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Balancing past experiences with current life events can bring on its own stressors that throw some people off track. How we are able to cope with our own drama, yet manage to fulfill all the responsibilities needed to get the next day going, is astonishing. When you really think about what people have gone through and witness the accomplishments they have made, despite any damaging barriers, it’s truly inspiring.

Coping mechanisms vary from person to person, some are healthy and some are not. For the most part, one could agree that someone influential in our lives modeled these coping mechanisms for us. Usually these coping mechanisms make us feel better, even if it may be temporary. Sometimes, too much of something can eventually bring about some negative or unhealthy effects. Coping mechanisms can become habits and suddenly they no longer require a thought process, they are an automatic response; painful feeling/emotion/situation leads to initiating the routine habit.

With time, for some, these habits begin to become a way of life and everything else falls secondary to that habit. Drug use is a common form of coping, a way to literally remove yourself from feeling or thinking about whatever is causing you emotional distress. Due to the nature of how drugs function in the brain, changes occur in the way one perceives, reacts, hears, sees and feels reality. The longer these changes are in effect, the longer it can take to bring back some sense of equanimity. It is difficult to argue that the long-term negative effects of certain drugs can eventually bring about more stress than one already had. However, those drugs did once actually help cope with pain. When something feels good and pain is removed, it can be common to want to repeat whatever made you feel good…especially when the perception that nothing else can possibly replace it is strong.

So a drug use habit can end up becoming a compulsive and repetitive pattern that is increasingly difficult to break, but not impossible. If the brain was able to mold and embrace drug use as a daily behavior, the brain can also do the reverse. Many factors can play a different role in assisting someone to making that change; the desire to want change for oneself is a strong component. Any kind of change is easier said than done, no doubt. The supportive structures that people choose (or in some cases are chosen for them) in order to make those changes vary and can have successful results. Of course, this all depends on how one defines success in making change.

Many are firm believers that a compulsive drug-using behavior means that the individual has a disease of the brain. ‘Alcoholic’, ‘addict’ or ‘user’ are typical labels for those who believe in this concept. “Once an addict, always an addict” is a common phrase heard among those who are faithful to addiction being a disease, as well as, “you’re always in recovery,” or, “you have to admit that you are powerless.” I respect the fact that for some people, the perception that these terms, phrases and ways of thinking really do help is real for them. But, if you remove yourself emotionally from this ‘disease’ belief, doesn’t the language sound incredibly crippling? As though any sense of autonomy you have is ripped away, and you must have your thoughts, perceptions, feelings and behaviors controlled by an external source in order to survive.

What’s curious to me is that many people who are labeled as ‘addicts’ under this disease concept, end up changing their compulsive behavior without any assistance from what would be prescribed using this model. With a physical disease, no matter whom it affects, it is impossible to control how the disease progresses without medical treatment. Also, doesn’t the act of actually seeking out a method to make change indicate some form of autonomy or some sense of control and power?

– Alex Brousset, MFTi