Turning Off the Addiction Switch

March 1, 2012 | By More

If you believe addictions are simply caused by poor choices, bad behaviors and a lack of control, the disease is much more complicated than you think.

According to a statement released in 2011 by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, (ASAM) the nation’s largest professional society of physicians dedicated to treating and preventing addiction, addiction is now listed as a “chronic brain disease and not simply a behavioral problem involving too much alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex.”

When people see compulsive and damaging behaviors in friends or family members — or public figures such as celebrities or politicians — they often focus only on the substance use or behaviors as the problem. However, these outward behaviors are actually manifestations of an underlying disease that involves various areas of the brain,” according to the new definition by ASAM.

“At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas,” said Dr. Michael Miller, past president of ASAM who oversaw the development of the new definition.

“Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions,” said Miller on the ASAM website.

Addiction counselors in the Arkansas River Valley also stress the physical connection to addictive behaviors. “Addiction can be compared to a defective switch that once turned on can’t be turned off without help, said Janice Burnside, Clinical Service Director for Freedom House, a nonprofit residential and outpatient treatment program run under the auspices of the Arkansas River Valley Area Council (AVRAC) agrees. As Clinical Director of Freedom House, Burnside oversees all client care and training with new counselors.

“Many people feel addiction is more of a moral issue than a physical disease, and believe the addict should simply take control to stop the bad behavior. But the addict can’t stop or they would!” said Burnside who has worked at Freedom House for more than 17 years.

Addiction leaves internal scars, not external scars, said Burnside. Addiction is a progressive disease with its own systems both physical and emotional. But unlike other physical diseases, there is often no outside presence, so people can’t see the devastation until it’s too late, she explained.

While some addicts voluntarily come in for treatment, most Freedom House clients are referred by local court orders, hospitals, or mental institutions, said Burnside.

“By the time these people get into treatment, they’ve lost all ability to stop. If you ask them why it happened, they can’t tell you. No one voluntarily wants to end up in jail, in an institution or facing death,” said Burnside, who has first- hand experience with the disease and intimately understands what it is like to suffer from addiction.

Burnside first came to Freedom House for alcohol abuse as a patient in 1989 after a seemly successful career as an accountant with a nice home and supportive husband. Burnside said while her mother “never touched a drop,” her father had also been an alcoholic as were other members of the family.

“That first visit didn’t last very long because I wasn’t quite ready for it. As they say around here, I hadn’t hit by bottom yet,” said Burnside with an ironic smile.

Then in 1994, after Burnside lost her job, her husband and her home, Burnside’s mother brought her back to Freedom House for treatment a second time.

“It was the look of desperation in my mother’s eyes that gave me a clear picture of what my alcoholism did to my family,” said Burnside.

“By the time I came back to treatment I was physically, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I had already ‘drunk everybody up’ to the point where there was nobody left because the disease eventually consumes everybody around the addict, too. I lost my husband, my career and my beautiful home. It was all gone,” said Burnside.

Alcohol and drugs takes everything from you and leaves you with only desperation and loneliness. You lose hope,” she said.

That was the turning point, said Burnside. “When I came back to Freedom House the second time, I finally realized that there were people here just like me. I felt like I belonged, said Burnside.

At Freedom House, Burnside entered into a year-long residential program called the Chemical Free Living, Center (CFLC) where residents live and attend a variety of outpatient programs to give them the skills and confidence to maintain a sober and productive lifestyle free of drug and alcohol dependency.

During the recovery process at Freedom House, Burnside said the highly structured program retrains addicts and lets them get back their morals, values and everything they used to hold dear to them. “We give them their hope back.”

“That is what Freedom House gave back to me. Hope is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone. If you believe something will get better and work hard to see it through, it can happen!” said Burnside with deep conviction.

After Burnside completed treatment, she started working at Freedom House as a receptionist, and eventually became certified as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor and a Clinical Supervisor.

“It’s 17 years later, and here I am today!” said Burnside, who eventually adopted a daughter who had come from an addicted household.

Today, Burnside’s daughter is a well- adjusted college student at Arkansas Tech University, and Burnside couldn’t be prouder.

“Treatment showed me that once a mother gets sober, she can change that cycle of addiction that affects so many families. We don’t just treat the person, were treat generations.”

 

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