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Heuristics: Why Loved Ones Become Strangers in Addiction

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Heuristics: Why Loved Ones Become Strangers in Addiction

Chagrin is understandable when a mom discovers her young adult son has, once again, stolen money from her wallet. Or he didn’t show up to his job. Maybe he was found incapacitated/incoherent on the lawn again after a night of partying. While addicts themselves make up a relatively small percentage of the overall population, their destructive behavior is explosive to the lives of their surrounding loved ones.

Heuristics is the reason addicts make bad choices

These upsetting situations are all too common for the families and friends of addicts. It becomes more and more difficult to make excuses for such inexcusable behavior as the years go on. Because of this destruction, the disease of addiction has become incredibly stigmatized in our culture. There is a perception that addicts are culpable for their “bad choices.”

It is a mixed blessing to know that the story behind addiction is more complex than that.

Heuristics: Why We Make Bad Choices

Heuristics is a fancy term for how the mind considers issues and makes mental shortcuts on what is best based on situational judgments and short term justifications. The psychology can be boiled down to: life choices are too complex to weigh on 100% of the time, and immediate survival takes priority over abstract future reward.*

Let’s compare choices in addiction to less stigmatized heuristics: The idea of “sobriety” to addicts is a lot like “retirement” to families in poverty. Sure, retirement sounds nice, but there are very real financial consequences in the latter situation. Divesting income into a retirement fund can immediately result in hunger and eviction. Similarly, addicts who stop using cold turkey can drop dead within a day.

Read this peer-reviewed behavior study for more details

Withdrawal is Deadly

These are not exaggerations. Non-addicts understand why eviction happens in the first instance. But why is death on the table for addicts in the second instance? Opiates, alcohol, and benzos in particular change the user’s physiology to the point that their body cannot function properly without the substance. This is why detox is a necessary first step to recovery.

Cue the Addict’s Heuristic Reasoning

  • I love my family.

  • They only want what’s best.

  • I really should stop using.

  • But if I don’t get another hit, I’m going to start getting sick.

  • I could actually die.

  • My family loves me.

  •  They wouldn’t want me to die.

  • I really need to take this hit.

Why Loved Ones Become Strangers

It hurts to hear, but the truth of the matter is that addicts’ minds have been physiologically twisted into believing that access to their drug of choice is more important than ANYTHING else in terms of survival. That includes friends, family, and even their own health/wellbeing. It’s why so many addicts become malnourished and stop taking care of themselves. Alcoholics may stop eating altogether once they become dependent on liquor to function.

Getting Through to Your Addict

Most of all, don’t take the heuristics of your addicted loved one personally. It’s best to take a step back and offer help in ways that won’t enable the addict to continue using. Think about it: they need to see the bridge to sobriety rather than the gaping chasm of withdrawal.  Here’s what that might look like.

  • Avoid Shaming

    Reach out and tell them what you see WITHOUT BLAME. It’s important to avoid shaming the addict, because that will often drive them back to using.

  • Emphasize Longevity

    Offer memories of how things used to be, and how that happiness still has a future. Addicts are constantly chasing that “first high,” and they’ll never get it again. That’s not the case with happiness in sobriety.

  • Treatment Options

    Offer to help with treatment. This can be either arranging it with insurance or paying for it as resources allow. In the end, detox is often the best way to start the journey of recovery.

Hang On: They’re Still In There

Remember: the phenomena of heuristics and self-preservation in addiction are adaptations to chemical dependency, and your loved one is still in there somewhere. All situations are different, but typically an addict needs to hit their own bottom before they can recognize the strangers they’ve become. The threat of withdrawal makes it easy to put moral blinders on. Consequently, things like stealing from your mom’s purse seem more and more okay. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.  If you think your addicted loved one is ready for help, contact our admissions staff for detox: 855-737-7363

Posted in Addiction, Featured, For Loved Ones