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Addictive Behaviors vs. The Person Underneath


“It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?”
-Russell Brand

You’re driving down a dirt road at midnight – uncertain of where it leads, but terrified to stop in the middle of nowhere. You creep along slowly, hopeful that the crackles and snaps aren’t signaling a popped tire. Exhausted, scared, and alone – you try to understand what landed you here.

For both addicts and their loved ones, this is what the substance abuse journey can feel like – a dark, endless road full of unexpected bumps and turns. At some point along the path, the person that the addict used to be and the person they’ve become get blurred by the headlights. But maintaining a grasp on reality – on that “before” picture – can prove key in finding a way home.

As you explore the following list of addiction traits, keep in mind that they result from the cycle of abuse. Below each trait, you will find responses to these behaviors that are typical of loved ones as well as more productive responses. Your frustrations are normal, but altering both your internal and external dialogue can make the addiction journey easier to navigate.

Lying and Manipulation

Typical Response: I can’t believe anything she says. All trust has been destroyed.

Healthier Response: I need to recognize these lies for what they are, which is an attempt to get the “fix” that her addicted brain is insisting upon and/or a way to protect herself from the shame she feels from acting on her addiction.

Blame Shifting

Typical Response: Maybe I did cause the addiction. I certainly made some parenting, spousal, sibling, or friend mistakes along the way. Perhaps it is my fault.

Healthier Response: Rather than focusing on what I did or didn’t do in the past, I need to focus on what I can do to encourage her recovery.

Isolation and Withdrawal

Typical Response: She’s avoiding me because she’s hiding things again. She wants to trick me into believing she is okay.

Healthier Response: She is likely experiencing shame and guilt for addiction. If we can steer her towards the right kinds of help, she’ll realize that isolation only serves to magnify the problem.


Typical Response:: She has zero respect for her family and friends. The moment she started stealing was the moment I lost all hope.

Healthier Response: An addicted brain will do almost anything to ensure a supply of drugs or alcohol. Thoughts are distorted and inherent values are abandoned. These thoughts can be replaced with healthier ones in the treatment process.

Verbal or Physical Abuse

Typical Response: She is a danger to herself and others. I’m better off just staying away.

Healthier Response: These violent behaviors open the doors for immediate intervention. With the support of her outpatient treatment team, we can now insist on more intensive treatment while keeping ourselves safe in the process.

Anger or Extreme Mood Swings

Typical Response: These ups and downs are exhausting. I’m so tired of the roller coaster. I give up.

Healthier Response: I will capitalize on one of her “up” days to set some boundaries in our relationship. If she cannot respect the parameters, I will enforce the discussed consequences with the help of her treatment team.

By knowing which types of behaviors are likely to emerge in the addiction journey, it’s easier to perceive them for what they are – the results of a compulsion that supersedes logic. The longer that an addiction progresses, the more embedded the above behaviors will become. So much so, in fact, that the addict might begin to believe he or she is innately dishonest, manipulative, and angry.

Similarly, friends and family members may grow so accustomed to the erratic negativity that they too can no longer separate the addiction from the person that they love. Don’t run the risk of losing your perspective and hope. Maintain a grasp of who you or your loved one was prior to the onset of the addiction. That person is still there and can be unearthed in the recovery process.

As you continue down this road that can feel so threatening and lonely, try to recognize the signs of hope reflecting in your headlights. Addiction can blind us to the fact that help is available. Keep driving. Eventually, the sun will rise and you’ll see the signs more clearly. Eventually, you’ll find your way home.

jen-anderson-addiction-counselorJen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.

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