What is addiction?

Addiction is a disease, just like other diseases such as diabetes, cancer, or hypertension. Specifically, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, it is a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.” (ASAM, 2011: for more information: http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction) It is a disease that affects more than just the mind of body of the affected individual, but also families and whole communities. It is a disease that often needs periods of intensive support and treatment, but also long-term monitoring, in order to maximize the success of the recovery process.

Addiction is characterized by an inability to abstain from using even when negative consequences pile up.  There are often intense and overwhelming cravings for alcohol or drugs, that “hijack” the brain’s abilities to make informed and rational decisions. This is why a person’s behavior can change so dramatically when they are using substances. This is also why it can be so difficult for people to, without help, break out of the cycle of addiction.

Why does addiction develop?

Addiction often begins to develop in adolescence, but it can develop at any time in a person’s life. Some people may be more prone to addiction and its consequences because of their family histories and genetics. Other risk factors for addiction include early use of substances as well as exposure to trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

What kinds of problems do people come to treatment for?

People come into treatment for many different problems that are related to addiction. The most commonly used substances in Vermont are alcohol, cannabis, and opioids (the category that includes such as prescription drugs like Dilaudid, OxyContin, etc. as well as morphine and heroin). Many people are using combinations of substances, which can be especially dangerous.  Most people coming for treatment also have some kind of mental health condition in addition to addiction; when mental health and substance use come together, this is called co-occurring disorders. All of the providers in the VAATP network are capable of assessing for the presence of co-occurring disorders.

What are some of the costs associated with addiction?

The costs of addiction to society are very high, with some estimates suggesting that total overall costs exceed $600 billion annually. Of course, it is impossible to put a dollar figure on the human costs of addiction, when left untreated. Alcohol and drug use shortens life, and kills. Addiction affects individuals’ ability to be productive and successful in their own lives. This can include an individuals’ ability to have positive relationships, school, work, leisure, health care, housing, and a satisfying and authentic spiritual life. The costs are not limited to the individuals affected by the disease but also their loved ones, friends, and families.

Addiction tears families apart. Children who grow up in the homes of families where there is active addiction often have lasting impacts from this experience, if parents don’t get the help that they need. Parents dealing with an adolescent who is struggling with alcohol or drug use are under an extreme amount of stress, and the whole family system needs support.

Addiction is a major cause of incarceration, when considering how many individuals were intoxicated at the time of committing a crime, doing so in order to purchase drugs, or were incarcerated specifically for a drug or alcohol-related offense. Incarceration is costly and does little, if anything, to help break the addictive cycle without treatment.

Treatment Works!

Many people do not know the simple truth about addiction treatment: it works! This has been shown in many decades of clinical practice, and well as in rigorous research. Treatment saves lives. It helps individuals, families, and communities to recover. Getting treatment is associated with such positive outcomes such as establishing abstinence from the use of substances, reducing the risk taking behaviors associated with substance use, reducing health problems that come from using substances, improving mood and mental health, finding employment, and improving relationship satisfaction.

Unfortunately, many people don’t get connected with the services that they need, with some estimated suggesting that as many as 90% of individuals don’t get the services they need. While the reasons for this are complex, the VAATP is working to help close this gap. If you or a loved one need help, please consider reaching out to one of our agencies for more information.