Many clients who enter Life Coaching or Therapy struggle with substance use or experience a difficult time with a substance user in their lives. I am often asked what it means to be an alcoholic or an addict. I find all too often that people who think of alcoholism think of people who are low functioning, maybe homeless people, or maybe the guy next door who beats his wife when he gets drunk. Maybe you think of Don Draper in Mad Men who drinks at work all day every day and ends up with hand tremors in the last couple seasons because of it.
Before reading on, I want you to know that none of what I'm writing about here is meant to be judgmental in any way. It's purely informational from a lens that might be different than yours. The underlying point is that alcohol, like most substances, becomes highly physically addictive and it has terrible repercussions on your body. The body and mind cannot exist without each other so it is important to take care of both. I hope this post gives you some ideas on what may not be working in your life so that you can start to brainstorm ideas on how to generate changes to make your life more pleasurable in a long-term, sustainable way as opposed to turning to substances for short-term relief that is more damaging than it can ever be healing.
It helps to think of substances as non-nutritive matters that we ingest. Some examples are caffeine, sugars, medicines, illicit drugs, alcoholic beverages, opiates, alcohol, smoking, overeating. You get the idea. They don't serve any purpose in our body for making us healthy, like say water, or apples, or bread, or eggs. Substances are products that are passed through our organs, blood, and liver that our bodies basically have to 'deal with' and figure out how to get rid of safely. They often throw off the chemical balance in our brains and thus our brains have to constantly readjust so as to try to reestablish the ever so desired homeostasis.
Moderation is the distinguishing characteristic between substance users and substance abusers. Most drinkers do not become alcoholics, and most runners do not become addicted to running. Now think of this. If the runner is compulsively using their activity to cope with unresolved internal conflicts to the extent that he or she keeps injuring their body or destroying their work and family relationships, then they too have fallen victim to addictive behavior. They have become so dependent on the physical ''high'' from their all encompassing running that they cannot concern themselves with the difficulties it is causing.
Using substances is unfortunately all to common in the US as well as other parts of the world. Substance use is usually comorbid, it occurs simultaneously with another condition, with mental health difficulties. Because of this fact and because of the inherent physically addictive quality of substances, substance use, alcohol for example, increases steadily over time and feeds into the existing mental health condition, making it worse.
Take a depressed or anxious individual who periodically has a drink of wine here and there. They start to find that drinking the wine helps them to relax so they shift from drinking once every few nights to every night over a period of months or years. Because alcohol is a depressant, they feel more depressed in the following days, and in turn more anxious because depression and anxiety are interlinked in the brain, so they up the ante and drink more than one glass every night. As they keep drinking, they feel sadder and more anxious which leads to more drinking. Drinking becomes a dysfunctional coping strategy.
It's important to note that the same drug can affect people differently and that drugs fulfill various needs for different people. Seeing common features in compulsive behavior, the National Academy's Committee on Substance Abuse and Habitual Behavior has recently explored dependence on opiates, alcohol, smoking, overeating, gambling, and television watching. Among alcohol abusers, for instance, the academy's report found that research had focused on two types: first, the anxious, depressed neurotic who may drink to kill his psychological pain; second, the unstable antisocial personality who drinks for excitement or sensation-seeking.
The report found that there are two types of substance users. The first type is the anxious, depressed neurotic who may drink to kill his psychological pain. The second type is the unstable antisocial personality who drinks for excitement or sensation-seeking. Interestingly enough, the two types show resemblances to each other, including tendencies to depression, dependent behavior and difficulty in formulating long-term personal goals because of a concentration on short-term goals.
The study also found that people in all addiction categories progressively need greater quantities of stimulation to satisfy their needs and develop symptoms of withdrawal when deprived of the addictive activity. He also noted that addicts to one activity would often switch to another when deprived of opportunity to participate in the original addiction.
Although no one can say with certainty which kind of family is most likely to produce an addict, many mental health experts have strong views on the subject. For instance, Leon Wurmser, a psychiatry professor and former director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, notes that the potentially addictive child may well have been physically abused by parents, who are often themselves dependent on drugs or alcohol. He notes that the child has often been lied to, shamed and humiliated by parents who act in a highly inconsistent manner. They found that in these families, the mother may support something that the father strongly disapproves, or a parent may tell the child one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. It seems that inconsistent parental behavior shapes many addictive persons.
Mental health professionals find that addictive adults who have substance abuse problems have experienced some combination of excesses or inconsistencies of deprivation or overindulgence in early life. There are often shifts from too much to too little love, protection, or discipline. These individuals also experience frequent instances of marked swings from unrealistic praise to destructive hypercritical behavior.
Many personality traits are generally accepted as common to alcoholics and can mostly be generalized to substance users as well. Of course, having these traits doesn't necessarily mean that a person will become an alcoholic or any other kind of addict, but go through the checklist below if you're curious. If you have about half of the traits, about 18-20, it may be time to reevaluate your coping strategies in life. Many of the below traits overlap with feelings of depression and anxiety. There is help no matter what uncomfortable symptoms you are experiencing.
There is hope for change. For as long as you are alive, you can live more functionally and with more happiness. All you have to do is try. Sometimes it is really hard to think that not using substances can bring happiness, but believe me, there is another side to the difficulties after the withdrawal symptoms subside and you are not living your life around an addiction. There is so much else to do with your time. Life does not have to be a struggle.
If you think you may be having some difficulty with substance use, you might want to consider asking a loved one to go through this list for you after you check it out and see how many of the traits they think you may have. It is often interesting to see how other people experience you.
- Idealistic - Truly believes that, not only is the "ideal" world possible, but that it "should be." They see everyone joined together as one united family. However, they often feel disillusioned and disheartened when the world fails to live up to their Utopian ideals.
- Feelings of Being Lost & Alone in a cold harsh world.
- Lacking a sense of belonging and feelings of self-worth. Life lacks luster and joy.
- Inadequacy - Never feels "good enough."
- Hypersensitive physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Feels things much deeper than most. Takes things very personally. Deeply affected by other peoples E-motions as well as any variety of other environmental influences -- most notably negative and/or toxic ones.
- Perfectionist standards.
- There is a "Right Way" and that's my way! Tendencies toward all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking.
- Low Frustration and Tolerance Levels - Easily upset and knocked off balance.
- Lives on "The Edge" - Often engages is risky behaviors. Thrill seeker. Adrenaline junky. Seems to be "hell bent" in stuck in a "self-destructive" mode.
- Fear-Full -Tends to worry a lot. Anxious, agitated, and afraid of what negative or pain-Full live event may be coming their way next.
- Impulsive and Compulsive - This is key to an abuser's way of life. They often act out before really thinking things through. Consequences aren't as important as ingesting the substance. Impulsivity and compulsivity can also trickle into other day to day activities.
- Defiant - Doesn't like being "told what to do."
- Thwarts Authority and rebels against "the status quo."
- Non-Conformist - Always seems to "march to the beat of a different drum. "
- "Different" - Just doesn't seem to "fit in." Not "like the rest."
- Difficulty Keeping Promises - Isn't able to pull through on simple promises like returning phone calls or attending prearranged dates.
- Irresponsible - Often does not take responsibility for actions however insignificant it may seem to others.
- Makes others feel responsible - Users can oftentimes turn the tables and make their loved ones and others in their lives feel that it is them who has done wrong. This can lead to the other person being very dependent and caught up in a cycle of abuse with the user.
- Arrogant - Can come off as quite condescending and "full of it" as times.
- Angry - Has an explosive temper. Volatile E-motions and often acts out in violent ways.
- Resentful of, oh, so many people... Carries a long list of resentments towards all people who have let them down and hurt them "along the way."
- Unable to Forgive - Unable to let go of all the negative things that have happened to them, or the negative feelings they carry inside. Just can't seem to accept people, place, things, and situations as they are.
- Restless, Irritable, Discontent - Life is a painful, unpleasant journey for them.
- Self-Blame - Deep down inside, blames her/his self for "everything" that's gone wrong.
- Demanding - I want what I want and I want it NOW!
- Dependent on others to do for them what they cannot seem to do for themselves.
- Defensive - Very guarded and protective of their inner most feelings.
- Inside World Is Not Congruent With Outside Self - What they feel on the inside is often not who they portray themselves to be on the outside.
- People Please in order to keep the focus off themselves and get people to like them.
- Grandiose at times. Putting on a big show. "The life of the party." "Drama Queen!" "Big man in town!"
- Chameleon - Easily change their persona to match the people and circumstances that surround them. Can "blend right in."
- Vegetative States - Users often feel their best when they are not productive. They find the most calm when they can shut off everything in their bodies and minds as opposed to creating physical movement for themselves and addressing the difficult thoughts that they are avoiding.
- Compulsive Liar - Have often lost conscious contact with "The Truth."
- Complainers - Highly critical of others and themselves. Very negative in their overall assessments of life. Often their "own worst enemy."
- Fear Failure and Success and as such, often remain "stuck" where they are. Feel like they "can't win."
- Withdrawn socially isolated and alone. Even if with others, not really connected. Can't really be "reached." Nobody seems to know what's really going on with them.
- Feels Apart From Instead of A Part Of - Separate and alone.
- Lost & Tortured Soul wondering through life in "the land of the living dead."
- Not Love-Able - Unable to love him or herself or to receive love from others.
- Uses Alcohol to "Escape" or numb-out the pain-FULL experiences of life and fill themselves up with "spirits."
If you would like to learn more about making changes in your life or how to deal with a substance user in your life, feel free to contact me and we can discuss further.