Drug addiction is a complex brain disease; the primary symptom of drug addiction is a compulsive, harmful use of drugs in spite of the social, health, and economic consequences. People with a substance use disorder (SUD), the American Psychiatric Association’s updated term for describing drug addiction, continue to use alcohol or drugs because they have a mental disorder that can be treated by addressing any co-occurring disorders and with therapy, 12-step meetings and groups, and a desire to change.

Contrary to a tragic misconception, people with drug or alcohol addictions do not lack morals. People with addiction are not weak, and they do not lack will power. Addiction is a disease, but it is one that people can and do recover from.

For someone who has battled addiction, talking to a family member or loved one about the addiction can be difficult and emotionally draining. This article will provide some points to keep in mind when explaining addiction to a non-addict.

A Chronic Disease

Addiction is a chronic disease whose causes are a complex combination of biological, environmental, and social causes. Some studies suggest part of addiction is hereditary, but there is also research that shows that some people develop addictions while no one in their family has a history of drug abuse.

The disease of addiction is comparable to diabetes type-II, cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. Like diabetes type-II, treatment of addiction requires daily maintenance, learning healthier behaviors, a strong support group. People refer to abstinence from drugs and alcohol as “living in recovery” because it is a daily process to remain sober.

This disease model can be confusing for addicts and non-addicts. It can be especially tricky when relapse is a part of the story. However, relapsing on drugs is similar to the person with diabetes mismanaging their disease from time-to-time or someone with cardiovascular disease who risks their life and health by eating a steak against doctor’s orders. The important thing to communicate to a non-addict is that you understand that addiction is a lifelong disease and that you are committed to maintaining your recovery on a daily basis.

Lost the Power of Choice

Sometimes, friends and family members are very understanding and supportive of your decision to get off drugs and live sober and clean. This is a wonderful outcome, and their support can be invaluable. However, they may also not fully understand addiction and begin to pressure you to drink with them during happy hour, at weddings, or any other celebration. As a former addict, you have probably already heard this from a friend or family member, “You can have just one. I do it all the time. One drink or one puff won’t hurt.”

If you have an addiction, though, you know without a shadow of a doubt that you can’t just have one, or at least not for very long. Once someone has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the brain’s chemistry is rewired and helps explain why an addict or alcoholic seems to be unable to stop using after having just one drink or using one drug.

According to Antonello Bonci, a neurologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “addiction is a pathological form of learning.” Basically, addiction chemically changes the brain circuits on a molecular level. When someone is addicted, these can be lifelong changes that create the phenomena of craving and obsessive using that is incredibly difficult to stop.

In recovery, people regain the power of choice: between using or abstinence. They exhibit amazingly strong will power as they rebuild their lives from the bottom up with results that are shocking even to the most optimistic of us. However, when an alcoholic has one drink or a cocaine addict snorts one line, the power of choice is gone. Addiction does not disappear just because someone hasn’t used in 30 days, one year, or even ten years.

Recovery Is a Process

Another misconception is that once someone has been separated from drugs or alcohol, then that person is cured. The drug use is a symptom of addiction, and learning how to cope with life’s challenges without relapsing is an essential foundation for sustained recovery from addiction. Being sober is a beautiful experience, but like the rest of life, it is full of ups and downs. It can take some time for people to believe that a former addict has changed. Part of recovery is rebuilding relationships that were damaged by actions while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

As you consider explaining addiction to someone who is not an addict, it is important to understand that not all people are going to want to understand what addiction really is. Learning how to be okay with disagreements and to not let it affect your recovery can be an invaluable lesson in personal growth. What is most important is that you’ve stayed sober and helped someone better understand a disease that claimed the lives of 70,000 people in one year.

Genesis Recovery is committed to helping people overcome their drug addiction, rebuild their lives, help families heal together, and create a foundation for former addicts to live alcohol and drug-free.