Did you know the average dieter tries between 55 and 130 diets in their lifetime? Or that smokers average 30 attempts before they successfully quit smoking? Or that most New Year’s resolutions are kept for 10 days?
These numbers confirm what we already know – behavior change is hard. As a society, we don’t expect people to make lasting behavior changes on the first try. In fact, it would be a surprise if someone succeeded in quitting smoking, losing tons of weight or sticking to an exercise plan on their first attempt. Yet, when people try to achieve sobriety for a drug or alcohol use disorder, our society doesn’t show the same level of tolerance, compassion or understanding.
Like other behaviors that people try to quit, statistics show that most people don’t manage to quit their substance use disorder (SUD) on the first attempt. They may try and fail a number of times before they achieve long-term sobriety. There is no magic number or formula for how many recovery attempts a person must make before they get it “right.”
Addiction Is a Disease
Despite many advances over the last 60-80 years in treating addiction, little has changed in the way society views people who have a SUD. Many people refuse to see addiction as a disease and instead view every person with a substance use disorder as irresponsible, worthless and a drain on society. This view comes from the belief that behavior driven by a SUD is a decision, when nothing could be further from the truth. As someone in recovery once said, “We no more choose to be an addict or an alcoholic than we would choose to have cancer.”
Addiction is defined as a disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction is influenced by behavioral, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction.
This is the reality of addiction and the reason that people with substance use disorders need to be treated with kindness and compassion rather than judgment, especially by the people closest to them. People struggling with addiction are suffering from a disease. Addiction is not a choice or a moral failing. It’s not a lack of willpower. These beliefs cause addiction to continue, and so we have to change the way we think about addiction. We have to draw on compassion instead of contempt. When we are compassionate, we promote inclusiveness and safety, which are essential for successful recovery. Judgment or moralizing to people with a SUD is generally not an effective method to bring about change. Instead, understanding addiction and finding empathy for the person holds greater value.
Why do some people become addicted while others do not? It’s a combination of the following: traumatic experiences, lack of healthy social support systems, mental health disorders, genetic predisposition and the environment – all of which contribute to the development of addiction.
As we discussed in more detail in our April article, “Maintaining Sobriety During Social Distancing,” the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is increasing the risk that people who previously turned to behaviors such as smoking, drug or alcohol use or emotional eating may resume these behaviors. Chances are the people who pick up these behaviors again will be disappointed in themselves, along with their families and friends, who have seen them make so much progress.
While we can’t control someone else’s behaviors, let’s be aware of what we can control. That includes whether we judge someone, how we treat each other and choosing to have empathy and compassion for each other. We can choose kindness and being open-minded and helpful when it comes to people with drug and alcohol use disorders. The best way to treat someone with a substance use disorder, especially if you are a close friend or family member, is to support them without enabling them. Try to offer kindness and compassion at all times, especially when someone reaches out for help.