Addiction: Blame vs. Responsibility

For over twenty years I have served brave addicted folks with the courage to fight to take back their freedom. Initially I helped smokers trying to quit and I later learned how some of the practices and processes that helped people get “smober” applied equally well to other addictions.

I’ve tried to always approach each of these individuals mindful of their unique relationship with their substance of choice. Meeting a new quitter has always been exciting for me because I have seen enough success over the years that I hold great hope for them. But at times it was heartbreaking to listen to these folks. As they engaged in the journey toward reclaiming their freedom, they so often began with some self-deprecating comment like these:

“What’s wrong with me? My husband just decided one day to quit, and he was done! I’ve tried so many times that I must be hopeless.

“My mother died of lung cancer and I’m still smoking. I must be an idiot!

” I’ve tried so many times, but keep going back. What’s wrong with me?

Some of the brave people I met considered themselves weak, foolish, or hopeless. They were blaming themselves for the situation they were in, as if it were all their fault. That notion never sat well with me. Over 20 years ago I rejected the idea that addiction was merely a choice or series of choices. Perhaps I simply didn’t want to admit that my years of addiction were my own fault. But for whatever reason I have never accepted what was the conventional wisdom that addicted people needed to “just say no” or choose differently. I didn’t believe it was that simple.

Three Cornerstones

Some of the folks I have served have been incredibly candid and have shared very personal stories about their struggles and their pasts. I observed some common factors among the folks who struggled with addiction. Now I am not a statistician and I’ve rarely had the luxury of time necessary to do research, but I have observed the experiences of thousands of trekkers on their way to freedom. I also have my own lived experience with addictions. Here are the three things that struck me as significant:

  1. Many (probably most) of us could point to other close relatives who struggled with addictions.
  2. Often (not always) the earlier a person began using a substance, the deeper addiction’s grip seemed.
  3. Many journeyers disclosed aspects of their childhood which were chaotic or painful and many described traumatic events that occurred as children or adults.

Again as I write this I am impressed by, and deeply grateful for the candor and courage these folks demonstrated as they shared their experiences for the good of others. Discussing these things with me and often with a group of people took courage. Sometimes tears accompanied the sharing and I dare say that these poignant stories were met with real care and compassion because so many others around the table could relate to them.

The Wrong Word

It has long seemed unfair that so many who live with a vulnerability to addiction have felt shame because of their challenges. Certainly we are not to blame for our eye color or for having flat feet. Those things were conveyed to us genetically; obviously we had no choice in the matter.

It is now understood that trauma changes the neural circuitry of our brains, thereby increasing the vulnerability to a number of conditions including a heightened vulnerability to addiction. Surely we aren’t to blame for our trauma or childhood environmental factors. We couldn’t have chosen our genes and wouldn’t have chosen our trauma.

And what if we exposed our developing brain to psycho-active chemicals (like nicotine) before the brain even finished growing. Couldn’t that cause significant changes in the brain that would continue as it matured. I wasn’t a neuro-biologist, but that made some sort of sense to me. Not to mention that the sooner a person started using a substance, the more habits would be “rooted” in their life and patterns of behavior.

Blame is the wrong word because it implies fault. Genes, trauma, and chaotic childhood environments are not our fault. I absolutely reject the notion of “blame” as it applies to those factors which create the vulnerability to addiction. Modern science, medical research, and new brain imaging capabilities have taught us important things about addiction in recent years. Blaming an individual for their addiction isn’t medically accurate. Blaming them for their innate vulnerability isn’t fair. And lastly, blaming an individual isn’t helpful because it dis-empowers them.

Think about those unkind things many quitters have said – “…hopeless…idiot…what’s wrong with me?” Almost every week in one of my groups I say, “Hey, look – if we’re going to climb Mount Everest tomorrow, I don’t want you thinking of yourself as weak, foolish, or hopeless!”

Now, to be perfectly clear, as a person living with a vulnerability to addiction, I have no interest whatsoever in helping addicted folks make excuses! (I’m quite good at making excuses without any help!) But the self-loathing, the shame and the blame have got to go!

The right word in my opinion (humble or otherwise) is the word responsibility. We do not need to despise ourselves for the vulnerability that we have. Recognizing our vulnerability, we need to take responsibility for our choices and actions going forward. Accepting that responsibility, we will also find hope for the challenging journey ahead. This shift of mindset is essential to positive growth for the individual and needs to be embraced by society.

“Rejecting shame I found my power. Accepting responsibility I found my hope.” -T. Judson Starkey

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