“Why aren’t they getting it?” We hear family members say this to us all the time. I often ask how long the loved one has been using (years, maybe decades) and use the same analogy to help them look at addiction a little differently.
We now definitively know that substance use disorders are neurobiological diseases that develop over time and are affected by hundreds of factors. They are diseases that develop as brain connections are affected by bad relationships, lack of support, and many other influences, but most of all, trauma. Substance use disorders focus the brain on finding ways to cope. Every drink or use reinforces the disease and strengthens harmful and dangerous pathways in the brain. If it is hard to imagine the neurological reinforcement process, think of the difference between a single thread or string dangling alone and a braided rope that is strong enough to support an anchor on a cruise ship. A new thread, a neurobiological connection, is added on for every use. That is a lot for the brain to unlearn and replace with healthier processes – and it takes time.
Here is my analogy: If we throw a toddler into a professional baseball game, of course, they are not going to have any idea what is going on. That game is life and long-term recovery. That toddler will not know what to do the first time and it may be defeated, but we are all part of their team and we have to get them back to the plate to try again. Each time they are up to bat, they learn a little more – the weight of the bat, the weight or speed of the ball, the rules of the game, how to run, how to strategize, what works when they swing, what doesn’t work, what kind of obstacles will try to beat them, and a million more intricacies.
That is how we approach our patients. It is okay and natural to not be an expert on recovery after one time at detox. We can’t expect anyone to fully unpack years of trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms in a few days. Plus, in detox, we focus on getting the body to optimal shape so they can truly focus on the emotional and psychological healing once they move forward from us to a provider to the treatment facility. All of us – from detox to treatment and beyond – want to focus on what was learned or how the person grew, even if it was only one thing learned or one small amount of progress; that translates to rewiring one of those threads in the brain successfully. Most of all, we celebrate how that individual is alive and we all get a chance together to try again.
It is easy and completely understandable to feel frustrated when a loved one needs to reenter detox, especially when you have been a witness to all the symptoms of their disease, and even affected yourself. You can maintain your boundaries while still encouraging that person to try again. You can focus on the progress over the failures. You can remember that this person is alive to give fighting this disease another shot. And if you feel like giving up, you can lean on our team to help you build your hope back up. We are here for you, too.