Why care for addicts?
Children. If we do addiction medicine and help and treat addicts, we are helping children and their parents and our elderly patients’ children. We are helping families, and that is why I chose Family Practice as my specialty.
Stop thinking of addiction as the evil person who chooses to buy drugs instead of paying their bills. Instead, think of it as a disease where the drug takes over. Essentially, we have trouble with addicts because they lie about using drugs. But I think of it as the drug takes over: when the addict is out of control, the drug has control. The drug is not just lying to the doctor, the spouse, the parents, the family, the police: the drug is lying to the patient too.
The drug says: just a little. You feel so sick. You will feel so much better. Just a tiny bit and you can stop then. No one will know. You are smart. You can do it. You have control. You can just use a tiny bit, just today and then you can stop. They say they are helping you, but they aren’t. Look how horrible you feel! And you need to get the shopping done and you can’t because you are so sick…. just a little. I won’t hurt you. I am your best friend.
I think of drug and alcohol addiction as a loss of boundaries and a loss of control. I treat opiate overuse patients and I explain: you are here to be treated because you have lost your boundaries with this drug. Therefore it is my job to help you rebuild those boundaries. We both know that if the drug takes control, it will lie. So I have to do urine drug tests and hold you to your appointments and refuse to alter MY boundaries to help keep you safe. If the drug is taking over, I will have you come for more frequent visits. You have to keep your part of the contract: going to AA, to NA, to your treatment group, giving urine specimens. These things rebuild your internal boundaries. Meanwhile you and I and drug treatment are the external boundaries. If that fails, I will offer to help you go to inpatient treatment. Some people refuse and go back to the drug. I feel sad but I hope that they will have another chance. Some people die from the drug and are lost.
Addiction is a family illness. The loved one is controlled by the drug and lies. The family WANTS to believe their loved one and often the family “enables” by helping the loved one cover up the illness. Telling the boss that the loved one is sick, procuring them alcohol or giving them their pills, telling the children and the grandparents that everything is ok. Everything is NOT ok and the children are frightened. One parent behaves horribly when they are high or drunk and the other parent is anxious, distracted, stressed and denies the problem. Or BOTH are using and imagine if you are a child in that. Terror and confusion.
Children from addiction homes are more likely to be addicts themselves or marry addicts. They have grown up in confusing lonely dysfunction and exactly how are they supposed to learn to act “normally” or to heal themselves? The parents may have covered well enough that the community tells them how wonderful their father was or how charming their mother was at the funeral. What does the adult child say to that, if they have memories of terror and horror? The children learn to numb the feelings in order to survive the household and they learn to keep their mouths shut: it’s safer. It is very hard to unlearn as an adult.
I have people with opiate overuse syndrome who come to see me with their children. I have drawings by children that have a doctor and a nurse and the words “heroes” underneath and “thank you”. I have had a young pregnant patient thank me for doing a urine drug screen as routine early in pregnancy. “My friend used meth the whole pregnancy and they never checked,” she said, “Now her baby is messed up.”
Addiction medicine is complicated because we think people should tell the truth. But it is a disease precisely because it’s the loss of control and loss of boundaries that cause the lying. We should be angry at the drug, not the person: love the person and help them change their behavior. We need to stop stigmatizing and demeaning addiction and help people. For them, for their families, for their children and for ourselves.
I took the photo of my daughter on Easter years ago.