I don’t know if you’ve noticed but much to do about addiction is very dramatic. Addicted people themselves can often be dramatic, those who treat them can be dramatic and our overall lack of knowledge about addictions makes everyone’s fears dramatic.
Loved ones of people struggling with addiction know the drama. It is often associated with manipulation for some, while other times it is a cry for help. Addiction will sometimes exist to obtain attention but it does the opposite effect, which is to push people away. We as human beings can often engage in very maladaptive ways of getting our needs met until we work through these obstacles and find more effective strategies. So the drama, at times, is a way to get one’s needs met in the same way you might see a two-year-old get a bit dramatic for some love and attention (we all have our ways of doing this at times throughout our lives and is not just a problem with addicted people).
But it is mainly our society and the way we view addiction that contributes to, or sets the stage for, the drama. Take TV shows like “Intervention” on A & E or “Addicted” on TLC. These television shows are knee deep in drama and show the world that this is how you work with addictions. Telling people they are going to die if they don’t get clean is extremely dramatic and usually not even true. Do people die from drug and alcohol use? Yes they do, but not nearly as often as major causes of death in our society and not nearly as often as people threaten. Many people go on for years after being told by an interventionist or even a doctor that they are going to die if they don’t get help. They don’t die. So why is this said to people with addictions? Partially, because many have bought into the myth producing drama, and partially due to lack of skills in helping someone engage in the change process. It’s easier to threaten you with your own life to get you to stop then to help you access your own desires to change.
As a society we try to ignore the problem of addiction in many ways, which keeps the general understanding and approach to the problem hidden. This being-in-the-dark contributes to fear – misguided fear gets reactionary and thoughtless, leading to exaggerations and drama. Some addicts know this and find a warped sense of power and drama in this perception. This does not have to be the case. If we did not keep it so hidden it would lose some of its dramatic luster and give people less to be afraid of.
We need to stop dramatizing addiction, addicted people, and the behaviors that go along with it all. Doctors need to stop. Counsellors need to stop. Politicians need to stop. The media needs to stop. Keeping this drama going for the addicted person perpetuates two things for some addicts: one, it continues to reinforce their self-belief of how bad they are since they struggle from such a “horrible disease” and second, it elicits an overactive self-indulgence in being an addict, as if they are special for having an addiction. Not everyone who is addicted struggles with both of these but many do and why that is the case is a whole other discussion.
Why do we need to continue over-dramatizing this problem? We don’t over-dramatize other problems such as depression, or over-eating, or violence even. Violence should be way more dramatized than addiction but it isn’t. Why? Because it is more readily experienced, understood, seen, heard, discussed, etc. Addiction is still hidden in the back alleyways of our lives even though for many it’s right in front of their face.
Ultimately, de-dramatizing addiction will help those struggling with addiction normalize their behavior as being what it is – a compulsive engagement in some behavior – and what it is not – a moral failure leading them to a life of determined sin. The former allows one to take action without all the other stuff getting in the way. One result of the drama in addiction is that it makes it hard for someone to get back on his or her feet after a relapse. They have internalized the drama and their problem to being so much bigger than it needs to be. If it is less a catastrophe, the easier it is to deal with and the less one feels “powerless.”
I believe we need to see addiction as just another thing people want to change about their lives. Does addiction bring with it some “extras” in terms of behaviors, yes, but that doesn’t have to make it more special. It should be less shameful. It does not need to lurk in the corners. Bring it out, let it be seen. Accept that it’s there. Accept those who struggle with it. You may not always accept one’s behavior, but that is appropriate. There are many ways to approach addiction and addicted people without all the drama and exaggerations, and I often wonder if those without the addictions (families, friends, doctors, counselors, politicians, whomever) are just addicted to drama.
I’m not saying addiction isn’t a serious issue with serious consequences – it’s just that we should leave the drama out when we can.