When we think of addiction, many of us tend to focus on it’s most visible face: the street.
But as real of a problem as that is, it’s just a fraction of the people battling the disease.
In part two of our mini-series on addiction, we look at the most common… and often overlooked face of the disease: alcoholism.
Marshall Smith with Cedars Cobble Hill recovery centre has fought the disease himself, going from a ranking job in the BC government to the street.
He says it’s this hidden face of addiction that is the most insidious.
“A lot of people going to and from work every day, struggling with addiction. People who have homes, people who have jobs, people who have children.”
Smith says the financial toll alcohol addiction takes is massive – about $14.6 billion a year in lost productivity, healthcare, and enforcement in Canada alone.
And he says the human cost is higher.
“The human toll it takes is just unbelieveable. That shows up in hospital rooms with all kinds of alcohol related illnesses. it shows up on our roads with impaired driving, it shows up in our court rooms.”
But why can some people have a social drink with no problem, while others become addicted to drinking?
Smith says it’s because some people have a predisposition to addiction. Differences in their brain mean they aren’t able to regulate the chemicals it releases when they drink.
“It’s a euphoria and a high effect that’s addicting. In the vast majority of the population they can consume alcohol and their brain functions normally, and they don’t become dependent on it. In a percentage of the population, if they use alcohol or other substances, their brain is not able to regulate it.”
Smith says whether or not someone has that addictive personality comes down to a few factors, but it can be something they’re born with.
“The disease of addiction is anywhere between 60-70% genetic in nature. And then if you have that genetic predisposition and you have a set of environmental factors – things like exposure, prevalence, use in the home, you could be in real trouble.”
Smith says the key to beating addiction is getting to the addict early – which means not waiting for them to hit rock bottom. He says addiction is supported by systems – be they family, social, or work, which enable it and allow it to continue.
“An intervention is when the systems that are built up around the addict stop doing what they are doing to support that situation. They bring some level of consequence.”
He says many people need those consquences, or some level of push, to get help. Where real problems crop up is when the addiction goes on unchecked for a long time until the systems around the addict are too weak to step in and help.
He says the next step is helping the addict see their problem as a health care issue, something they can manage and are responsible for, before teaching them how to live clean and sober.
“This is a very cunning disease. This is a disease that convinces us we don’t have a problem.”
He says programs like the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program can be a great help easing people into that recovery- and as a resource for afterwards when they need support.
But Marshall says truly putting a dent in the disease will involve building a society with more “recovery capital.”
That is – building resilience to addiction into our neighbourhoods, with more places to go for help and less stigma attached.