Do You Think She’s an Addict?

“I found Lisa* sitting on the couch, asleep I guess or maybe passed out, with a half-eaten apple in her hand.  She looked awful.  I saw her purse on the floor and rummaged through it to see if I could figure out what she was using.  That’s when I found these little baggies labeled ‘Friends of the Night.’  I woke Lisa up and asked her what they were.  She told me they were vitamins and I sort of believed her, but I flushed them down the toilet anyway,” Marcie* explained, her voice marked with raw pain as she concluded her long and tortured story about her daughter Lisa’s drug-related adventures. 

Marcie had called me at the direction of our pastor who was familiar with our own journey in through this nightmare.

“Do you think she’s an addict?” Marcie asked me anxiously.  I knew this question so well as it was one that I wrestled with as we began to peel back the layers of our son’s drug use.  Is it really possible that the child you raised with so much love and self-sacrifice could actually be an addict?

Personally I dislike the term “addict” — for me it conjures up the picture of an anorexic-like figure slumped in a garbage-strewn gutter with a needle plunged into a vein, escaping into the euphoria of heroin.  That certainly was not the picture of our son, who, when using was occasionally glassy-eyed, but to the uninformed, was the picture of health. 

When used in conjunction with dessert or a sports team, the word addiction takes on more passionate overtones, as people gush about their chocolate cravings or the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.  In contrast, addiction paired with substance abuse evokes so many negative images and emotions.  Although a convenient label, the term addict does not begin to describe the level of use, its impact on the user and his or her family, and underlying issues that may have contributed to the problem.  

Early in my son’s recovery I attended an AA meeting with him where one of the speakers joked, “I love to drink but every time I have a beer I have an allergic reaction – I break out in handcuffs.”  I think he was on to something – some can tolerate substance use (like the occasional glass of wine or a beer), while even the smallest amounts can be toxic for others, as with any other kind of allergy.

I told Marcie that I was not in a position to label her daughter— it was up to Lisa to make that determination.  Instead I asked her to focus on Lisa’s behaviors – the loss of interest in her favorite activities, failing her college classes, her erratic sleep patterns, the missing money and checks, her new friends, the many car accidents, unexplained absences from home, not wanting to be with family, etc.  All of Lisa’s behaviors added up to a level of substance use that required treatment.  Given what Marcie had disclosed, I suggested that she explore various levels of intervention with a professional substance abuse counselor or interventionist. Getting help was paramount – not the label.

*not her real name