Understanding a Nurse's Addiction

The Nurses Lifeline program is guided by the scientific consensus that addiction is a disease. It has biological and/or genetic roots and can have behavioral, social, psychological and spiritual consequences. No one chooses become addicted, and it's not about lack of determination.

A person's profession, income, education, race or family makeup or spirituality has nothing to do with who becomes chemically dependent. However, research tells us some people are genetically inclined to be affected by the disease. When the wrong environmental conditions are in place with the introduction of the substance, addiction can take place more easily.

Addiction challenges a person in different ways, case-by-case.

The Components of Dependency

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a dysfunction, based on the body's overwhelming desire for the substance that it has become accustomed to. It's much more than a simple use of "recreational drugs" socially. Addiction is marked by what can be compulsive craving. The human brain really can "insist" an addicted person should seek out what it craves (just as it does with food or water).

This need continues even though the person may know full well that there are negative consequences. She may understand that she has failing health, legal problems, troubles at work and eventual loss of a job, and many problems within the family – but having that "understanding" isn't enough to stop the compulsive behavior.

Chemical dependency can be divided into four components: a craving to add the substance to the body; a physical dependency, in which the body must have the substance, and which will develop symptoms of withdrawal if intake stops; tolerance, in which the body demands ever-larger amounts of the drink or drug in order to feel the effects; and impairment, when thinking, decisions, the senses and reaction to external stimuli (everything from perceiving a doorbell to avoiding an accident) are interfered with.

If allowed to continue, addiction is eventually a fatal disease.

Choices, Fault and Other Factors

People have long believed that chronic drunkenness or other substance abuses were the product of a lack of willpower, a kind of laziness or disrespect for oneself. It was always thought curable - if only the alcoholic or addict would just make up his or her mind.

Now we understand that drug dependency is a disease. It has symptoms (medially, socially and spiritually) that worsen over time. It is a predictable, progressive illness that doesn't "just go away."

It's the drugs that provide a euphoric "high," a relief from problems or stress, or that make a person more comfortable than usual, that are most likely to lead to abuse and dependency. Even controlled, prescription painkillers have become a modern threat. But whatever the drug, there are changes in the areas of the brain that affect mood, memory, motor skills and the "intangibles" such as judgment.

Usually, a person chooses voluntarily to indulge in a drug; sometimes it's prescribed for relief of pain or other disorders. But more often, with those badly-named "recreational drugs," dependency kicks in quickly because at the molecular level a person is receptive to these chemical compounds.

In time, continued use of addictive drugs changes a person. The brain is designed to want more of what it has become used to. Eventually, the drug becomes the single most powerful element in the abuser's life. So why can't people with drug and alcohol dependency quit on their own?

It's an error to think "will power" or some sort of strong attitude is all that's required to stop drinking or taking drugs. Or to think asking for and getting help is an admission of defeat. Sincere attempts to "just say no" and abstain usually don't work, and the compulsion will remain that promotes a return to the safe (but dangerous) familiarity of the addiction.

Maintaining abstinence without treatment has other pitfalls: psychological stress from the job, traumatic physical or emotional injury, family problems, legal or other issues. Then there are the cues that remind the individual of the pre-recovery life, such as people, locations or social situations from the past, even smells or sounds. These all interact with biological factors to "call back" the person to drug abuse and get in the way of sustained abstinence.

A short-term, one-time treatment is not sufficient. For many, treatment is a long-term process, with multiple interventions and attempts at abstinence. It's not easy.

Is there any good news? Of course! Research tells us that even severely-addicted people can make treatment work for them. But -

It takes a dedication to getting off the addiction, and the help of others, to make recovery both a daily and long-term result. Treatment does work for alcohol and drug addiction, tough as it is. Most nurses coming into Nurses Lifeline are there not because they think it's a great idea, but because they are afraid of a great loss - of their health, family, the job or their freedom.

What's most important is not why a person makes the choice, but that they indeed make a decision for treatment.

The addiction treatment services of the Nurses Lifeline program can help - through a continuum of care that also promotes the spiritual component to recovery, without recommending any particular religious theme.