Am I an Addict?
According to Meriam Webster, addiction can be defined by the following characteristics:
Definition of addict
(Entry 1 of 2)
1: one exhibiting a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity
a drug addict opioid addicts a gambling addict
2: one strongly inclined to do, use, or indulge in something repeatedly
a television addict chocolate addicts
By this definition, every human being on Earth could be considered an addict: exercise junkie, work-a-holic, smoker, compulsive over-eater, couch potato, procrastinator, adrenaline junkie, drug addict, alcoholic, compulsive liar, control freak, sex addict, religious fanatic, gambling addiction, gaming addiction… We all have something. Even things that are technically healthy can be detrimentally unhealthy when it becomes an addiction. What is it about that something that keeps us coming back to the addiction? What is it really like to be inside the mind of someone experiencing the symptoms of addiction? Why do we go there in the first place? What is it we are trying to avoid the feeling that is manifesting in the form of a compulsive-comfort-driven-behavior?
I use the term addict in the title because it is the most frequently heard term and perhaps the most widely misunderstood and stigmatized.
Medically speaking, addiction is considered a disease. Specifically, a disease caused by a combination of biological, environmental, and behavioral factors. Just like any other illness. That should be enough for anyone to cast aside their preconceived notion of “that junkie who has overdosed for the fifteenth time”, but the sad reality is that it is not. Hence the stigma.
Stigma is derived from a gross misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. An irresponsible spewing of misinformation and fear. A judgment misplaced on an undeserving victim. A victim of a disorder they did not choose out of circumstances beyond their control.
It takes great strength to learn to control your response to your circumstances. There is no one suffering from an addiction that wouldn’t “just stop” or “not start” if it were that simple. I the individual was able to stop, or never started in the first place the term addiction would not exist.
Telling someone to just stop or not start is the equivalent of telling someone with a broken arm to just stop having a broken arm, there you’re all better right? Don’t do that thing that broke your arm again. Even if the car accident wasn’t your fault, just don’t break your arm next time. The factors that made the circumstances possible are not within your control. The only thing that is sometimes within your control is your response, and even then, there are scientifically proven medical conditions which show there are times when an individual’s response is not within their control.
There are varying levels of substance use. In current medical terms, “Use” referring to anytime someone ingests a drug. “Abuse” when a person uses a drug regularly despite negative impacts in other areas of their life. “Dependence” refers to addiction, the drug is nearly all-consuming, characteristics of dependence include tolerance, withdrawals, more of the drug may be needed in an attempt to feel its effect, drug-seeking behaviors, and a great deal of time spent using and seeking the drug.
The terms addict and addiction (and abuse or abuser) have been so widely stigmatized that Tina White no longer refers to herself as a recovering addict, but as someone who has a substance use disorder. I asked her to help me shed some light on what it means to suffer from substance use disorder, what it really means to live with the disease, and how she copes and thrives day-to-day and leads a life of sobriety, and what she plans to do with her first-hand experience to help others.
What level was/is your substance use disorder characterized at?
I characterize myself as a person who is living well will substance use disorder. That can mean different things for different people. For me, it means that my disorder is currently in remission. I currently happen to be abstinent from all drugs and alcohol. I am living in recovery. But it is important to note that even recovery can mean something different for everyone. Some people think that recovery is strictly abstinence, some people think that harm reduction is also a part of recovery. Recovery is very diverse, and it is important to know that.
What is the predominant drug that characterizes your substance use disorder?
I liked anything that made me feel different, happy, numb or made me not feel or think at all. My drug of choice that had the biggest impact on my life was cocaine.
When did you first come into contact with cocaine?
I was 15 years old at a party. I was already a self-proclaimed ‘pothead’ who was (at the time) content with that. I honestly just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
What went through your mind the first time you tried the substance?
The first time I tried it I was so scared that I would instantly turn into another person. I don’t even really remember if I actually felt high the first time, but I knew that I did want to try it again. I did it a few more times throughout my teen years but didn’t use it consistently until I was in my late teens to early 20s.
How did the substance make you feel, that you felt was missing from your life when you were sober?
Different substances did different things at different times. The first time I ever got high, it was cannabis. I remember saying to my friends, ‘why doesn’t everyone do this every day? I feel like I am in a dream and I don’t want to wake up’.Cocaine made me feel confident like I could conquer the world. Later on, it made me feel numb, made me feel almost nothing.
Was there something you were trying to avoid doing/feeling that allowed you to continue to justify your behavior that leads you to continue using?
Of course, 100%. Most people who have trouble with substances are using it to treat something else. Not all, but almost all. Trying it is one thing. Most people will try alcohol, cannabis, or other substances. The issue is not trying it. It’s not wanting to stop, because of how it is making you feel, or how it makes you not feel. There are many studies that link childhood trauma or adverse childhood histories to people who are at risk of developing substance use disorder or other addiction issues. I was no exception. I had a father who was often abusive, incarcerated, and also used drugs and alcohol. He moved to the states when I was young and didn’t talk to my brother or me for years. We were essentially abandoned by him. My mother was chronically ill for the majority of her life and died when I was 17 years old. There were other issues too, but those are the ones that I think affected me the most as a child. Not receiving or not wanting to receive treatment for the emotional issues that came along with those experiences is what led to the development of my substance use disorder. Over time it actually made things a lot worse. But in the moment, it helped quite a bit.
When did you first realize you were dealing with an addiction?
That’s hard to answer. I was in denial for a long time. I probably knew from the first time I got high and found out how much I liked it and how I wanted to feel that way all the time. I didn’t let myself come to that realization for quite a while though. If you don’t think anything is wrong than you don’t have to try and fix it, right? I knew that what I was doing was unhealthy and that I should stop or slow down, but I didn’t take it seriously until I overdosed on cocaine. I thought I was going to die. My resting heart rate was over 170bpm and I was in a drug-induced psychosis. I continued using other things but stopped using cocaine for almost 3 years after that. I eventually started using again until I found my personal road to recovery.
What initially made you want to seek recovery?
I did see an addictions counselor after my overdose. That did make me want to seek recovery. Unfortunately, all the places that I had applied for rehabilitation treatment, wouldn’t accept me due to my concurrent health issues. They didn’t have the means to accommodate me. I gave up trying after being denied by several centers. What made me become serious about seeking recovery and what made me not give up when trying to seek treatment again, was the means I was willing to go to get my next fix. I was out of money. I couldn’t pay my bills. The relationship I had at the time had recently ended. I thought I was fired from my job (they let me take time off, but at the time I thought I couldn’t go back). I didn’t have money to pay my rent for the next month and I was in the process of researching ‘how to safely live in your car’. I went online to try and make new friends. I needed drugs and I couldn’t pay for them. My ‘friends’ at the time were also people who had addiction issues and understandably, didn’t like to share. I was also recently single so I went on to a dating site and figured I could just date someone who didn’t mind sharing. I got a message from an attractive older man that read, “what’s your poison?”. I told him coke and (at that point in time) molly. He offered to give me as much as I could use if I let him videotape us having sex. I thought it was a good offer. He was attractive, if we went on a date, there was a chance that I would end up sleeping with him, so why not just get something out of it? I remember it quite clearly. I had a time and place to meet him. I even had my winter jacket on. I don’t know what made me re-think everything, but I did. I searched online for the nearest NA meeting and I went the very next day.
In the worst of your active substance use disorder, what was it like to be in your head?
I hated myself for a very long time. I wanted to die for a very long time and tried a few times as well. It didn’t feel like I was even living. I was just slowly dying.
How long have you been abstinent and how did you get there?
Three and a half years. I got there with help. Help from professionals. Help from family, friends, coworkers, and strangers. I was by no means an easy road and definitely not a straight one. I am not cured and most likely never will be, but I am living well with substance use disorder.
You have been through Narcotics Anonymous 12 Step Program. Did you find it helpful? Would you recommend it? Have you found a sense of community?
Yes, I have, and I would recommend it to others while also reminding them that it is not the only road to recovery. I hold no ill will towards NA, and I will be forever grateful. I do believe it is exactly what I needed at the time and that it helped me save my life. I did find a sense of community and found loving strangers who helped me live a better life and improve myself in ways I previously never thought possible. Unfortunately, though, some members are to the extreme, and believe that it is the only way to get help and that you aren’t truly in recovery if you are practicing harm reduction techniques or if you are taking any form of drug replacement therapy. That is probably the only thing I don’t like about the program. Nothing is in totality. There are other ways to find recovery and to treat this disorder, and it is important to be open to that.
You participate actively in Recovery Day Ottawa on an annual basis. What do you feel this does for people who have faced similar situations to yourself?
I love Recovery Day Ottawa (RDO)! Some awareness campaigns don’t necessarily help the issues themselves; it just helps to promote it. Which is still very important, but I think more can be done. Awareness campaigns for persons with substance use disorder do more than raise awareness of the issue. Stigma is the number one barrier to seeking and receiving treatment. Awareness and education campaigns, like RDO, combat the stigma people face by speaking publicly about a taboo issue like an addiction. It lets people come out of the shadows and not be ashamed to talk about these important issues. RDO is also a super fun festival-type celebration!
Do you have any advice for people who are wondering if they are dealing with an addiction?
If someone is if they are dealing with addiction issues, it may be already be something to seek help for, it may not be something they need help with but won’t hurt to get help. Addiction counselors have many tools at their disposal and different treatments available to their practice or referrals to different treatments. They may even tell you that you might not have an issue, that it is something else, or just that it is something to monitor. And that’s okay too. Either way, asking for help is hard, and getting help may be hard too, but help is out there and that is the first step to getting better.
Do you have any advice for people who want to recover from their addiction?
You may fail many times. And that’s okay. You may never fully recover. And that’s okay. Many people will always have substance use disorder, whether in remission or not. How is it okay for someone to get help if it is not okay for someone to be sick? It’s all okay, and you will be okay. Help is out there. It is hard and it is by no means enough. But it is there. Just try. Try and succeed. Try and fail. Then, try again. Just don’t give up. You are precious, you are worthwhile, and you deserve better.
You’re currently studying your Bachelor of Social Work at Carleton University. What compels you towards this goal and what are you hoping to achieve after you complete your studies?
I have always had respect for the social work profession. I hate using this term but as a ‘troubled youth’ I was sent to many different people; counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc. The people who seemed the most empathetic and who wanted what was best for my well-being were social workers. Now, that’s not to say that everyone else didn’t want that. I have respect for other professionals in the field and social workers weren’t the only ones that helped me. I personally just felt the most cared for by the social workers. After I complete my bachelor's, I want to go on to obtain my Master of Social Work. I want to work in advocacy, research, and policy pertaining to addictions and mental health.
Knowing what you now know about yourself, is there anything you would like to add that you feel it is important for others to know? In particular, about how to help someone who is dealing with an addiction?
Empathy. Empathy. Empathy. For yourself and others. I truly believe that empathy can change our world.
According to the studies listed below, the abstinence approach, “D.A.R.E.” program, and “Just Say No” campaign is in fact non-effective, or worse have the opposite of the intended effect in the long term, despite the best of intentions. Why do you personally think that might be?
“Just saying no” doesn’t work for a lot of things, so why would it work for addiction? That is why harm reduction work is becoming more common. It’s through evidenced-based research and practice that things change. That’s actually why I want to work in the fields I stated above. They all work together. Advocacy is important to get the marginalized voices heard (although it is important to remember to make room for voices other than your own). Research is important because the evidence is important. Evidence is important for policy reform to show that change can work for the well-being of our society. Which is what social work is all about.
Project DARE: No Effects at 10-Year Follow-Up. Donald R. Lynam et al. in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 67, No. 4, pages 590–593; August 1999.
Interventions for Reducing Adolescent Alcohol Abuse: A Meta-Analytic Review. Stephen J. Tripodi, Kimberly Bender, Christy Litschge and Michael G. Vaughn in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 164, No. 1, pages 85–91; January 2010.
Tina, thank you kindly for having the courage to share a part of your story with us. I believe your words will help others who may be suffering and those who do not suffer from substance use disorder to have more compassion for those who are.
First Published: 11/10/2019
An Interview by jcArt