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Combating Substance Abuse

Robert Smith was a running back in college, and a very good one. While attending Euclid High School in Euclid, Ohio, Smith won Ohio's Mr. Football Award twice, and was the only player to do so for 20 years before the feat was finally repeated. He eventually went on to play football for the Ohio State Buckeyes for two years. While there, Smith studied to become a doctor, but ran into problems with his coaches because he wanted to commit as much time to his studies as possible. This dedication to his schoolwork led Smith to leave the football team for a year in a principled stance, as he wanted to be a student and an athlete, rather than just an athlete. He returned to the football team after a year away.

Allied Health

After playing two seasons at Ohio State, Smith was drafted in the first round of the 1993 National Football League draft by the Minnesota Vikings. His first three seasons were plagued by injury, which led to ineffectiveness on the field, but Smith persevered and finally broke through in his fourth season. Smith played in the National Football League (NFL) for eight seasons, and retired in his prime at the age of 28, after setting the highest single-season rushing yards and touchdown totals of his career.

Smith was able to survive controversy with his coaches. He was able to survive his career as a running back, a position in the NFL that has an average shelf life of 2.81 years. It was a bottle of booze, however, that he couldn't overcome.

Inside the numbers

AlliedHealthWorld.com spoke to Dr. Jonathan Brady, Ph.D./LMFT at Long Beach Center for Psychology about substance abuse, particularly alcohol. In terms of overall numbers Dr. Brady said that 3.6 percent of the world's population has some form of substance abuse problem. The continent of Africa has the lowest prevalence rate at 1.1 percent, and Eastern Europe has the highest rate at 10.9 percent. America falls in the middle of those two, with a 5.2 percent rate of substance abuse.

According to Dr. Brady, people form substance abuse problems because "using a substance is a way to cope, a way to function, a way to medicate, and a way to escape. If you are using substances there is something you want to feel and something you do not want to feel."

This can be as innocuous as having a few drinks after a rough day at work, at least in Dr. Brady's mind.

"Maybe that day where you had a really tough time at work you just want to go and have two drinks at the bar," according to Dr. Brady. "Maybe there was a conversation you wanted to have with your colleague, for instance, that you didn't. So in that case the need to imbibe alcohol impeded you ability to improve both personally and professionally. In that case, I would say yes, you have a substance abuse problem."

That might seem a little drastic, as many of us may stop at the local bar and have a drink or two after a rough day at the office. Looking closer, however, we may be hoping to delude ourselves into believing that our use of alcohol to escape our problems, even temporarily, is less of an issue than we want to acknowledge.

Here Dr. Brady differs from the American Psychological Association (APA), as they have a much higher threshold for defining what substance abuse actually is, especially in the above scenario.

"The American Psychological Association would say no" to calling two drinks at the bar after a rough day substance abuse, Dr. Brady said. "I would say we don't really know. The person used alcohol at that particular moment for a particular reason. I'm curious about what happened in that moment, and that's how I approach any kind of self-medicating behavior or substance abuse problems."

When a solution becomes a problem

What does this have to do with Robert Smith, a football player that some of you may have never heard of? Well, everything. A lot of us may be under the impression that substance abuse happens to people who are weak-willed, who do not have enough self-control to put down the bottle, the pipe, or the needle in order to straighten up their lives.

As the intro illustrated, Smith has the courage of his convictions. He is anything but weak-willed, fighting against what he felt was an unjust system at Ohio State that wanted him to sacrifice his academics in the pursuit of athletics. Smith made his way to the NFL, a workplace that houses only the best of the best. Only a small percentage of college athletes join the league. Smith was one of them. Not only that, he was good enough to be a first round draft pick. There are only 32 of those per year, even fewer when Smith entered the league.

A weak person cannot make it to the top of the football mountain. A weak individual cannot survive the culture of football, with its hazing, crude jokes, and constant demands on time and effort. Yet Smith still fell victim to substance abuse. Why?

Smith recently went on the Dan LeBatard radio show to discuss his latest bout with alcohol. He addressed the idea that people who suffer from substance abuse simply have issues with control.

"To anybody with a real drinking problem, for them to hear people say 'well, it's just a control issue and you need to not drink so much' you just kind of laugh at them," Smith said.

He went on to describe the need he felt for alcohol as "an itch in your mind that you can't scratch, and where that takes you is anybody's guess."

That may sound like a cop-out to anyone who has not suffered through a substance abuse problem, but to those who have, it may echo the feelings they have gone through in their battles to stay sober. Part of the problem may also be the way that the media portrays substance abuse issues. Dr. Brady shared this opinion in the interview.

"The people who struggle most with substance abuse problems aren't using crack or meth off the street," Dr. Brady said. "They are using prescription pills that their doctor gave them and that they have insurance for. They are very suburbia. They are alcoholics, not necessarily buying Two-Buck Chuck in the gutter, but they are going out and buying 12 cases of Corona. I think the image we have of substance abuse, the one the media saturates us with, is much different than what is really happening. I think we skew our images in this really convenient way to look at it as a problem that is 'other.'"

It is the potential to make the issue a problem of the "other" that may make us call individuals who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction "weak" and say they lack self-control. We may even be causing a bigger problem in how we categorize these issues, according to Dr. Brady.

"A lot of people want to call substance abuse a disease or illness," Dr. Brady said. "That can make it seem bad, and it becomes a sign of weakness. We in America like our pathologies. We like saying there is a problem with something. We want to put a name on it and we want to fix it as quickly and as easily as we can, more than actually looking at some of the roots of the problem. I think we have a very skewed perspective on substances. We rationalize them as being okay, but also condemn people who use them at the same time."

Righteous condemnation

How can we move away from condemning people to understanding and helping them? The first step may be to stop pointing the finger and turning individuals into the "other."

"I think we point at other and say 'you have a disease,'" said Dr. Brady, "to separate their behavior from our behavior. I think it is easier to look at someone else's drinking problem rather than our own potential drinking problem." He went on to say "rather than examiningwhat is going on with that person's life we want an easy way of saying 'they just have a problem with alcohol. They need to get over that problem.'"

It is just simpler to point out the problem rather than find the solution, which may be a bit more helpful to someone suffering through alcohol and drug abuse. It may take a large amount of empathy for us to understand, or even want to understand, someone who has a drinking or drug problem, and what is helping to exacerbate that problem. It may also help someone to go see a substance abuse counselor, or even to talk to friends and family about what is going on in their lives.

Professional and personal help is what eventually helped Smith when he was in the grip of his substance problem. It is being able to make the step toward help, and having people support you while you receive that help, that can make all the difference.

Sources:

The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz, December 2, 2013

"Goodbye, Columbus," Austin Murphy, Sports Illustrated, September 9, 1991, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1140635/

Interview with Dr. Jonathan Brady, Ph.D./LMFT at Long Beach Center for Psychology, conducted by Jamar Ramos, December 5, 2013

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