From My Perspective

The Signs of Addiction THE VOICE September 4, 2002

As discussed in last week’s article, addictions are complex and can involve a variety of substances or activities. An addiction is not a sign of personal weakness or lack of moral character – anyone can become addicted. How does a person become addicted and how can you determine if you have a problem?

The process of addiction is a continuum, stages that range from no use to dependency. A person may move back and forth among these stages; or they may progress from no use, to use, misuse, abuse, and finally dependency. *

1. Use. A person who initially starts to use addictive substances does so for a variety of reasons. It may be curiosity, a desire to fit in, or simply because of the pleasurable feelings that result. Social use is responsible use, with few negative consequences (this definition does not include underage youth or illegal drugs).

2. Misuse. At this point a person starts to experience problems due to their use of addictive substances or activities. These may be small, such as doing something they regret later while under the influence of the drug or involved in the activity.

3. Abuse. Problems are more regular, and begin to interfere with major life areas such as family, parents, school, legal issues, money, friends, leisure. The person may become obsessive about their next use of the substance or activity.

4. Dependency. At this stage the ability to choose or not choose is lost. Using substances or being involved in gambling or another activity has become a way of life. Negative social, physical, legal mental and financial, consequences do not stop the user, and symptoms may become manifest on the person’s health and well-being, such as withdrawal or cravings.

You know that you have developed an addiction when the harmful consequences of an activity or substance use are negatively impacting your life and you find yourself unable to maintain control of your behaviour. For many people the addiction develops over a long period of time. For others it may occur with only a few incidents.

The process is influenced by many factors: culture, life events, individual genetic and biological makeup, relationships with family and friends. Although research indicates that certain people may be genetically susceptible to developing an addiction, it is life circumstances that are the primary factor in determining whether this occurs.

Family plays an important role. Not only is the whole family profoundly affected by the addiction of one family member, they often develop coping strategies to deal with the problems associated with the dependency. Sometimes family members are also addicts, or turn to addictive substances in order to cope, and the cycle becomes intensified. Family often feel helpless and guilty. Attempts to force the person with the addiction to seek help may simply worsen the situation.

But how can family or friends help? The first thing is to recognize that you are not to blame for the choices the addicted person makes. The second is to not blame the addicted person for being weak and therefore undeserving of respect. The third is to accept that you cannot force your friend or loved one to stop the addiction. There is, however something you CAN do – change how you are dealing with the situation.

One of the most important things you can do to help yourself or the person in your life who is struggling with an addiction is to get information:

1. Learn about the process of addiction, and what steps are involved during recovery.

2. Stop covering for the person. Hiding the problem just makes it easier to continue the addictive behaviour.

3. Talk to someone. A friend, another family member, support group or counsellor.

4. Make positive changes to your situation. Pay attention to your own health; occupy your time with things you enjoy. You can start your own recovery process whether or not the addicted person stops using.

5. Do not label the person an “addict.” That implies an unchangeable state of being. They are someone who has developed an addiction, something that is possible to change.

You cannot force an addicted person to stop using, nor can you force them to get help. At some point, however, they may make the choice themselves to do something about their addiction. The quit/recovery process is fraught with many misconceptions, and often the attitudes and behaviour of family and friends can be a key factor in determining whether the person who is attempting to overcome an addiction will be successful.


Next week. The quit/recovery process.

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.

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