Most of us have been exposed to addiction on some level—either directly with a family member, friend, or ourselves—or indirectly through our communities and the media. Addiction interrupts development, impairs functioning, destroys relationships, and damages health—resulting in loss, harm to others, legal problems, and in the worst and most tragic outcomes, death.

The simplest definition I’ve heard states that addiction is when someone does something they know is bad for them, yet they continue to do it anyway. With a definition this broad, addiction can reach beyond the excessive and compulsive use of legal or illegal substances to also include being “hooked” on other behaviors, including eating, shopping, gambling, sex, working, and yes, disruptive overreliance on the distractions of technology.

It’s a trap any of us could fall into with the right combination of bio-chemistry, heredity, and socio-environmental vulnerability. Had you asked me three years ago if I would work in the field of addiction, I would have said no, it’s too messy. Fast-forward to a job providing early intervention services to students, which has changed the conversation for me.

Instead of passing judgment or spouting the usual rhetoric, I’m asking “what now?”—and other questions about high-risk behaviors that increase the likelihood of future dependence.

I am trained in Motivational Interviewing, an evidence-based approach that taps into a person’s unique motivations for change and growth. I’m having open and specific conversations with students about drug and alcohol use—helping them engage their critical thinking skills and goal setting to explore whether their use is helping them succeed or not. I’m filling a gap between the front line of school personnel and community-based treatment services—working to prevent future addiction.

I’ve learned addiction is a disease—a medical emergency as legitimate to diagnose and treat as diabetes and cancer. Addiction patterns result in changes to brain chemistry. Addiction re-wires the brain to the point where the drug is the driving motivation and supreme trigger of pleasure. The relationship to the drug becomes more important to survival than any human relationship. In other words, addicts lose control.

Effective treatment lays its roots down in compassionate soils. When families bond together; when communities open their doors to brick-and-mortar treatment facilities; and when relationships to people and/or faith become more abundant and fulfilling than the drug of choice, the conversation and outcomes can change.

As challenging as addiction can become, an addict’s life matters as much as anyone else’s. We need to consistently utilize information, compassion, and relationships in effectively combating and treating this disease.

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— Wendy Baracka, LGSW, is a school-based social worker providing mental health and substance use risk reduction services with Morgan County Schools, WV. She can be reached at barackaclan@yahoo.com.

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