If a Loved One is an Addict

Whitney Houston

How many times have I heard variations of this in the last two weeks? "I can't understand why Whitney Houston would overdose/abuse drugs/get so drunk, when she had been through treatment and achieved sobriety, a child who needed her, a great career, people who loved her, and such a strong faith." In fact, I was sitting next to a Miami news anchor at dinner the other night who said the same thing.

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People who are judgmental of or bewildered by Whitney Houston's mode of death, or Demi Moore's way of coping with a failing relationship by using drugs, have never lived with addiction in a loved one.

Each time a celebrity dies of an overdose, those of us who love an addict - daughter, son, sister, brother, mother, father, spouse, significant other, family member or friend - are reminded that addiction is a cunning, baffling, powerful, chronic, and deadly disease.

There is no question that addiction is a disease. You can read about the science of addiction and addiction and the brain at websites of The National Institute on Drug Abuse and The Partnership at DrugFree.Org, not to mention hear Dr. Drew Pinsky hold forth on his own shows and as a media spokesperson for the disease of addiction. There are numerous sources for information on addiction. The main thing is that it changes the brain and behavior of those who have it.

Why did Whitney Houston overdose? Because she was an addict.

Addiction has no cure, only remission. The only sure way not to die from an overdose is not to ingest drugs or alcohol. Addiction is present no matter what, so the strategy is to exchange a bad addiction for a less harmful one. Some become addicted to exercise, some to work, some to a 12-step program that will keep them sober.

I knew Whitney was still in denial about her disease when she told Oprah Winfrey in that 2009 interview about her drug addiction that she was still able to drink alcohol - and that if you saw her having a drink now and then not to assume she was using drugs. She had not admitted she was powerless over addictive substances: Step One in 12-step recovery.

Critics of 12-step programs are having a field day with pointing out how Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous push God and negate free will. But Whitney wasn't practicing the program -- which, incidentally, has helped millions of people worldwide maintain sobriety -- if she was drinking. And her doctors did not understand addiction if they thought she could regularly take Xanax or other benzodiazepines for anxiety. And her entourage did not understand the basics of substance abuse if they thought she could mix alcohol and benzos simply because a doctor prescribed a medication for anxiety.

We really don't need much more evidence that addiction is a disease other than a look backward at other celebrities who have died in a similar way: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse. Even The Singing Nun died of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Faith or no faith. Children or no children. Wealth and fame or not. None of it makes any difference when you are an addict. Drug treatment can extend your life if you make the necessary changes. But there are no guarantees.

Having sat by the bed of a child who was taken to the hospital unconscious from a drug overdose, holding his hand for hours until he opened his eyes, and hearing "I love you mom; I'm sorry," I know that drug addicts do not want to overdose and die. But it happens - all over the world to all kinds of people.

Judy Kirkwood is on the Parent Advisory Board of The Partnership at DrugFree.org. Concerned family members of addicts can call their toll-free helpline at 855-378-4373.

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