Laurie asks: “Is there really such a thing as the mind of an addict?” Her brother’s son (18 years old) is out of control with drug addiction and alcoholism and refuses to seek out treatment of any kind. In addition, he’s also displaying all the typical addict behaviors: lying, stealing, manipulation, and so on. Laurie has a 2 part question: one, is it possible to become a true drug addict or alcoholic at such a young age, and two, is it a valid excuse to say that “you people just don’t understand, because you don’t have the mind of an addict?”
The answer to the first question is yes, it is very possible to be a full fledged alcoholic or drug addict at a very young age, including 18 and lower. We might dismiss younger people and think that they might just be having fun and “living it up,” (as some of them surely are), but many young people are “true” addicts and alcoholics, destined to follow a lifetime of misery and substance abuse if left untreated. There are two arguments as valid proof of this: one, many more young people are starting to recognize the disease of addiction in themselves and some are taking action to fight back, as evidenced by the growing body of participants in the various young people’s divisions of both AA and NA.
Second of all, we know that it is very possible for young people to be true addicts and alcoholic because of how addiction is measured in people. Some of us have an erroneous mindset that a true drug addict or alcoholic must have suffered a lifetime of harsh consequences in order to “qualify.” This simply is not the case, although many addicts come to recovery only after great loss and devastation in their lives. But addiction is not measured by external consequences, nor is it measured by how much we drank or used or how often we did so. Addiction is measured by our level of obsession and compulsion to continue using drugs and alcohol, even in the face of dire consequences. One example of this regarding youth might be someone who starts smoking Marijuana while their best friend disapproves of it. A true addict won’t be deterred by the loss of a good friend, whereas a reasonable “non-addict” will probably back off the drugs and find a different way to relax and still keep their friendship intact.
Now as for the second part of Laurie’s question, “Is there really such a thing as the mind of an addict?” Yes, absolutely there is, but that does not justify what Laurie pointed out as being some of his typical behaviors: lying, stealing, and manipulating. I never believed addiction or alcoholism was real until I became one. I thought drug addicts were just pleasure-seeking or lazy or something, but then I became an alcoholic and an addict, without even giving my permission, and I learned otherwise. So I can attest to the fact that addiction is real; it is specific and it exists and I have seen it in myself and I see it in others around me. Therefore, I believe the question lies not in whether or not the addict mind actually exists, but in “when does a person becomes responsible for treating their addiction?”
This last point is huge and will probably always be a source of conflict and controversy. However, let’s be clear here: We should always hold a person liable for their actions, regardless of whether or not they are intoxicated or high on drugs. The question is when we hold them liable for actually having the addiction. I think we can do so when they are informed that there are solutions. This can be a sad situation because many addicts and alcoholics truly do not know that a solution exists for them, and they basically exist in the nightmare of substance abuse in a state of perpetual fear. There is another group of people who have heard of solutions (such as 12 step programs) but they believe that such programs could not work for them and thus do not apply to them at all. So things get a bit murky here when you are trying to help someone and also hold them accountable for their addiction, but I think the bottom line is to explain that they do have options and that you are not going to grant any leeway whatsoever based on their disease of addiction. You can acknowledge that they are an addict and that they have a disease, but stand firm that this does not constitute an excuse for ANYTHING and that there are treatment options and programs available to help them. If they are suddenly ready for action, whip out a phone book and call the AA or NA hotline number and find a local meeting for them….this is a good starting point and the people there can help point him to more meetings and resources.
It’s so hard with young people, of course, because they are so smart and they think they have so much more time to have fun and screw up, but many of them are actually recovering in programs that cater to youth and substance abuse problems. It is possible for young people to recover! Anyway Laurie, good luck to you and to your brother’s son, and thank you so much for the question.
Please feel free to send any questions you might have to firstname.lastname@example.org