How did the person you love and once trusted become a compulsive liar? Addiction has the power to change a person into someone unrecognizable to their loved ones. The Latin origin of the word “addict” underscores its power – “sell out, betray, enslave.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” Research from NIDA and other organizations has shown addiction to be a brain disorder involving functional changes to brain circuits, which results in a profound rewiring of the brain. The areas of the brain most affected include the pleasure and reward center, as well as areas regulating stress, self-control, and motivation.
Unfortunately, addiction shows no signs of slowing down worldwide, with alcohol and drug use at epidemic proportions. NIDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics show illicit drug use continues to rise in the United States. In 2013, about 9.4% of those over age 12 had used an illicit drug in the past month, increasing to about 10.6% of that population in 2016. These numbers equate to about one in ten Americans over the age of 12
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDA) statistics for 2017 found 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older, and an estimated 443,000 adolescents ages 12–17 had an addiction to alcohol, classified as an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
How Does Alcohol or Drug Use Affect the Brain?
Addictive substances like drugs or alcohol interact with areas of the brain regulating mood, emotions, and behavior. When we experience something pleasurable, our brains reward us by increasing levels of dopamine – “feel good” chemicals – to reinforce the experience.
When we enjoy a great meal, a satisfying sexual encounter, a breathtaking sunset, or another positive event, our dopamine levels naturally increase. Drugs and alcohol, however, trigger unnaturally high levels of dopamine, intensifying our body’s response and creating the compulsion to repeat the experience.
As substance use continues, our brain adapts to unnaturally high dopamine levels, triggering the need for increasingly higher amounts of drugs or alcohol to feel the same desired effect. This adaptation, called tolerance, often leads to dependence and addiction. Once tolerance has developed and drug or alcohol use is stopped, dopamine levels drop, and withdrawal symptoms, including powerful cravings, begin as the body seeks to regain equilibrium.
Eventually, the brain is no longer able to produce pleasurable effects naturally but must be triggered by the addictive substance itself. The cycle becomes relentless, causing the addict to do or say whatever it takes to feel good or even simply to feel “normal” again. Lying becomes an act of self-preservation, as the addict fears, they may be unable to survive without the addictive substance.
Understanding Why Addicts Lie
According to the NIDA, “addiction can take over your life. The addiction can replace all the things you used to enjoy. You might do almost anything to keep taking the drug, like steal or lie.” While loved ones are often devastated that they don’t recognize the person an addict has become, they may not understand that many times the addict doesn’t even recognize themselves.
Addiction is a complex disease, with physical, emotional, and psychological components, all of which may impact the reasons an addict lies. Underlying emotions and issues that may cause an addict to lie may include the following:
- Avoid confrontation – Confrontation with loved ones over substance use means dealing with uncomfortable emotions like anger, guilt, accusations, and more. In an effort to avoid the stress associated with such a confrontation, addicts may lie about substance use, where they were, who they spent time with, or anything that might elicit contempt, anger, or disappointment from their loved ones.
- State of denial – “It’s their problem, not mine.” Some addicts are able to convince themselves that they can handle the substance use just fine and that it’s others that have a problem. They may accuse family or friends of trying to “control” their lives or of having unrealistic expectations of how they should behave. They accuse loved ones of being unable to see that they are fully capable of controlling their use of drugs or alcohol.
- Self-preservation – Many addicts are barely holding their lives together and may believe they can’t survive without their addictive substance. Some addicts express the feeling that they have more stress or other problems than other people, so they need drugs or alcohol to function successfully. Because they’re not sure they could cope without their addictive substance, they don’t want to be pressured to change. Lying becomes a matter of fear and self-preservation.
- Shame – This goes hand in hand with the above. Addicts are often filled with extreme shame, as well as embarrassment, fear, and regret. They will do or say whatever it takes to avoid experiencing the anger, frustration, and disappointment of their loved ones, so they lie. They lie to hide their shame by pretending to be fine, in control, and with a firm grip on their lives. However, living a lie takes a toll, often serving to reinforce underlying feelings of inadequacy, thus fueling the cycle of addiction.
- Loved ones make it easy to lie – Addicts aren’t the only ones afraid to “rock the boat.” In an effort to avoid confrontation, it’s not unusual for loved ones to pretend to believe an addict’s story, even though they know it’s a lie. Constructing an alternate reality of their own, loved ones are afraid to confront the pain, suffering, and emotions of the true situation. Unfortunately, this signals the addict that it’s okay to lie because loved ones will enable their addictive behavior to continue unchecked.
What Can Family and Friends Do to Help?
Unless family and friends educate themselves about the disease of addiction, they may not understand why their loved one can’t simply stop a behavior that is destroying them and those closest to them. Unfortunately, because addiction has damaged the brain, many addicts are incapable of thinking rationally or of stopping substance use on their own. Even if an addict refuses to get treatment, there are steps loved ones can take to help.
- Loved ones are often instrumental in motivating an addict to stop lying and to seek help. When loved ones foster a supportive, non-judgmental environment and encourage honest communication, addicts may feel safe enough to be truthful.
- Recognize that lies are often part of the disease of addiction. Addicts lie to fulfill a need, often to protect themselves from pain, humiliation, and the fear that they can’t survive without their addictive substance. Try not to take the lying personally or as evidence of a character flaw. Refer to educational resources about addiction and talk to a therapist or a fellow support group member to better understand why addicts lie.
- Don’t overlook or pretend to believe a lie. Remain calm and nonjudgmental but don’t accept the lie. Continue to set boundaries and encourage your loved one to seek treatment.
- Consider an intervention. A formal intervention facilitated by an addiction specialist can be especially effective.
- Whether or not you decide to stage an intervention, meet with an addiction specialist for treatment options, guidance, and educational resources.
- All loved ones living with an addict experience a chaotic, stressful, and often frightening environment. To open lines of communication within the entire family structure, arrange for family counseling. Even if your addicted loved one refuses to attend, family counseling will still be extremely valuable for you and other family members.
- Have local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting schedules on hand. Give information to your addicted loved one and encourage them to attend. These 12-step groups emphasize honesty, accountability, self-examination, and making amends.
- Consider attending family support groups Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, and encourage teens to attend Alateen. It’s very helpful to learn you’re not alone and to receive support and encouragement from those who understand.
There are many effective treatment options for treating drug and alcohol addiction, along with any co-occurring mental disorders. According to NIDA, successful programs often include behavioral counseling, medication, and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as a long-term follow-up to prevent relapse.
Inpatient or outpatient treatment programs that incorporate some form of 12-step philosophy have been shown to be the most effective path for long-term recovery. Treatment specialists will work with the addict, and often with their family, to uncover underlying issues that have contributed to the addiction and provide a variety of approaches to work through those issues.
Seeking Professional Help
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we can help. BlueCrest Recovery Center takes a whole-person approach to treatment, considering not only a person’s physical needs but also their emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. Learn more about our approach to treatment, and contact us today for help.