Emerging Stronger: How Addiction Teaches Us Five Core Strengths of the Human Condition

Father, son, and grandson

When I tell people that I’m an Addiction Psychiatrist, the usual response is, “Oh man. That must be tough.” I’ve had a front-row view into this complex and often misunderstood disease for many years. Along the way, I’ve learned that the journey of addiction often reveals unexpected, undervalued core strengths of the human condition.

Patients struggling with the most severe forms of addiction are also some of the most resilient people I know. We constantly underestimate these folks. We miscalculate their determination. We minimize their drive. We dismiss their intelligence. We disregard their perseverance. When I told my medical school mentor that I wanted to do an Addiction Psychiatry fellowship, he simply said, “Are you sure you want to treat…them folks?”

Turns out, “them folks” are the hidden warriors of the world. In my humble observations, here are five core strengths those who have a substance use disorder often develop and refine:

5. Never Give Up

Folks who have a substance use disorder face the potential for monumental daily setbacks. The threat of a return to substances or alcohol is a constant fear that permeates their very existence and keeps their loved ones up at night. A return to substances or alcohol is a real possibility that can result in catastrophic consequences, including loss of job, finances, relationships, and even loss of life. Those who have a severe addiction understand these odds better than most. They never give up working to beat them.

4. Gratitude

People struggling with substance use disorders appreciate the little things that the rest of the world overlooks. I once had a patient call me at Christmas, saying excitedly, “Dr. Grawert! I have two Christmas presents under the tree for my children this year!” This patient had five children under the age of five. I imagined a small Christmas tree with five little ones frantically fighting over two gifts on Christmas morning, wrapping paper flying. Yet I could sense the pride and positivity in her voice through the phone. Puzzled, I listened and waited for more. She continued, “Last year, I sold all their presents to pay my dealer. That ain’t gonna happen this year.” Little things.

3. Mind-Body Connection

In a twenty-first century that blankets us in smartphone alerts, TV screens, and processed ready-to-eat food, it’s easy for us to forget that we are indeed animals, still guided by a bodily river of pheromones, dopamine, melatonin, and epinephrine (among many others). These bodily chemicals have a profound influence over our daily behavior, the power of which is hard to comprehend unless you have a substance use disorder. Alcohol and drugs are super-releasers of the pleasure hormone dopamine. Folks who struggle with these substances painfully understand how even subtle reminders of their drug of choice can cause powerful, instantaneous physical and mental cravings. It is a daily reminder of how strong the mind-body connection truly is.

2. Human Fragility

I once had a 15-year-old girl whose first words to me at our initial appointment were, “All of my friends and family are dead.” She went on to describe in precise detail how each close friend and family member in her life had passed away from an unintentional overdose within the past two years. She was orphaned and friendless. Another patient of mine who survived multiple near-fatal overdoses once smiled at me and said, “I’m a cat whose about ten lives over his nine-life limit.” Folks who have a substance use disorder have very real daily reminders of how fleeting and fragile our human condition truly is. The AA community says, “Easy does it,” as a somber reminder not to overestimate confidence in your physical condition or sobriety. I’m 40 years old. I’m lucky enough that I haven’t had a single close friend pass away yet. Not one. Both of my parents are alive. All of my siblings are alive. On the other hand, I have witnessed innumerable losses of patients from the devastating disease of addiction. It is a constant reminder that our time on this earth is fleeting and precious.

1. Our secret superpower: Human Connection

The disease of addiction is a powerful tour de force. You never conquer it. You live with it. Those suffering from it quickly learn that human connection and support are the secret superpowers for battling this disease. Addiction is a disease that thrives in solitude and weakens with connection. During the pandemic, we were forced to isolate from others. As a consequence, addiction numbers skyrocketed. Herein lies the magic and power of AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous), and GA (Gamblers Anonymous). These support groups provide the power of human company to conquer the seemingly unconquerable. They provide verbal, physical, and emotional bolstering from those who understand when understanding is needed most. Those who are close to addiction understand how essential human connection truly is to overcoming significant life adversity. It’s not optional. It’s the fundamental ingredient to success.

Albert Einstein famously said, “In the middle of every great crisis lies great opportunity.” Addiction is a heartbreaking disease. Sufferers are often silent and misunderstood. But if you can peer through the pain, it also offers us the gift of understanding what makes humans truly great: the fuel for the rocket boosters, the ultimate gasoline, the secret sauce, the polish and shine hidden under all of our rust. And what a wild, beautiful ride it can be.

Aware Recovery Care Is Here to Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to opioids, other drugs, and/or alcohol and need help in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana, the recovery teams at Aware Recovery Care are here to help. And we come to you, regardless of where you live. Our unique in-home treatment model of care gives clients a significantly better chance of recovery than traditional inpatient rehab care. We are now offering Virtual Detox and Medication Assisted Treatment in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio as well. Please get in touch with one of our Recovery Specialists to learn more.

About the author…Dr. Lauren Grawert MD.

Dr. Grawert is a double board-certified Addiction Psychiatrist. She completed her medical school training in 2009 and a General Psychiatry Residency in 2013 at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). She then went on to complete an Addiction Psychiatry fellowship at MUSC, which she completed in 2014. After fellowship training, Dr. Grawert served as the Chief of Psychiatry and Addiction at Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic. She has also worked in private practice specializing in general psychiatry, substance use disorders, and medically assisted treatment (MAT). Dr. Grawert has served as an expert for the San Diego Community Response to Drug Overdose Task Force, the Addiction Committee Leader for Kaiser Permanente National Mental Health & Addiction Leadership Organization, and a Professor of Psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine. She likes to write, travel, and spend time with her two young children in her spare time.