Breaking Free of Addiction When You Have a Disability

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Breaking Free of Addiction When You Have a Disability
Recovering from drug or alcohol addiction is a lifelong challenge, one that is even more daunting for people with a physical or mental disability. Not only are there additional barriers to getting access to the right kind of treatment, but there is also a higher risk of substance abuse for people with disabilities.

In fact, people with disabilities are two to four times more likely to experience substance abuse issues than the general population. For example, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, people with arthritis or multiple sclerosis are two times more likely to develop a drug or alcohol problem. Almost half of people with mental illness, traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries abuse drugs or alcohol. All of this info begs the question: Why do people with disabilities have a higher risk of drug or alcohol dependence, and what can be done to encourage and support recovery?

disability with addiction

This guide explores the nature of substance abuse for people with disabilities by looking at:

  • Risk Factors
  • Health Consequences
  • Obstacles to Recovery
  • Breaking Free from Addiction

Risk Factors

Research shows that people with disabilities have a higher risk of abusing prescription medications. That’s because it’s not uncommon for people with disabilities to be prescribed narcotics for pain relief, along with benzodiazepine medications — often simply called benzos — for anxiety, stress or muscle spasms. In addition to — or, in many cases, in place of — these types of prescription medications, people with disabilities might also drink alcohol or use recreational drugs, all of which puts them at risk for substance abuse. Some risks include:

Chronic Pain or Limited Mobility

Dealing with chronic physical pain or limited mobility. Substance abuse starts with seeking to relieve pain, depression and feelings of social isolation.

Others Enabling Use

Family, friends, care providers and other sources of support enable use by over-prescribing, sharing recreational drugs, or sitting back complacently because they think they cannot help.

Limited Access to Treatment

Access to non-medical treatment services is limited. From the inability to travel to limited income, it can be easier to turn to alcohol, which you can buy at almost any corner store, than seek out alternative forms of pain management like meditation, yoga, physical therapy and acupuncture.

Family History or Living Situation

Other people in the home are battling substance abuse issues or there is a family history of addiction.

Using Substances Early On

— whether recreational or prescribed — began at an early age, like as a child or a teen.

Combining Substances

Multiple substances are used at the same time, such as taking a prescribed benzodiazepine with alcohol.

Disability Happened Suddenly

The disability had a sudden onset — like a car accident that results in a traumatic brain injury (TBI) — that often results in major life changes, such as an inability to work, difficulties with mobility, or impaired cognitive functioning.

It’s not uncommon for disabilities and substance abuse to have a symbiotic relationship. In other words, the path from disability to substance abuse isn’t linear. Recent projections estimate that it won’t be long before addiction becomes one of the leading, if not the leading, cause of disabilities worldwide. That means that while having a disability can be a risk factor for addiction, addiction itself can also perpetuate the disability, or even cause it in the first place. Understanding this relationship is key to understanding the ramifications to your health if you are a person with a disability and living with addiction.

Health Consequences

Addiction can take a serious toll on your physical health, but when you combine drug or alcohol abuse with a disability, the consequences can be much more severe. People with disabilities who abuse drugs, alcohol or prescription medications have an increased risk of:

  • Damage to vital internal organs, such as the heart, liver, kidney and lungs
  • Cognitive impairment and permanent brain damage
  • Neurological dysfunction that leads to an inability to regulate pain and mood naturally
  • Imbalanced brain chemistry
  • Malnutrition that leads to muscle atrophy and brittle bones
  • Inability for an injury to heal
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Sleep disorders
  • Damage to the peripheral nervous system
  • Weakened immune system

While the physical health consequences are troubling in their own right, add on top of that mental health consequences and you have a very scary picture. People with disabilities living with addiction can experience mental health issues, such as:

  • Inability to enjoy the normal, natural pleasures in life
  • Increased risk of experiencing psychosis or a mental breakdown
  • Impairment of decision-making skills
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Feelings of isolation, loneliness and a general feeling that you do not belong
  • Inability to control anger or aggression
  • Overwhelmed by paranoia or even hallucinations

man in wheelchair

As with the risk factors for disabilities and addiction, mental health issues and addiction have an interdependent association. For instance, it’s estimated that more than 40 million adults have experienced some form of mental illness, with more than 8 million experiencing both mental illness and addiction. With these complex and complicated situations, it’s no wonder that people with disabilities experience unique obstacles to addiction recovery.

Obstacles to Recovery

Removing the barriers to recovery can be a challenging, ongoing process. For people with disabilities, this process can be changed unexpectedly with shifts in their condition. It can take years, even decades, along with many attempts to feel stable in a sustained recovery from substance use. Undeniably, progress has been made in the availability of addiction treatment; however, making recovery more inviting and easier to sustain for people with disabilities continues to be a work in progress. Some obstacles include:

physical therapy

  • The double stigma of having an addiction and a disability
  • Lack of education and resources to address the combination of your specific disability and substance use disorder
  • Limited availability of support and advocacy; help for the disability might be turned down or unavailable because of the addiction, or vice versa
  • Reliance on specialized transportation, which can limit a person’s ability to attend regular meetings, such as people in wheelchairs who only have periodic access to van services for travel
  • Treatment options may not be able to be modified to accommodate the disability, such as needing shorter sessions for a cognitive disability

Each individual may encounter his or her own unique obstacles when considering their specific experiences with disability, addiction, socioeconomic situations, education, support networks, etc. That’s why barriers to recovery can be so burdensome, but that doesn’t mean they are insurmountable.

Breaking Free from Addiction

You can break free from addiction and keep your recovery on track even with additional challenges imposed by your disability. You may have to dig deep within to find that extra push for dedication and commitment, but when you do, your whole life can change. Try out a few of these tips for people with disabilities to start and sustain addiction recovery:

  • Create a plan and stick to it. Work with your sponsor, therapist or other support person to create a daily plan that includes focusing on exercise and hobbies accessible to your disability.
  • Know your triggers, and have distractions and diversions on hand. You may even want to consider practicing a few so you have them at the ready when temptation to relapse arises.
  • Volunteer to help others with a similar experience. Be a source of support for another person going through your same situation, or be a mentor for youth with the same disability to help keep them away from addiction. Be part of a community that gives back.
  • Find a healthy way to cope with withdrawal. Explore treatments you can practice at home, like meditation or yoga, that can help you manage the mental and physical effects of detoxing from substance abuse.


Most importantly, you have to cultivate a sense of optimism and gratitude. Your disability may have led you to feel angry or hopeless. In order to sustain your addiction recovery, you have to find things to feel grateful for — start by focusing not on your disabilities, but on your abilities. Moving through substance abuse is hard, especially if you are managing a disability as well. Find things you are good at, things you love, and run with it.