Addiction as a Chronic Illness
Society as a whole misunderstands and stigmatizes drug addiction. However, with a better understanding of addiction, addicted individuals can reframe their thinking about addiction and find effective methods of management.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that addiction is an illness. When you think about addiction, put it in the same category as other mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Though there is currently no cure for these disorders, people who live with them can live full, healthy, and happy lives overall. With the right combination of treatment methods such as medication and talk therapy, people who have mental health disorders can manage their illness. Like a person with depression, a person with a substance use disorder can treat and manage the illness, living a healthy overall life.
This reframing also provides a better perspective on relapse. Of course, relapse should be prevented because it can be dangerous and may lead to overdose. However, NIDA points out that relapse does not mean that the addicted person has failed. Likewise, it does not mean that the treatment itself has failed. Instead, one might view a relapse in addiction like a relapse in depression. When a depressed individual notices that his or her symptoms are returning, he or she shouldn’t view the relapse as a failure but as a sign that the treatment plan needs an adjustment. Likewise, a relapse for an addicted individual should be viewed as a need to alter treatment. NIDA compares addiction to other chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, stating that all of these disorders have similar relapse rates. An asthmatic person treats his or her illness over the course of a lifetime, making doctor-approved adjustments as needed. An addicted person should handle his or her own illness in the same way.
The relapse rate for substance abuse is 40-60%, which is lower than the relapse rate for high blood pressure.
For some addicted individuals, medication can help during the withdrawal period. For example, many doctors who treat opioid addictions will administer a drug called methadone, which is itself an opioid. However, doctors will then gradually reduce the dosage until the patient’s brain and body no longer depend on the medication. When a person quits taking opioids abruptly, the body reacts poorly. Some have even died from opioid withdrawal. The tapering method, when performed by a medical professional, provides a much safer alternative. Similarly, doctors may prescribe benzodiazepines to treat alcohol withdrawals.
A person with a drug or alcohol addiction might require treatment with antidepressants or antianxiety medication as well. Often, drug addiction has deep roots in other mental health conditions, and medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) can help with the symptoms.
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An addicted individual might start his or her recovery by going to rehab. Rehab centers offer different forms of treatment such as counseling, group therapy, and various recreation options. When a person spends time away from his or her usual stressors, the person may take on a “fresh start” mindset for recovery.
For less severe addictions, outpatient rehab may provide a good option. Outpatient programs offer many of the same therapies as inpatient programs, but participants live at home while getting treatment.
In either case, the addicted person’s therapists should help him or her plan for reintegration into daily life once the program comes to an end. A clear and simple strategy can prevent relapse and provide the individual with some control.
Just like an asthmatic person isn’t done with treatment after using an inhaler for the first time, an addicted person isn’t done with treatment after graduating from rehab. After rehab, the individual should seek maintenance treatments. Some rehab facilities offer aftercare programs, allowing former participants to check in on a regular basis. Addicted individuals can also benefit from speaking to a therapist or attending support groups. Many people find success with groups such as:
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Narcotics Anonymous
- Dual Recovery Anonymous
- Cocaine Anonymous
- SMART Recovery
- The Secular Organization for Sobriety
If You Need Help
If you need treatment for a drug addiction, you have so many options that you might become overwhelmed. We understand that you want to make the right choice. We’ll help you decide on a plan.