Before they’re even born, most parents have a vision for their children. We picture them as grown adults, making their own way in the world and perhaps even being there for us as we age.
But not everyone follows the same path to maturity. Some take a roundabout course through addiction and other obstacles that stunt their development; others never come around.
One of the most common reasons for drug and alcohol use is to escape or numb painful emotions. What most users don’t realize is that there’s a flipside to this “payoff.”
When drug use starts, the natural maturing process stops. Normal life lessons get set aside in the compulsive pursuit of the next high, causing people to look like adults but think and act like teenagers.
This explains why a 40-year-old may end up in treatment learning for the first time how to balance a budget, manage their time and find an apartment or job when many of their peers developed these skills decades earlier.
Peter Pan syndrome
Since many addicts begin using drugs in their teens or early 20s, significant deficits in maturity can accrue by their 30s or 40s. This “failure to launch” can be seen as a perpetual state of adolescence – living in a Neverland of sorts.
In a University of Missouri study, drug users in their mid-20s didn’t feel less mature because of their drug habit, but if they didn’t quit by the age of 30 they reported feeling immature for their age compared to their peers. Someone who blacks out, gets hung over or drives drunk at age 25 may be viewed as a “normal” young person with some growing up to do. By their 30s, these same individuals are expected to know better and to start focusing on the things that really matter, such as career and relationships.
But people struggling with addiction have difficulty “maturing out” of drug use even if they know better. Changes in the brain caused by drugs turn growing up into a far-off and seemingly unimportant goal.
Recovery: The fast-track to maturity
For most people, maturity naturally unfolds as a function of day-to-day living. For addicts, it requires concerted effort. In recovery, addicts quite literally grow up. The deficits left by months or years of drug use are gradually filled in by education, life experience and a number of specific life skills, including:
- Willingness to change: The decision to get clean and sober provides an immediate sense of accomplishment. Yet maturity requires a willingness to not only stop engaging in harmful behaviors but also to adjust to the inevitable changes life brings. Recovering addicts must step outside their comfort zone, let go of familiar patterns of self-pity and fear, and open themselves up to what life has to teach.
- Accepting responsibility: In recovery, addicts learn to accept accountability for their decisions rather than playing the victim or blaming others. With counseling, life coaching and other forms of assistance, the addict learns to manage anger, sadness, frustration and other emotions without turning to drugs or responding in ways they’ll later regret. They make decisions not only based on their own desires but also the impact their actions may have on other people.
- Rebuilding self-esteem: The addict’s self-esteem takes a hit as they watch others build fulfilling lives while they stay stuck in destructive patterns. Because their days have been consumed by getting and using drugs, they may question whether they’re capable of doing anything else. In recovery, the addict develops new interests and builds on small successes, which helps them relate to their peers in a new way.
- Asking for help: One skill often learned in drug rehab that continues to be critical throughout recovery is the ability to ask for help. When threats to sobriety inevitably arise, the recovering addict must be able to recognize their vulnerability and reach out to a sponsor, therapist, aftercare program or other trusted source to stay on track.
- Restoring a sense of self: Prolonged drug use takes away years of the addict’s life. When they finally get help, they’ve often lost their sense of identity. To get it back, they must explore their values, interests and goals, which also serves another important purpose: preventing boredom or complacency, two common enemies to sustained recovery.
Many of these life skills, as well as others, are learned during treatment. Others develop as part of life in recovery. It’s an ongoing balancing act – staying busy but not too busy, developing a healthy daily routine without getting bored, taking care of oneself while also being there for friends and family – that requires practice and patience.
The process looks different for everyone. For some, maturity means a successful career or a family; for others it means being happy in whatever they do. Whatever the prerequisites, they all share one thing in common: freedom from addiction. Only by putting an end to addictive patterns can the addict become the grown-up person they want to be.