A relationship with an active drug addict is inherently dysfunctional. They love you but then steal from you, lie at every turn and trick you into believing their lies. When they continue to use drugs even though their children are being neglected and the love of their life is threatening to leave, loved ones ask, “Why is he/she choosing drugs over me?” The natural, albeit faulty, conclusion is that the love is no longer there, or at least it isn’t strong enough to overcome addiction.
The Illusion of Choice
Although understandable, the question misinterprets the nature of addiction. In truth, the addict isn’t choosing anything. Their behavior is reflexive and automatic, based on a physical and psychological need for a substance. Drugs flood the brain with dopamine, training the brain to rely on the relief they provide and to assign greater value to drugs than other things needed for happiness and survival. Over time, addiction changes the chemistry and function of the brain, robbing the user of control and thus taking away the possibility of choice.
Only one relationship matters to an addict: the relationship with their drug. All of their decisions are based on their need for the drug; they see nothing but the drug and don’t even realize that that’s all they see. Even as their lives are caving in around them, they continue to believe they’re in control and that they don’t have a problem.
As much as “choosing” drugs isn’t really a choice, it also isn’t personal. Drugs don’t matter more than you, they matter more than everything – career, reputation, financial stability, religion, even food, water and the basics needed for survival. The addict isn’t trying to hurt you; they are trying to fill a need, just as if your breathing was offensive to someone else you’d be powerless to stop.
The Power to Choose Rests with You
It is common for people to spend a great deal of time and resources trying to “save” their addicted loved one, only to discover that they do not have the power to beat someone else’s addiction. You can’t solve their problems for them. Lecturing, blaming and criticizing will only push them closer to their drug. But you can’t stand to hear the lies and empty promises or worry about their future (and yours) any longer. So what can you do?
You don’t have control over the addict, but you do have influence. It is often an intervention, an ultimatum or a refusal to enable that leads addicts to take the first step into recovery. You can also take control of yourself. Do the things you love and go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings to get educated about the disease. Keeping yourself healthy and whole is good for you as well as the person you want to help.
Addiction isn’t addiction if choice is involved. Addicts don’t choose love over getting high, but they can take responsibility for managing their illness and, once sober, once again show their love for the people they care about. Addicts can get better and they need your support to do so – but it’s the kind of support that involves clear boundaries to protect yourself and to avoid enabling, honest communication of love and concern, and assistance from professionals trained in treating addiction.