Understanding Addiction: Choice is an Illusion

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The relationships that drug addicts try to maintain with others are naturally filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s difficult to have a healthy relationship when the drugs are in control and come first. No matter how hard the addict may try to make the right decisions or stay committed to their promise, the drugs have a way of winning.

One of the first questions that interventionists, counselors and treatment centers hear from the families of addicts is why their loved one must always return to drugs. It doesn’t matter what consequences are on the table, how much pleading or begging is involved or how much pain the family is going through. The addict always returns to their drug, and they don’t seem to be affected by what’s going on at home.

Choice is an Illusion

We’re all human, and the natural response to this type of behavior is, “Why does my loved one always choose drugs over me?” It can also feel like the addict no longer loves or cares about you, or at least that the love is not strong enough to overcome the addiction. If your child looks you in the eye and promises you something but then goes out and does it anyway, it feels personal and hurtful. The same is true if they lie to you, steal from you or watch you worry your life away without making an attempt to stop using.

In order to be a positive influence on your loved one’s recovery, you must understand the nature of addiction as a brain disease and realize that choice is an illusion. Addicts don’t choose one thing over the other. If you tell your husband not to take the car and go out for the night but he does anyway, it would seem that he made the wrong choice. The reality is that his behavior is automatic and reflexive.

In fact, it’s very likely that your husband knows what he is doing wrong but can’t help himself. This is something we at The RS see often. The addict will admit that they know how much they are hurting their family, but they can’t stop doing what they’re doing. The addiction has taken over and the only way to stop is through intensive drug rehabilitation. Even after this, relapse is common. A simple ultimatum won’t have any impact.

How Addiction Robs a Person of Choice

What happens over time is that drugs flood the brain with dopamine, and the brain becomes trained to rely on drugs for survival. Addiction changes the chemistry and functioning of the brain, and this is what ultimately robs the person of choice. Drugs become more important than anything – not just you. The brain believes that they are needed for survival, and the addict sets out on a path to fill this need regardless of who or what is standing in the way.

This is a hard concept for families to understand because one of the big parts about the human experience is choice. We are taught to believe that we are in control and have choice in life. If you make the right choice, you reap the rewards. If you make the wrong choice, you pay the consequences, learn a lesson and move on. By saying that an addict has no choices, it can seem that you’re making excuses for their behavior and not holding them accountable for their actions. But until they get the help they need, they are powerless in their fight against addiction.

Treatment is the Only ‘Next’ Step

You may not have control over the addict, but you do have influence. The first step in getting your loved one help is by staging an intervention and stopping enabling behaviors. Be prepared to have consequences in place if your loved one doesn’t agree to go to rehab. In order for them to get better, they need to have consequences and realize that living a life of sobriety is the better end of the deal.

Your addicted loved one is not choosing to be addicted or choosing to hurt you. When you understand addiction as a brain disease and come to terms with your own feelings, you can offer your loved one the help they need with clear boundaries, honest communication, compassion, empathy and assistance from professionals.

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