I hear people ask this question, and others like it, frequently. While the detailed explanation isn’t simple, the basic explanation is relatively simple. Addicts either don’t realize they need help, or they don’t believe they have a problem. Let me clarify.
#1. Some addicts don’t realize they need help
I think most people would agree that if a person has cancer, they need to seek treatment. I think most people realize that if cancer is left untreated, it will ravage the body, leading, ultimately, to the death of the individual. Why then don’t all people with cancer seek treatment?
I worked with a lady once whose 11-year-old son played soccer. In the middle of a game, he planted his left foot and kicked the ball with his right foot. When his right foot made contact with the soccer ball, his leg broke. When they went to the emergency room, they discovered that he had cancer which had weakened the bone, causing the contact with the ball to break the leg. After the diagnosis, and talking to the doctor, they realized there had been multiple symptoms before the fracture that could’ve indicated cancer, but they hadn’t recognized them for what they were. One of the symptoms was that their son would get bruises that wouldn’t heal. They just figured an 11-year-old boy who plays soccer is going to get bruised from time to time and they didn’t see it until it was too late. It is the same way with the addict. There are always signs. But if we don’t know what we’re looking for, then addiction will be set in before we even begin to realize there is an issue, much less, begin dealing with the problem.
We just may not be educated as to what constitutes addiction
If you go to The Home of Grace and listen to clients tell their stories, you will often hear people say a very similar thing. I said it. You will hear people say, “I went to work every day. I paid my bills. I took care of my family.” Many addicts who are “functional” don’t realize there is a problem. They believe as long as their families are fed and their bills are paid, then there isn’t an issue. There are other symptoms that indicate there is, in fact, a problem, but they aren’t educated about the signs and symptoms of addiction, so they don’t see it.
They are being deceived by their own mind
When a person becomes an addict (dependent upon a substance or activity), there are different parts of the brain in conflict. The midbrain is the part of the brain that is responsible for survival. It is primitive and instinctual. It doesn’t work off of logic. It works off of the theory that the body needs to survive. And anything it perceives the body needs to survive, it will drive hard trying to ensure the body gets it. The logic part of the brain, on the other hand, can oftentimes realize that the midbrain is incorrect in its assertion that the body needs something to survive, but it doesn’t have the power to overcome the drive of the midbrain.
You may often hear addicts talk about feeling like they are at war with themselves. They may make up their mind to quit a hundred times and fail. They may talk about having two separate “voices,” one telling them to use and one telling them not to (the voice that tells them to use is almost always stronger). This is because the midbrain is at war with the logic part of the brain, and the midbrain almost always gets what it wants. When the body is cold, you add clothing layers or get a blanket. It isn’t some logical process. Your midbrain makes a choice to preserve the well-being of the body. In addiction, the midbrain believes that the body needs the chemical to survive, so it decides every day to go and get it.
So if there is no clear and definite evidence that somebody has a problem, the midbrain can certainly justify why there isn’t one. Some times even when there is clear evidence an addict chooses not to believe there is a problem.
#2. Some addicts don’t believe they have a problem
Addicts have an almost supernatural ability to justify the things they do to use, claiming the right, or need, to use, while simultaneously dismissing any negative consequences of their using as irrelevant, trivial, exaggerated, or even non-existent. Trying to “prove” to an addict they have a problem is a futile endeavor. If you want to get an addict who doesn’t believe he has a problem to receive help, one of two things has to happen: (A)The addict has to be put into a position where they either realize on their own they have a problem, or (B) be so uncomfortable in their situation that they are willing to entertain the possibility they have a problem, even if they don’t believe they do.
The addict has to realize they have a problem on their own, but you can help
This usually happens in 1 of 2 ways. Either the addicts situation is so bad, and they are so unhappy that the logic part of the brain is finally able to override the midbrain due to the sheer amount of evidence that there is a problem, or the consequences of their using makes them so physically, emotionally, or spiritually uncomfortable that they are willing to consider the possibility that they have a problem. When an addict is homeless, hungry, penniless, friendless, cold, and tired, they might finally start to look at their lives and say, “what is causing all of this misery?” I often tell the families of addicts that the worst thing they can do is keep them comfortable in their addiction. If you pay their rent, buy them food, buy them gas, pay their cell phone bill, buy them clothes, cover for them with their jobs, hiring a lawyer to defend them from charges stemming from using, basically if you love an addict and help take care of them in any way (other than to get them treatment) then you are, in fact, part of the problem. You are enabling them. If you are preventing them from suffering the consequences of their using, then they will never be uncomfortable enough to self-reflect, and possibly change.
Luke 15:11-32 – 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
The story above is a biblical picture of somebody being so uncomfortable in their situation that they finally self-reflect and change. If you truly love an addict and want them to change, you have to love them enough to withhold the things from them that will make them comfortable in their addiction. It may very well be the only way to save their life. I can assure you that if they get the help they need, they will thank you for it. Let them live in the pigsty for a while so they might, ultimately, be restored.
Following Jesus’ example
Even Jesus recognized the need for isolation when somebody is lost in sin (which addiction is). If talking to them doesn’t work, after a few tries, then you have to remove them from your fellowship. You must discontinue association with them (for their own good). If and when they decide to get the help they need, you can be right there waiting to help restore them. But they must first realize there is a problem, acknowledge there is a problem, and deal with the problem. If those three things are not done, the problem cannot be solved.
Matthew 18:15-17 – “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.