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What Makes People Become Addicts Or Alcoholics? The Professional’s Perspective

The Professional’s Perspective is written by interventionist and family counselor Ricki TownsendRicki volunteers to run the Sunday family meetings at Clean & Sober Recovery Services.

What makes people become addicts or alcoholics? It’s important to understand that those who become chemically-dependent upon alcohol or other drugs had more vulnerable brains than the “Average Joe” before they even began drinking or using. In my practice, I am often aware that some or all of these factors are playing a part in the development of substance use or abuse:

  • Genetics:People who have a strong history of family substance use disorder often share the same genetic vulnerability to addiction as their family members.
  • Trauma: The ACE Study demonstrated that children who are exposed to trauma (e.g., poverty, violence, disease) are more likely to develop 40-plus chronic diseases – including substance use disorder – than those who weren’t exposed to trauma. This is because early childhood trauma fundamentally changes the way the brain works structurally, hormonally and in other ways.
  • Mental health issues: People who experience mental health issues like depression, anxiety disorder or bi-polar disorder may find that self-medication Brightens their day, gives them confidence or stabilizes their moods. Essentially, they become dependent upon drugs or alcohol to feel “normal.”
  • Environment: parents who drink irresponsibly or abuse drugs, family anger and shaming, bullying in school, peer pressure to “party”…I’ve seen all of these take their toll. The home environment is particularly critical. Consider the home where a child is raised in a loving, firm and watchful way, where communication is valued and mental health issues are noted and cared for. That child will face life’s challenges with life skills, support and guidance. Contrast this scenario with the child who is raised with guilt or shame – or not even noticed – and whose parents mask their own problems with drugs or alcohol. That child is more likely to self-medicate and navigate life with drugs or alcohol as the rudder.

For these reasons, I like to use the term “addictive neurology” rather than “addictive personality.” Viewing substance use disorder through this lens often helps families find forgiveness for their loved one’s transgressions; leaving blame and finger-pointing behind can help point the whole family in the direction of healing and recovery.

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