Addiction does not just affect the addict. The experience of substance abuse is traumatic, and so is witnessing a loved one go through it. I know from experience – I’ve felt every emotion possible while people I love struggle with their addiction.
I am Mike Swenson, LADC and lead counselor at The Recovery Academy. I’d like to introduce myself and give a little glimpse into RA’s family support philosophy!
Not only do I have personal experience with a family member struggling with addiction, but I also come from an inpatient treatment center background, where I created and ran the family education program and facilitated hundreds of hours of family therapy. I learned a lot about families and experienced a myriad of unique and complicated family dynamics during those sessions. My schooling background is a BS in Biopsychology (neuroscience focusing on behavior), Political Science, and Math. After that, I pursued a graduate degree in Addiction Counseling and focused on the neurobiology of addiction and mental health, all from the University of Minnesota.
I am also a Combat Veteran of the United States Marine Corps. I served for five years as an Infantryman. I’m young, 33 years old, and heavily tattooed from my time in the Marines–I think like a therapist, but I do not look or talk like one, which helps me connect with our guys!
My philosophy on helping families revolves around three themes; Understanding, empathy, and learning. Perhaps the best way to understand how these themes work in our family approach is to ask a simple question and apply family support philosophies as we answer it:
What even is addiction?
What is addiction may seem like a simple question. The most straightforward answer is perhaps “Using a behavior or a mood-altering substance repeatedly, and not being able to stop” or something similar to this. I would not say this definition is entirely wrong, but I would say it is only a tiny part of the picture.
It is important to remember addiction affects humans, and we are anything but simple! All of us have complex and nuanced ways of looking at the world – we’ve all had our own life experiences that have shaped us in unique ways. This leads to many individual interpretations of those experiences, leading to unique thoughts, behaviors, and personalities. Another way of saying that is: we all go through life experiences, good, bad, and everything in between, and through these experiences, we learn how to respond to the world around us.
In my years as a counselor, I have learned an unshakable truth about people: we all make sense. I’ve never met someone whose behaviors didn’t make sense after taking the time to learn about their life and try my best to understand why they came to the conclusions they did.
Yes, even addiction makes sense! Addiction is a very human thing that makes sense in the context of an addict’s life. That may be a weird thing to hear, but taking the time to understand addiction, what it is, and how it happens, is an integral part of changing it.
Let’s be real: mood-altering substances are a pretty effective and efficient way to change your emotions and, thus, solve a problem. Again, that may be a weird thing to hear, but it is ultimately true. Meaning addiction is not the central problem, but rather a symptom of something else: mental health struggles, social anxiety, trauma, or even boredom and feeling socially connected to your peers. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, and it’s usually a complicated amalgamation of a few of those things–remember, humans are complicated!
So maybe, asking “what is addiction” is myopic. I think there is a better question to ask:
Is addiction abnormal?
The stigma of addiction is quite clear: Addiction is something weak people do who don’t have control over their behaviors. That seems like it is abnormal. But is that accurate? No, it is not. Addiction is a habitual behavior, complicated by neurobiological changes in the brain. Making stopping or changing that behavior is extremely challenging. Are habits abnormal? Definitely not. Habits are human, and humans are complicated, and we all form habits we perpetuate everyday.
So maybe asking “What is addiction” isn’t the best way to increase our understanding. What if we asked, “How does addiction happen?”
The short answer: Learning
Let’s be honest with ourselves: We all have behaviors that we truly wish we didn’t. We all have those pesky habits that seem like such a good idea at the time, even though the voice in the back of our head knows better. Habits are human, after all.
That sounds a lot like addiction: A behavior that we do that we wish we didn’t.
Since I’m a human, I’ll share with you one of my pesky habits:
Every time I see a Taco Bell, I get reminded that Cheesy Gordita Crunches are delightful. My brain immediately tells my body, “Just get one, that’s not going to hurt anything….” and the internal battle starts; should I pull into that drive-thru, or just keep driving?!?
Again, that sounds a lot like addiction. I can even use addiction language to describe it: I am triggered when thinking about Taco Bell, then I started craving a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and now I am struggling to remain abstinent.
The point here is not that Taco Bell is as addictive as drugs, even though it feels that way to me sometimes, but rather habits work the same way, regardless if they are as seemingly innocent as Taco Bell, or as life-altering as addiction.
But let’s say I start a diet: I will change my eating habits and stop going to Taco Bell. Easy, right? Not-at-all. Again, let’s be honest with ourselves: Changing behavior is inordinately hard! We’ve all experienced the struggle of trying to change something in our lives, and it is never as simple as “just stop.” I know I am supposed to stop eating Cheesy Gordita Crunches… But dangit, I love Cheesy Gordita Crunches!
Additionally, Taco Bell does not change my brain even remotely as much or make me feel anywhere near as good as a substance of abuse. It’s hard to change any habit, let alone a pattern that is physically modifying your brain and instantly changing your emotions, leading to a veritable guarantee the behavior will happen again.
I go much deeper into those brain changes in the family education class, but the main point here is grasping how our habits are learned over time. The more we make those habits, and the more comfortable they become, the harder they seem to change. This is not just true for addicts and alcoholics. It is valid for all of us. On the surface, addiction seems like an outrageous behavior, but the deeper we go, the more human it looks. Thus, asking how does addiction happens is very similar to asking how do habits form?
I learned that I love Cheesy Gordita Crunches. I realized that eating them makes me feel good. While in United States Marine Corp, I discovered that I could eat all the Cheesy Gordita Crunches I wanted and not gain any weight. I taught myself to then eat them all the time. I learned where all the Taco Bell’s near me were…
And then I left the Marines
That’s when I learned eating Cheesy Gordita Crunches all the time was not a good idea. It started to negatively impact my life, negatively affect my self-perception, and induce shame when I would go to the Taco Bell drive-thru as I gained weight. But there’s a problem: I like
Cheesy Gordita Crunches and eating them makes me feel good. They’ve been making me feel great for years. They make me feel good, and now they make me feel terrible at the same time.
Then I learned, and I am still always reminding myself how hard it is to change that habit.
I am upset at myself for doing something and upset at myself for not stopping – emotions I don’t want to feel. Paradoxically, making me want to relieve those emotions with a Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
That, again, sounds very similar to addiction. Am I abnormal? Well, that depends on who you ask, I guess, but it seems pretty human to me.
We are all susceptible to the human condition
Family education helps us learn to better understand ourselves, better understand humanity, and better understand addiction.
To bolster this, I also have family calls with each family once a week. They are not only for updates on your loved one but to help you navigate through your evolution, just like your loved one.
Because we are in this together.
Mike Swenson, LADC