Although there is still much societal stigma that goes along with addiction and substance abuse, which is often associated with a moral failing, there is much more awareness and understanding about how and why addiction happens, what to do about it and how to get help.
The term addict and alcoholic have negative connotations. Those working in the field of clinical counselling and in the medical community, for the most part, call the condition a substance use disorder (SUD), defined by the Mayo Clinic as: “A complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences.”
Registered clinical counsellor Paul McIsaac works with people in-person and online in the qathet region, and sees addiction as a behaviour that persists even though it causes problems in a person's life.
"I use the example of alcohol because I see it as by far the worst addiction our society suffers," said McIsaac. "Many [people] feel they are normal because everyone around them drinks and they get societal support for that activity."
However, McIsaac said if someone is drinking daily, and the behaviour inhibits work and harms relationships, then it is heading down the path of substance abuse.
"I always look for, what is the effect of this behaviour?" said McIsaac. "There is substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs, then there is process abuse, like video games and gambling, but the mechanism behind addiction is the same regardless."
However, people who are long-term heavy drinkers of alcohol may need to be medically assisted, due to potential physical harms from withdrawal.
McIsaac said “closet” drinkers, or those who hide their substance abuse, usually know what they are doing is problematic, to themselves, and those around them.
But, "the person has to want to do the work," said McIsaac. "Usually [when people seek help] it's because of negative incidents in their life and their actions have affected other people negatively; there usually comes a tipping point."
He emphasizes that people turn to substances as a coping mechanism to deal with stress and/or suffering, and is usually learned from a young age (however, substance abuse can happen at any age). McIsaac said when the suffering caused by the addiction becomes greater than the original problem, that's usually when folks seek help.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a common form of therapy used for those who seek to change a damaging behaviour.
"What we try to do is have a person re-think the negative situation they are trying to get away from," said McIsaac. "They identify, question and change the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs related to an emotion and behaviour that has caused them difficulty."
This thought retraining is part of recovery, for those wanting to achieve a level of independence from a substance, or another type of addiction, for example: social media, video games or gambling.
“Alcohol is so intertwined in our social culture in North America, removing oneself from those activities can feel isolating,” said McIsaac. “A really important factor for those giving up those addictive behaviours is that the time they spent in those behaviours is now empty, it creates a vacuum. Boredom is a big reason why people turn to addictive substances, and a person in recovery has to find other activities to fill their time, usually with other sober people.”
He stressed that everyone needs meaning and purpose in their lives and people in recovery are often looking for that. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery are support organizations and can be found in almost every community on and off line. Doctors are now able to prescribe medication for those seeking to curb alcohol use.
In January 2023, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction came out with a report documenting alcohol use in Canada. The document stated that: Alcohol is a leading preventable cause of death, disability and social problems, including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, unintentional injuries and violence.
National Addictions Awareness Week is November 19 to 25.
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