While we do not yet understand why some people develop addictions and others do not, we have identified several risk factors.    That is, if you have these risk factors, you may be more vulnerable to developing an addiction.  Among them are genetics, an unstable family environment, a family history of substance use or mental health issues, a lack of rewards for positive behaviors, early use of drugs, childhood trauma, and any event or situation that completely overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope.  That is the kicker—whatever it is, completely overwhelmed your capacity to cope.  This means that at any point in your life, an addiction can develop—after a divorce, a death, job loss or after the onset of mental health issues or physical illness.

Think about stressful times in your past.  Some days it is easier to deal with what life throws at you than others.  If you are at a point of being exhausted and overwhelmed, and then a crisis occurs, you may not be able to cope as well with those added demands.  If, up until that point, you had learned some pretty effective coping skills you are much more prepared to deal with the crisis.  If you began your addictions early in life it is likely that you used the addiction to escape because you did not have the skills to cope, therefore, you may not have developed the same tools/coping skills as someone who had the benefit of a relatively healthy childhood.  Your recovery journey may be a bit longer and more challenging, but very do-able.  You will have to learn the skills to cope that most of us learned in middle and high school.

So why do people develop addictions early in life?  Having parents with an addiction, for instance, makes you four times more likely to develop an addiction.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, addicted parents cannot teach healthy coping skills or provide the unconditional love and support needed by a child.   This means that when you had problems, your parents may not have been any better equipped to handle them than you were.  Additionally, addicted parents are often so overwhelmed with their own problems, that they lack the ability and energy to be aware of their children’s issues.  As a child, when you were struggling, depressed, or going through adolescence, they may not have noticed your pain.   Recovery involves developing a support system that can provide that love and support, develop effective coping skills to deal with life on life’s terms, and to become aware of your moods and maladies, so you can do something to address them instead of simply avoiding them with your addiction.

Thirdly, it is not uncommon for people develop addictions as a way of self-medicating undiagnosed mental health issues like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.  Since there is a genetic component to mental health issues, if someone in your family has a mental health issue, then you are more likely to have that same issue.   It is important to remember that mental health problems can begin at any age.  The average age people start developing symptoms of things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is in their mid-20s.  When the symptoms begin, it often makes coping with day to day life a lot harder.  Initially people may self-medicate, because they do not realize they have a problem.  However, it does not take long before the body becomes dependent upon the addiction.   Effective treatment must deal with the mental health issues by rebalancing the brain chemicals causing the symptoms, AND deal with the addiction by rebalancing the brain chemicals that were disrupted by the addiction and teaching healthier ways of dealing with the mental health issues and stressors prompting the self-medication.

Another factor that can lead people to desperately search for something that makes them feel good is a lack of rewards for positive behaviors.  Throughout this book you will learn that people do not do things unless the benefit outweighs the cost.  Would you study hard for a test that had no impact on your grade?  When you were young, you did things to get approval from your parents. (If you like to learn, look up “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development,” and “Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development” to help you understand why children seek approval)  If you did not get approval, you may have tried harder for a while, but then, eventually, you probably gave up.  Going back to society’s message that “You are loved for what you can do, not who you are” you can see that, if you failed to receive approval, you probably started to feel like you were unlovable.  You couldn’t do anything right.   Your addiction may have comforted you and made you think you felt okay for a while.

Early use of drugs also increases a person’s risk for developing addictions later in life.  The young brain is even less equipped to deal with the impact of alcohol and other drugs, especially in addition to hormones and everything else.  This means that the young person abusing drugs may experience a more devastating withdrawal, than an adult.  The consequence is that they are even more desperate to use again to feel better.  Recreational use quickly turns to abuse.  Over the past two decades, most of my patients have basically stopped social and emotional development at the point that addiction became a major part of their life.  They quit giving a crap about anything and just wanted to be involved in their addiction.  It was the only thing that made them feel good. ..that helped them forget…

Finally, your social environment is almost as critical as your family environment.  You probably remember a time in your life when you thought your peers knew everything, and your parents, pastors or teachers knew nothing.  If those peers regularly engaged in addictive behaviors, then you were more likely to do the same, if for no other reason, than to fit in. Once those behaviors are started, they are very hard to stop.