“Sometimes money costs too much.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
It follows in a typical progression. The addict needs to get high. In order to get high, he/she needs drugs, and in order to get drugs, he/she needs money. Once the addict has exhausted personal resources, the next step involves stealing from the family, and then from outsiders.
I have heard plenty of stories that involve pawning wedding rings and engaging in a host of creative scams. But the point here is not about the money; it's about the drugs—about getting high. For any seasoned addict, that is the real issue. The money only constitutes a means to an end.
Not a personality trait
That's why it is important in working with addicts’ families to help them understand that their loved one is probably not a thieving sociopath but rather an addict who engages in sociopath-like activities in order to get money for drugs. One way to help everyone understand this is to help the family and the client examine the individual's pre-addiction history. If the question is, “Was the son or daughter always a thief and a cheat?”, the answer is almost always no.
In fact, many parents recount how wonderfully studious and athletically gifted their children were before their addiction. It is often helpful to have loved ones look back at how accomplished the addict was before becoming involved with drugs. This kind of process helps family members understand that many if not most of the delinquent behaviors they have seen were motivated by the disease of addiction and not some deep-rooted flaw in their loved one's behavior. These individuals were driven to perform illegal activities in order to get drugs.
For many family members, this realization creates the beginnings of an understanding of addiction as a treatable disease, as opposed to seeing their loved one being labeled as a long-term criminal with no hope for rehabilitation.
James M. Pedersen
It should always be noted that performing illegal acts simply to get drugs is not morally or legally justifiable. Criminal behavior still should carry consequences, but if that criminal also is an addict, then treatment should be part of the equation as well.
In this column I am trying to help the family therapist understand the importance of helping the family (the addict's natural support system) grasp the difference between an addiction-driven behavior and a criminal predisposition. One way to help the family and the addict understand this is to point out the addict's pre-addiction successes. In turn, this also helps family members, especially parents, see that they are not to blame for their loved one's illness.
James M. Pedersen is a member of NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals, and maintains a private practice in Madison, Wisconsin. His e-mail address is