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When Love Isn’t Enough: Addiction

If you have a relationship with someone struggling with addiction, you might have found yourself thinking, “if they love me, they would stop using” or “why do they always choose drugs over me?” or “why is what I do not good enough?”. While these thoughts are understandable amidst the confusion and hurt in loving someone with an addiction, it is important to understand that within addiction is the distortion of choice and that it is not about you.  The addicted brain is a hijacked one, with the addiction influencing the decision, not your loved one, and certainly not with intent to choose drugs over love, sex, food, and responsibilities. 

Addiction is a brain problem; although it might have started with a behavior or intentional choice,  it escalates into a psychological and physical need. In “The Addicted Brain”, Kuhar states, “They [drugs] enter the brain and dominate the process of chemical neurotransmission, and the brain by itself doesn’t have any ways to fight that domination. Drugs, therefore, can ‘push the brain around’ and override natural processes.” (1) He goes on to discuss how powerful addiction is to be such a driving force that despite negative consequences and distress, a person will continue to engage in addictive behaviors. Eventually, the use of drugs batters the dopamine system to such an extent that the systems in the brain that drive behavior, thought process, decision making, etc, are significantly impacted in a maladaptive and altered capacity: “the object of desire now becomes [the drug] instead of a natural reward” (1). While distressing to have missed your loved one at the holiday dinner or noticed the absences at the children’s sports games or failure to show up in a loving, intimate relationship, it is important to note that the brain no longer receives pleasure from those rewards as it once did, becoming monomaniacal in getting the next “fix”. The ‘fix’ becomes the loudest voice, while the healthy rewards become a quiet murmur. In addition, while use of substances originated from a choice to cope, it can become a need, a pathological drive to no longer experience debilitating withdrawal symptoms or what they suffer without the altered mind.  

As the use continues, the connection between the substance and pleasure is reinforced, imparting to the brain to seek substances even at the expense of you: it is a reward circuitry that has been hijacked by an imitation ‘feel good’. Reward circuitry indicates that the brain is taught that the imitation ‘feel good’ needs repeated, similarly to how the real ‘feel good’ in normal, unaltered brains is reinforced by repetitive action as dopamine is activated in the brain. However, due to the increasing tolerance of the drug, more is needed to achieve the same reward/pleasure activation, and an increase in drugs begins to take precedence over the now ‘less pleasurable’ healthy choices. This can become maladaptive to the point that the drive is no longer to just get high but to repeat the action, even without conscious effort.

This leads us to understand that addiction exists beyond willpower, morality, and love. In fact, the root word addict stems from the Latin word addictus, translating to mean, “to devote, consecrate, sacrifice, sell out, betray, or abandon” and “to devote or give up (oneself) to a habit” (2).  An addiction is the chains that enslave, while the individual battling addiction is the one holding the keys but they have become tolerant to the chains. Therefore, as someone who loves an individual chained by addiction, its important to note that you do not have the power to overcome someone else’s addiction but you can influence them to take the first step towards freedom. For them, support, validate, educate, instead of lecture, blame, criticize. But for you, understand that addiction is not personal, the choice is not theirs; establish clear boundaries, step away from enabling, find supportive community, seek professional support, attend support groups, and ultimately, separate yourself (your worth, values, actions) from a disease that might not care about you and support the person that does.

References:

1. Kuhar, M. (2015). The addicted brain: why we abuse drugs, alcohol, and nicotine. Ft Press.

2. addict | Etymology, origin and meaning of addict by etymonline. (n.d.). Www.etymonline.com. Retrieved May 12, 2023, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/addict?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_5098

Meet The Author

Michaela Quinley, Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health

MICHAELA QUINLEY

MC, LAC

Meet The Author

Michaela is a Clinical Counselor at Sea Glass Mental Health. She works with teen, couples, and adult populations. Michaela specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

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