Understanding the Problem

Navigating Diagnosis and Defining the Problem

Understanding what may be wrong is important for addressing a problem. Talking with a trained medical professional such as a doctor or therapist can be helpful in bringing clarity, particularly if substances are involved. However, don’t let the specifics of trying to define the problem delay your process of taking a step forward. If you’re feeling trapped, stuck, or hopeless around substance use or another challenge, it’s valuable to reach out for help, whether you technically have an addiction or not. Talk to a doctor, or tell a trusted friend, or visit a support group. What matters most is seizing the opportunity to find hope and get help.


More than a Condition

Defining and diagnosing a challenge can bring tremendous clarity and hope. Identifying a problem is necessary to begin to find a solution. No matter the diagnosis, there’s hope for you. Your value is so much more than any condition.

If you’re skittish about getting a diagnosis, because of the possible outcome, that’s okay. Start taking steps toward hope and health. Getting help is more important than having a final understanding of the problem. If you’re trying to understand why a car won’t start, or the clanking sound in an engine, understanding what the specific problem is will be important in repair, but taking the car into an auto shop and seeking help is a necessary first step.

Be Aware of Warning Signals

Sometimes we expend a lot of stress because we see a warning light in our lives, and out of inconvenience or the fear of what’s behind the warning light, we hold off on getting help. Whether it’s just a warning light, or an indication of a more serious problem, delay is not our friend. Sometimes we’ll try to fix it ourselves, or focus on something else. But if there’s a leak in the fuel line, changing the tires is not going to help. Seeking help to understand a possible mental health condition or addiction is crucial for experiencing more in life. Here are some suggestions on how to approach the process:

1. Celebrate that help is coming. Being willing to look inside and see what isn’t working, whether individually or with help, is a brave step. Your willingness to look inside is courageous, and can be the beginning of positive change for yourself that positively affects your family and community.

2. Partner with trained professionals. Medical professionals, such as doctors or licensed therapists or counselors are best positioned to help provide clarity, particularly if the symptoms are serious. Your neighbor may be useful in washing the car or filling the tires, but you’re probably going to want to take your car into a shop for any type of significant repair.

3. Understanding what the specific challenge is matters less than moving forward and getting help. The shame attached to mental health, and particularly, addiction, can keep us from looking inside or seeking help. Don’t let fear about what the problem may or may not be keep you from stepping forward. If you’re feeling down, consistently in pain, exhausted, in any way trapped or stuck, getting help is important. Whether you receive a diagnosis or not matters less than starting the process to growth and change.

4. Focus on the hope and life in front of you. Fixing a car’s engine, or addressing another automotive challenge, is rarely just for the sake of hearing the engine run, or having the car function perfectly. It’s so that the car can continue on its journey, and be a conveyer of family, or venture into nature, or complete life-giving, important tasks. If your growth or recovery contributes just to your engine running better, that’s amazing, but recognizing the possible joys and adventures ahead can be a valuable motivator for change.

5. Involve community as you deal with uncertainty and change. The process of understanding and addressing a challenge, whether it’s addiction-related or not, can feel uncertain or complicated. Involving others that you trust in your process — whether a friend, counselor, or medical professional — is important.

Screening Tools and Formal Diagnosis

You may still be wondering if your struggles are classified as an addiction, or another type of mental health disorder. ASAM defines the condition as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

In layman’s terms, addiction is indicated by physical, mental, relational, or spiritual challenges. There are many tests used to “screen” for indications of drug or alcohol addiction, most of which need to be administered by licensed professionals. For many, answering “yes” to their questions may indicate that additional help is needed.

The CAGE – AID questionnaire is a four question screening tool used to identify problems with alcohol or drug use:

Have you ever felt that you ought to cut down on your drinking or drug use?

Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking or drug use?

Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking or drug use?

Have you ever had a drink or used drugs first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get ride of a hangover?

Two additional questions also used to screen for problems include:

Is the behavior or substance use causing challenges in work, friend, or family settings?

Do you ever lie about the behavior or substance use, or how frequently it occurs?

This infographic, produced by the Recovery Research Institute in alignment with the American Psychiatric Association, provides indicators of possible severity for substance use disorders.

Again, for individuals with serious alcohol or opioid use disorders, involvement of medical professionals is crucial because the process of detoxification can be life-threatening. Remember, whatever the diagnosis, there is hope. Change is possible. If you haven’t already, research has discovered that the brain is neuroplastic, meaning that it can be rewired and changed. This information is powerful because it gives hope for growth in each of us, whether it be from a serious mental health condition, or simply a habit that we’re looking to change.

You’re not in this alone. Millions of other Americans deal with these challenges. If you’re looking for additional resources on the screening or diagnosis process, check out the following resources:

For alcohol-related challenges, check out the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’s self test 

For drug-related challenges, check out the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’s self test 




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