Posted on July 16, 2014 by Henry Tarkington
Have you ever had the feeling that addicts act like they are still adolescents or children? Do you wonder why they are often unable to fulfill normal adult responsibilities?
The 12-Step programs have a theory about that. Recovering addicts and alcoholics believe that when they picked up their first drink or drug, they stopped maturing at that age. For instance, if an addict first began smoking marijuana at 14 years old, he may have gotten stuck at that level of maturity. He or she may go on to other drugs such as cocaine, crack, or alcohol, which made the problem much worse. If a young person experiments with drugs or alcohol but does not become addicted, that child may grow out of the phase and mature normally.
Everyone grows through 3 major stages of life. The first stage is dependence. From the time we are born until early adolescence we are in this stage. The second stage is independence, the stage that begins in adolescence and continues into early adulthood. The third stage is interdependence. This stage takes place when we mature into responsible adults who are interdependent with our own families, our jobs, the community, our church, friends, etc. When people begin to abuse drugs, they often do not grow into the independence stage of life.
When children are young, before adolescence, they are dependent on parents, and family members for their safety, food, shelter, clothing, and other needs. Children are not expected to be independent in most ways. They are too small and immature to take care of their basic needs.
When children grow into their teenage years, they begin to see relationships with friends as more important, even preferring to be around friends instead of family members. This is normal for teenagers: they are learning to be independent in the world. If they don’t complete this stage, they will never become mature, responsible adults and be able to function well in the world. These adolescents may rebel against their parent’s values. Within limits, this is usually normal. It is up to parents to learn what normal behavior is for a teenager.
A serious problem begins when children pick up alcohol or drugs before they are mature adults. Children as young as 5 or 6, or as old as 18 or 19 may become addicted or alcoholic. It is believed that many children are predisposed to alcohol or drug addiction. This means that it is already in their genes, and if they experiment with substances they are more likely than others to become addicted.
When young people become addicted, they stop maturing in many ways. They will believe that they are mature and becoming independent. However, they are really becoming more dependent. Instead of learning to be independent adults, they have replaced their dependence on family with dependence on alcohol or drugs. While believing they are mature adults because they smoke, drink, or use drugs, they will never learn to be independent of their caretakers. They will need someone to take care of them in some way unless they find recovery.
After people learn to be independent, they learn to be responsible for their lives. Otherwise, they will expect someone else to be responsible. They will blame others for their own situation and expect someone else to fix them or the situation. It is common for parents or loved ones feel guilty and accept the blame for the addict or alcoholic.
Recovery is all about change. One necessary change is for addicts to accept responsibility for their lives. This is a process that takes time to learn. All people in recovery can learn to accept more responsibility for themselves, no matter how far down the scale they have been. Sometimes the gains may seem small, but with time and effort, the recovering person will be a more responsible adult, even if he has other problems such as mental illness in addition to the addiction. The idea is to find specific ways recovering people can take a little more responsibility, and teach them to take it. When they feel they have accomplished something, this will help speed up their recovery and greatly improve their self-esteem.
How does recovery help a person accept more responsibility? This happens when people truly work a recovery program. The challenge is to get addicts to commit to a program of recovery and place it above everything else in their lives. If addicts or alcoholics do not make recovery their first priority, it is likely that they will relapse. If they do not relapse, they may remain dry (free of alcohol or drugs) but will not grow emotionally and become responsible.
Many addicts and alcoholics get sober to find themselves overwhelmed with financial problems. This is a difficult issue that is made worse with a large treatment bill. A good sponsor will help work out a plan to pay off old bills, including treatment. Paying bills just a few dollars per month may seem useless, but it does get them paid eventually. Paying the treatment bill is a way of showing gratitude for recovery. It will lead to an attitude of gratitude.
Can you imagine the addict you know changing into a mature, happy, responsible adult? With the proper treatment and a rigorous recovery plan, it will happen to most addicts and alcoholics. This may be hard for you to believe “My addict is too sick, in too much trouble, debt, etc. Few people are too sick to make large gains in recovery. It takes work and time, but it works if you work it! (See the Promises in the AA Big Book, pages 83 & 84.)
Henry Tarkington, MSW, LCSW, LCAS, CCS