Millions of people are addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription painkillers. Addiction ravages the body, and approximately 125 people die of drug overdoses each day in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The emotional costs are harder to measure, particularly since family and others close to the addict may be deeply affected.
Meet Drigo. He's 23 and a successful audio engineer.
It's hard to believe he was once hooked on drugs or that he bottomed out at the tender age of 14.
When his parents kicked him out, he was forced to live on the streets. He spent his days begging and scavenging for food and shelter. Drigo lost his girlfriend, his guitar, his self-esteem, and his desire to better himself.
He told me that his fellow addicts resorted to desperate tactics to score cash. They'd “put on a small show on the corner” or take horrible dares for money – like eating glass, stepping barefoot on a lit cigarette, or poking their faces with a sharp pin. Drinking contests for money were common. Fortunately, Drigo didn't take these routes to pay for his fix.
“Finally, I decided it was too much,” Drigo told me. “I started talking to restaurant managers so I could work for food.”
He soon landed a job. The turnaround to financial independence wasn't instant, of course. “It took seven to 12 months of working and not giving up for me to feel good about where I was going,” Drigo said.
I asked Drigo what led to his inspiring reversal. “It was simply the thought that I had every time I was robbed, or begged for money, that I couldn't bear the thought of this being my life for years to come. I need to make a change,” he said. “Music and the few people that helped me along the way inspired me to not give up. Never take no for an answer. The moment I tried truly believing this, my life changed.”
The Financial Costs of Addiction
While Drigo's story to-date ends well, most addicts don't fare as well.
Addiction may lead to lost productivity at work, increased sick days, job loss, and chronic unemployment.
Alcoholics and drug addicts will likely drain any available financial resources. For those who are fortunate enough to get professional help, residential treatment centers are expensive.
John, a research analyst in his early 20s who did not wish to use his real name, talked about how he watched his alcoholic uncle hit rock bottom both physically and financially. For ten years, Uncle Brad was a sales executive for a pharmaceutical company.
Then he lost his job, didn't tell his family, and was secretly unemployed for three years.
Imagine having to fake working. You'd have to wake up at a normal time, get dressed in your suit, and pretend to commute and go somewhere for the whole day. You'd have to make up stories about business travel, difficult customers, and a cast of co-workers, maybe even including an unappreciative boss. Nothing short of a full time, off-Broadway production.
His wife, an elementary school teacher, didn't figure it out for years. Clearly, they had no transparency in their financial life.
Uncle Brad's charade was revealed when his daughter began college. John told me that, “After that, things started going south very fast. His wife divorced him and they filed for bankruptcy.”
Uncle Brad continued to drink dozens of beers a day.
His sister (John’s mother) worried because she hadn't heard from him in a while. She found him passed out on the floor of his house, covered in his own feces and urine. Apparently, he'd been there for nearly a week. The house was a disaster, like something that you see on reality TV shows about extreme hoarders.
Due to his host of physical problems, Uncle Brad spent months in the hospital and in a nursing facility. When he recovered a bit, he rented a room. According to John, Uncle Brad received a windfall following his divorce. His father-in-law basically paid him $30,000 “to go away.”
The “settlement” money didn't last long, though, and Uncle Brad started living in his car. His problems got worse. The police contacted John's mother after they picked him up late one night.
He was sleeping on the side of the highway, many miles from his car.
She got a power of attorney over Uncle Brad's bank account to try to prevent him from going bankrupt again. When Uncle Brad needs money, he meets his sister at the bank to withdraw cash. Even his daughter doesn't want anything to do with him.
John and his family worry that Uncle Brad continues to take advantage of his sister's kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. They're probably right.
Unless he gets cleaned up, an addict will remain a financial risk to themselves and to whoever pitches in and enables their behavior.
I asked John what life lessons he's learned from watching Uncle Brad. “Alcoholism is a slippery slope and will always catch up to you,” he told me. “I also learned that if you don't take care of your health, you will suffer long-term.”
He concluded that, “I've learned you should pay your bills and not drag your family down to rock bottom with you.”
While Uncle Brad didn't resort to nefarious methods to pay for his habit, his sad story shows that even if other well-meaning people try to help, an addict has to be self-motivated to make the difficult financial, physical, and emotional changes to improve their life.