a licensed independent social worker, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and a licensed clinical supervisor, she has spent more than 20 years helping people overcome their addictions.
What’s Going On“If you think about it, there are a couple of things going on,” she said. For starters, she said, “in our society we are very reluctant to deal with negative feelings. We don't do a very good job of teaching our kids to take care of their negative feelings. We want everybody to be happy all the time and, as you get older and bad things happen to you, you look for something to ease the pain.”
That “something” comes at different times in people's lives and might be marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, heroin or a prescription drug. Use of that substance might not inherently create an addiction. But because some people's internal wiring might predispose them toward that sort of behavior, use and abuse can turn into addiction, said Abikoff, and addiction may bring with it a slew of problems for users, their families, and society.
Abikoff emphasized that addiction is not a moral failing but “a disease process that, if we don't start treating as a medical health issue more than an enforcement one, we will lose the war on drugs.
“â€˜Just say no,' doesn't work, because people don't know how to say â€˜no,'” Abikoff said. “We just want to feel good, but I think it's dangerous to blame addiction on wanting to feel good or chasing the high in that way because there are people who drink recreationally and there are people who use recreationally and they're engaging in something illegal but it's not destroying their lives.
“Drugs are not a bad thing, per se. Every drug has a purpose. We talk about OxyContin being this bad drug, but it has a very specific purpose in dealing with very severe pain. It's when drugs are used for a purpose that they're not meant for or in a manner that is not appropriate that they become dangerous, and it's when someone begins to develop a disease process that takes over their ability to make good decisions over how they will use drugs.”
Substance Abuse Is Often Misunderstood
Substance abuse is misunderstood by many, said Abikoff.
“We keep going back to treating it as a behavioral problem or a matter of a lack of self-control or misconduct when, in reality, we're talking about a disease process and there is no other disease that carries the stigma that addiction carries.”
While research shows that relapse rates with alcohol and drugs are no greater than for patients with diabetes and heart disease, “physicians and the medical community don't look at the person who had a heart attack who comes in a year later with a second heart attack and because they didn't follow their diet or take their medication, they're not going to say we're not going to treat this heart attack; yet that's exactly what we do with addiction,” said Abikoff.
“When people come through the (substance abuse treatment system) again, we say they're system abusers, that somehow they don't deserve the treatment because they didn't get it the first time around.”
Society shuns the drug addict and “some of it is ignorance, some of it is wanting to distance ourselves from the whole concept of addiction,” Abikoff said.
“It's a way of saying, â€˜I would never be that way so it couldn't happen to me,' and the face we see on addiction is the person who is seriously ill or who has begun to engage in antisocial behavior or is about to lose their job. We don't see what the person looked like as they got there, and we don't see what they've looked like after they got treatment and became productive citizens, because it's too hard for them to get up and say â€˜I'm a recovering drug or alcohol addict.' Who wants to be associated with that?
“People don't want to become addicted, that's part of the mindset. No one wants to get diabetes or get cancer, no one volunteers for a potentially chronic, fatal disease. But the reality of being humans is that we have human frailties and we have genetic makeups that predispose us to certain diseases and some of us are predisposed to addiction. So as long as disease is with us, we will have drug abusers and alcoholics.”
Boredom and Drug Use
Nancy Dyer, a social worker and a licensed alcohol and drug education counselor who has spent the last dozen years working with the Chemical, Health Advisory Task Force at Plymouth State University, said, “the largest reason I get from college students as to why they use substances is, â€˜I'm bored.' It's to alleviate a sense of not knowing quite what to do with oneself or one's feelings and that can be quiet difficult. It's easier (for some people) to have a beer or take a drug than struggle.”
Dyer said that it is a part of human nature to look for an altered state of consciousness. “For example, little kids will spin themselves to get really dizzy. People are always looking for ways to experience something outside themselves that's different,” she said.
Society also has to take responsibility for creating an atmosphere where some drugs are perceived as being “okay” because they're “legal” — alcohol, tobacco and most medicines — while others are “illegal” and therefore “wrong,” Dyer said.
“The mixed messages are profound,” said Dyer, pointing to a whisky manufacturer's sponsoring a NASCAR racing team while society condemns drinking and driving.
Another irony is that alcohol use has been attached to all sports “and that's a real double message, because a person can't be intoxicated and do sports,” said Dyer.
“I think we're trying to medicate everything,” she said. “It's difficult for people to sit with their own sense of unhappiness or boredom or anxiety. We're taught in this culture that everything is supposed to be fun and happy all the time and that's not human nature, I don't think.”
Which drugs are legal is “almost beside the point,” said Dyer. “We approach them through treatment instead of having tough criminal penalties.”
Although people will continue to disagree about it, substance use, abuse and addiction are part of the human condition, said Dyer.
“There will always be people who alter their states of consciousness and some who want to do it so badly that they get addicted and hurt themselves.”
Tomorrow: The Citizen continues its series on the impact of drugs in American society with a look at treatment options.
John Koziol can be reached at 524-3800 ext. 5940 or at: email@example.com
Reprinted with permission from Citizen Online.