Addiction Relates to Lack of
Life Skills

Life Skills
Photo by SDI Productions/

When they first start out using drugs, many people believe they are going to be able to “keep it together.” Whether it’s marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, synthetics or excessive alcohol use, those indulging in these or other drugs start out thinking they’ll be able to escape serious harm to their minds, bodies and even spirits.

Even when drug use becomes a habit, they may keep telling themselves they are still the person they were before drugs entered their lives.

Addicted people can be amazingly convincing to themselves so they don’t have to face the truth. Here’s what one fellow on an anonymous drug information forum said about himself while he was still addicted: “My addictions to alcohol and methamphetamine did not detract from my reliability, responsibilities or financial security. They did not adversely affect anyone, my jobs or health.”

In his world, let’s assume that appears to be 100% true. But it’s extremely likely that if we asked his family and coworkers, we would hear a different story—a story of disappointment and alienation.

How Can They Deteriorate Without Knowing it?

Man downtrodden
                           Photo by steele2123/

This is a very key question. And it has a simple answer. Drug use and alcohol abuse lower a person’s awareness. It’s very much like they are descending a long staircase. As they get lower and lower on the stairs, they are focused on the stairs below them. The higher stairs fade from their awareness. At the bottom is complete unawareness of their own condition and relationships. The closer to the bottom they get, the less they are aware of their physical, mental and spiritual conditions. As they descend, it's as though their environment becomes darker and darker. Their perceptions dim, even their perceptions of themselves.

This descent is the reason they can keep lying to themselves and others, and say things like, “I don’t need rehab, I can quit any time I want.” They might actually think this is true. This is why interventions are often needed before an addicted person will agree to go to rehab. An intervention is a way of breaking through this crashed awareness.

It takes a massive act of determination to begin that climb to higher awareness. And that is why so many people need the support of their family and friends and a residential rehab to help them make it all the way out. With the 24-hour support of residential rehab, a person has the support they need if they weaken along the way.

What Happens to Their Life Skills?

As a person makes this descent, they are going to be shedding the life skills they learned as they grew up.

That’s one possibility. The other possibility is that they never developed useful life skills in the first place. And that lack was most likely a contributing factor in their decisions to start using drugs.

We’ll look at these two paths separately.

Losing the Life Skills They Had

Our life skills enable us to manage relationships, hold jobs, plan for the future and much more. When drug use turns into addiction, the overwhelming need to obtain drugs each day becomes obsessive. The need to avoid withdrawal sickness becomes more important than family, career, and health for almost everyone. Precious few people remain fully functional after they become addicted.

Let’s take a look at a few specific life skills that are likely to be lost as the person descends this staircase.

Decision-making: An alcoholic is an alcoholic as long as he can’t control his decisions about drinking. When drinking becomes a foregone conclusion, that person has lost this skill.

Communication: An addicted person can’t tell all, unless he is surrounded by drug-using people. With his sober family and friends, he will have to withhold his communication. He will have to lie about where he’s been and what happened to his money or why he has lost so much weight. This will become more and more of a habit.

Empathy: It is quite common for drug users to become occasional or habitual drug sellers so they can finance their habits. To do this, they are going to have to turn off their empathy. They’ll have to avoid thinking about the person who might become addicted or fatally overdose as a result of drugs being sold to them.

Why Don’t Some People Have Life Skills to Lose?

Young man drugs
Photo by Daisy-Daisy/

There’s more than one reason.

  1. When a person begins using drugs or drinking at a young age, they may stop maturing right at that age. They may not have developed an adult level of social competence so they don’t have those skills to lose.
  2. Unfortunately, some people grow up in miserable situations. Abusive, drug-using parents, for example, may have prevented a person from developing positive, productive skills.
  3. Because of innate and severe personality flaws, some people don’t develop mature life skills no matter how good their situation was.

A person in one of these situations could easily have a longer, tougher ascent up those stairs than the person who had skills and lost them. He’s learning life skills for the first time and may have to overcome abuse or trauma as well.

So Which Life Skills are Lost?

Everyone’s losses are going to be a little different. So the skills that are lost and the ones that are retained will vary. To get an idea of the kinds of skills that guide an adult life, and that could be lost while addicted, I’ll refer to a World Health Organization report called Partners in Life Skills Education.

This WHO report states that development of life skills “contributes to the promotion of personal and social development, the prevention of health and social problems, and the protection of human rights.” This is a very accurate statement. The prevention of drug abuse and addiction very much relies on a person possessing healthy and strong life skills.

In addition to the life skills mentioned above, this report lists these other skills as essential:

As you read this list, I’m sure you can envision how lack of these skills can make it so much easier to start using drugs and eventually wind up addicted. “Resisting pressure,” for example. If a person can’t resist peer pressure, they are more likely to participate in drug use when their friends do.

And “coping with disappointment.” Without this skill, it could be tempting to drink or use drugs to blot out the pain associated with a disappointment. Without “assertiveness,” a person might not stand up for themselves when they are being bullied into drinking with their pals.

And so on down the whole list. These are the skills needed to be a caring, mature adult who is willing to share their success and help others. These are the qualities that make a good spouse, parent, boss or leader.

Recovering Lost Skills

Climbing back up this long staircase to lasting sobriety requires these life skills to be built or rebuilt. Imagine a person who goes to rehab, gets sober, engages in some group counseling but never has the help needed to develop these vital skills. What’s going to happen?

When they return to their usual lives and relationships, they are going to be battered by the same negative influences they could not handle before they became addicted. Arguments, disappointments, setbacks, losses—any of these, if severe enough, could send them spiraling back into drug use.

To stay sober when they leave rehab, they need to be above a make-break point of personal and interpersonal skills. They need to be adequately self-aware and honest with themselves and others. They should be worthy of trust and willing to trust others.

When they have reached a firm baseline of these and other skills by the end of their rehab program, they can return to their usual lives and continue to grow and mature as human beings.

Many people also need the support of those around them. Family and close friends can be instrumental in helping a person stay on the straight and narrow after they achieve sobriety. Requiring a person to be productive, for example, to create some useful service or product, is essential to a person's accurate grasp of what life means. When you are actually producing something valuable, you must draw on this entire list of life skills.

Life Skills Training on the Narconon Program

The Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation program provides life skills training, counseling and practical application of these skills. This thorough approach can enable each individual to reach and even exceed this make-break point of life skills.

The life skills training addressed in this section of the rehab program includes:

Overcoming Ups and Downs in life
  • Overcoming Ups and Downs in Life: This course of study teaches a person why life can be a “roller coaster” and how to identify and deal with these factors. Life can come under one’s control.
  • Personal Values: It’s not always easy to know how to make the right choice. But staying sober is all about those correct decisions. This course teaches each student a reliable framework that guides their decisions and actions.
  • Changing Conditions in Life: When someone understands how to repair a relationship, a job or a project, life does not have to be a constant struggle with disappointment. It is possible to put life back together again and this course gives the student the necessary tools to do that.

These courses develop problem-solving, coping with disappointment, making and keeping friends and relationships, clarification of values and many other skills on the WHO list above.

Further, the section of the Narconon rehab program called the Objectives helps a person overcome past trauma and begin to enjoy life in the present. As part of this rehabilitative process, each person gains much-improved communication and listening skills—more vital life skills!

To further help students develop their own skills, each student supports and aids other students in acquiring these life skills. Thus they develop compassion, empathy and sociability, as well as self-esteem.

When choosing a rehab program for your loved one or yourself, ask specific questions about how life skills are restored. What educational materials are available? Does the individual have a chance to put these skills to use before they go home?

You might consider printing out this list and keeping it for your own reference. Then you can ask: “How does the program you are considering develop this list of vital skills?

Learning how the program you are considering addresses these points gives you a much better chance of selecting a program that will be successful for you or a loved one.


Expert review by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.