Sun. Jul 3rd, 2022

Separating the Addict from Their Addict Behavior

One of the most gut-wrenching results of addiction is how it turns people we love into strangers. Somewhere along the line, loved ones who once thrived with shining personal traits devolve into someone who lies and steals on a regular basis. As they go in and out of stints in rehab, you start to grow jaded. That gnawing thought in the back of your mind festers. “My son has become his addiction. He’s gone for good.” Although the concern is real, it’s grounded in a misconception about the disease of addiction. And the truth offers hope: your loved one is still in there somewhere. It just requires separating the addict from their addict behavior.


The disease model of addiction spread into mainstream medical acceptance beginning in the 1950’s. Although the stigma of addiction prompts many laymen to reject the disease model, scientific studies continue to support its accuracy. (In case you need to convince anyone, here are three recent peer-reviewed scholarly sources: onetwothree.)

The disease model of addiction provides a scientific basis for separating the addict from their addict behavior. Deviations in the physiology of addicts lead to a different response to how their bodies process chemical substances. Put simply, the average person’s body knows when to stop because chemical overdoses send overwhelming physiological “STOP!” signals. Think nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, and distress. These trusty stop signals are not so trusty for people who suffer from the disease of addiction.

Rather than stop signals, dangerous doses of chemicals produce ever-increasing reward responses in the addict. Imagine that a fifth vodka shot in the span of an hour sounds reasonable rather than a one-way ambulance ride. Or imagine the desperation required to drive an otherwise responsible person into shooting up in the bathroom at work. These counter intuitive behaviors are just snapshots of how chemical dependence carves destructive neural pathways. These physiological pathways are responsible for addict behaviors, not any moral failing on the addict themselves.


Ask any person who knows rock bottom like the back of their hand: Addiction is not a choice. It is a disease that manifests in behavioral symptoms. But suffering loved ones often conflate these disease-fueled behaviors with personal choice. Let’s repeat it again: Addiction is not a choice. It happens when destructive neural pathways create new unwanted behaviors. The operating word here: unwanted. Although addicts must perform “voluntary” actions to continue using, if we’re talking about the person deep down, they remain trapped in a state of cognitive dissonance. Their base instincts, hijacked by chemical dependence, compel them to undesired behaviors that maintain homeostasis. It’s tantamount to being a prisoner inside yourself.

Behavior is tricky. Many of us believe that our naked mental strength can push us through even the most adverse circumstances. But as medical professionals continue to study how events and foreign substances can alter our brain chemistry, this “perseverance overcomes all” attitude does not hold up to scrutiny. Chronic substance abuse actually carves neural pathways that causes people to act against their natural inclinations (i.e., to act as basically good and honest people).


Several addict behaviors stand out as misunderstood symptoms. Namely…


Person refuses to accept the need for change. Grandiose delusions often drive thoughts like, “I’m not an addict, my habit is different and I can control it.”


Lying becomes a maladaptive behavior to maintain homeostasis. This erodes trust with loved ones as they suffer in the wake of constant lies.


Stealing, especially from people we know, goes against our core values. Yet the compulsion to maintain homeostasis often requires addicts to become thieves.

In order to exist peacefully among ourselves, we discourage these behaviors in our children and peers. Offenders meet punishment through the legal system, which is how so many addicts end up in jail for their addict behaviors. So it hurts loved ones to think that their son, daughter, parent, or friend has become this sort of liar. Or thief. Or at the very least, someone who refuses to admit that their choices ruin others’ lives.

But here’s the thing: once mind-altering chemicals hijack an addict’s reward system, addicts’ behaviors turn from voluntary choices into uncontrollable impulses. Suddenly separating the addict and their addict behavior becomes a necessity to treat the disease. The difficult truth, though, is that addicts cannot be separated from their addict behavior until they are ready. 


In order to provide much needed support, loved ones must understand the implications of separating the addict from their addict behavior. So what does that look like, exactly?

First of all, loved ones must manage their expectations during this difficult time. Active addicts must reach a point in their habit where their disease becomes unmanageable. Denial exerts a stronghold on most addicts for years, if not decades. They will always be in there… somewhere. Deep down. But the addict will continue to engage in addict behavior as a symptom of their disease. Eventually though, most people become sick and tired of being sick and tired.

In order to facilitate their journey to recovery, loved ones should keep these points in mind:


This proves difficult for parents in particular. When your child suffers with active addiction, it’s tempting to catch them with a feather pillow every time they fall. But there is a fine line between being supportive and enabling. The latter can actually cripple their progress toward recovery. Each person’s situation is different, and you may want to consult an addiction counselor about what to do. For example, is it okay to allow your son to live at home if he is hiding needles in his room? At least he isn’t out on the streets, right?


It feels really defeating to keep tabs on loved ones experiencing active addiction. Just when you think they’re doing better and rebuilding their lives, they drop out of school and are back out on the streets. Or they show up at a family event nodding off, clearly too high to have even driven there safely. Maybe you’re trying to maintain composure as they straight up lie to your face. Whatever it may be, these are all just symptoms of their disease. It’s not a reflection on who they are deep down. Remember: your goal right now is separating the addict from their addict behavior.


Addicts usually do some pretty hurtful things to maintain their habit. Sometimes it’s as blatant as stealing from your wallet. But more often, it’s some type of emotional manipulation to get what they want. Addiction is a family disease. All too often, active sufferers use their personal relationships with others to gain access to resources. More money, a place to stay, a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs. Don’t take these behaviors personally. They are suffering and need you to maintain boundaries.


To manage your relationship with a person who has a behavioral disease, you must maintain strict boundaries. Separating an addict from their addict behavior requires a mixture of empathy and impartiality that many find difficult. Our hearts and our heads pull us in opposite directions, but the solution lies somewhere in the middle. Avoid enabling, but also maintain hope for the future. Many addicts do recover. If you need more specific guidance, discuss boundaries with a mental health professional. Al-Anon group meetings offer an environment for affected family members to find support as well.


Most often, there’s a small window for addicts who are ready to get help. Stages of change shift and their resolve to admit into treatment weakens if left too long. So if they say they’re ready, it’s important to jump to action immediately. Have treatment options ready for them. Otherwise, that window may close.





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