Challenging the ‘monster’ of addiction

Joanne Kosta, a counselor with New Transitions Counseling in Tiffin, welcomed about 40 people to the the Campus Center at Heidelberg University Saturday morning. They had come for “Beyond Love: What Does It Take?” The presentation was aimed at individuals and families affected by substance abuse.

Kosta told the gathering that addicts’ lives revolve around their addictions. In turn, people who love the addict start to live their lives around the addict and his or her behavior.

She began by briefly describing her own experiences. When she recognized alcoholism in a loved one, she was so concerned and upset, she needed counseling.

“The counselor said to me, ‘We’ll address this. It is a family disease. … You need to learn some things that will really help you,’ and I did. That was about 30 years ago,” Kosta said.

Since then, she has become a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor. Now, Kosta is trying to help others understand drug or alcohol addiction and learn recovery tactics for the family. She reviewed some basic concerns participants may have brought to the meeting:

We are deeply affected by the addictions our loved ones have.

We would do just about anything to free them and to free ourselves from this addiction.

Somehow, we are to blame, or we are responsible.

“I really want you to look hard at this, because … I want to try to help you to be free from this. There may be things that you have done that have made the disease easier to develop, or there may have been ways that you closed your eyes in the beginning. But you did not cause it. This is nothing you can be responsible for. This is way bigger than any one of us can control or stop,” Kosta said.

She compared addiction to a powerful and mysterious monster wreaking destruction. The best way to defeat the beast is to learn as much as possible about it.

As with other diseases, addiction has levels of severity. For example, someone with diabetes may be able to control it with diet for a time before needing medication and before losing a limb.

Kosta said addiction also advances on a continuum. The first step is to recognize the symptoms and the level they indicate.

“One of the ways a family can sort of minimize what’s going on is by saying, ‘Well, I don’t really know if we have an addiction. After all, they haven’t been in jail, they haven’t lost their job, there’s never any physical violence … The doctor says they’re healthy,'” Kosta said.

Likewise, the addict may not suspect a problem; however, a progression can begin with casual drinking and advance to a point where one’s entire life revolves around the use of drugs or alcohol (or both), Kosta said. The sooner the family realizes and accepts the problem, the better the outcome. Denial can allow the disease to reach a stage at which it is more difficult to treat.

In the early stages, the addict may be able to mask the habit, but changes in behavior, such as irritability, mood swings, insomnia, withdrawal or unpredictability, are sure to make it more obvious. Next comes financial difficulties, damaged relationships, arrests and inability to keep a job. The effect on the family can be mild or it can be serious enough to affect members’ health and well-being.

“The truth is, you did not cause it, you cannot control it, you cannot cure it. But through your own recovery efforts, you can help,” Kosta said.

Continued use of mind-altering drugs can have harmful effects on the human body. Kosta gave an overview of the various organs involved.

The liver’s function is to filter toxins out of the blood. When the liver is overwhelmed by the amount of a substance ingested, the excess chemical reaches the brain. Substances such as opiates or alcohol fool the brain to release dopamine, which gives a person a feeling of euphoria or a “high.”

Kosta said the brain remembers that good feeling and wants to repeat the experience.

“I want you to understand … that addiction is not necessarily about a person making a choice,” she said. “At some point, the limbic system is like the driver that says ‘I must do this. I have to seek the reward.'”

Studies show heroin gives such a powerful rush of pleasure upon the first use, the individual wants to have that feeling again and again. The craving can evolve into an involuntary dependency. Kosta said the neurons suffer damage, so the brain releases less dopamine. As the addiction worsens, the addict develops a tolerance for larger amounts of the drug of choice in an effort to get the same euphoria.

Eventually, the person may need the substance just to function.

Kosta compared addiction to “another lover” or the “No. 1 relationship” that pulls the addict away from loved ones. When the addict tries to quit, he or she may have intense feelings of depression, anxiety or fatigue.

Kosta said it is important for loved ones to offer encouragement and support so the addict does not give up and start using again. Studies indicate the brain can heal, but it can be a lengthy process.

If a relapse does occur, the person may become even more discouraged, even hopeless.

“You might think the person that has an addiction doesn’t care, because they act like they don’t care. They just want to get high again or drink again,” Kosta said. “The truth of it is, they carry around a tremendous burden of guilt. For the most part, these people are good people. … They know what they want in life, but they’re seeing themselves failing over and over again. They see themselves hurt the people they care so much about … They actually don’t know how to stop it. They’re not sure they want to stop it, because of their addiction. Psychologically, they’re not sure they could cope.”

The initial use of a drug may have been a choice, but addiction is a disease, Kosta said. It is not sign of a weak will. Stopping is not as simple as “just stop.” Families need to know that denial, covering for the addict’s behavior, taking responsibility for the addict, and yelling or nagging may only enable the addict.

To help the addict, Kosta advised to learn to recognize the levels and symptoms; accept the existence of the disease; be patient; model “normal” behavior; set boundaries and consequences that can be enforced; shut off the money – but not the love.

Loving the addict does not indicate endorsement of the addiction.

Frustration and worry may cause family members to react to the addict in irrational ways. The addict may use that behavior to excuse his or her habit or to blame others for it.

Kosta urged those attending to communicate their emotions in healthy ways to keep their sanity. Laughter and exercise can help reduce stress. Counseling and other sources of support are essential.

Al-Anon is especially effective and free, Kosta said. The program has a spiritual element, but religious faith is not needed to benefit from participation. The Tiffin Al-Anon meets at 7 p.m. every Tuesday at Old Trinity Episcopal Church. Firelands Counseling, New Transitions and other services are available in the community, too.

Kosta said she is compiling a list of resources in the area. Anyone with suggestions can contact her by calling (419) 448-4094. The website is