Most people have a difficult time understanding addiction—this is a disease of the brain that quickly becomes chronic and is notoriously difficult to treat. From someone on the outside looking in, addiction can appear to be an issue of self-control or simply a byproduct of personal weakness. Unfortunately, drug addiction is a lot more complicated than it appears.
In reality, addiction is an internal motivation driven by a chemical reaction and often fueled by psychological issues. People can be predisposed to addiction—genetics do play a part. When someone is exposed to the perfect storm of factors, they find themselves struggling with something that carries a stigma and shame that’s associated with few other diseases.
What is Addiction?
The definition provided by the American Psychiatric Association states,
“Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.”
This definition only scratches the surface of what addiction really means. Addiction is a chronic disease, and it infiltrates every aspect of a person’s life. It becomes the only thing that they think about, and it drives almost every action throughout their day.
This happens when a person becomes physically and psychologically addicted to a substance. Chemical dependency occurs when the brain begins to replace some of its naturally occurring chemicals with those simulated by the drug.
The brain will eventually become completely dependent on the drug to create any sense of balance. As soon as levels of the substance start to fall within a person’s system, they can expect to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
When someone becomes psychologically dependent on drugs, they use them to regulate their emotions and to control traumatic events in their lives. They start to become completely dependent on different substances to regulate the way that they’re living.
For someone who’s suffering from a severe active addiction, the first thing they think about when they open their eyes in the morning is their drug of choice. The last thing that they think about before they lay down each night is their next high.
Exploring Drugs and Alcohol
Not every person who tries drugs or alcohol will become addicted. Addiction is based on a combination of different genetic and psychological factors. If these things aren’t present, then the chemical reaction in their brain won’t stimulate a lasting relationship with drugs and alcohol.
There are plenty of people who can go out and drink on occasion without suffering from constant cravings; alcohol doesn’t take over their lives, and they don’t eventually turn to other drugs. There are also people who may try recreational or illicit drugs once or twice just to see what they feel like without any real consequence.
Taking any type of illegal substance is a risk factor because it requires the person to suspend their respect for the legal system. This blatant disregard is a symptom of addiction in and of itself. Although, it isn’t necessarily the precursor to full-blown chemical dependency.
For generations, the use of drugs and alcohol has almost been a rite of passage for certain socioeconomic groups. We’ve all seen videos of fraternities that involve heavy drinking and moderate drug use. This type of behavior has become normalized on several levels, making it all the more dangerous.
Some people may try drugs and alcohol as a result of a traumatic event or peer pressure.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why people become addicted to drugs. The physical motivation can come in a number of different forms. This is generally a chemical dependency, but addiction can be fueled by a need to self-medicate.
Addicted people may complain of pain that’s not associated with withdrawals and seek out illicit substances instead of a medical professional. The primary physical motivation stems from the chemical dependency and the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that can occur.
Many illicit drugs mimic the natural “feel-good” chemicals that are produced by our brains—these are the chemicals that fight stress, induce relaxation, and stop the pain. When we take drugs, we create a rush of these chemicals and block the receptors that would normally reabsorb them.
This results in a surplus of these types of chemicals that cause euphoria and the good feelings we associate with illegal drug use.
A part of addiction is tolerance—your body becomes accustomed to certain levels of these chemicals and becomes totally dependent on the drugs to introduce them.
When drug levels start to fall in the body, the brain can’t compensate for the lack of chemicals. This results in the brain sending distress signals out to the rest of the body. These distress signals come in the form of withdrawals.
Withdrawals are made up of symptoms like chills, fevers, nausea, insomnia, body aches, seizures, and a myriad of other unpleasant side effects. Many will continue using just to stave off these withdrawal symptoms.
Some people start off by taking a regulated prescription for acute or chronic pain and end up becoming physically addicted to these drugs. The physical motivation is what drives their addiction, and it slowly takes over their lives. Prescription drug abuse has become another severe problem over the last few decades.
Drug use can also directly stem from psychological trauma or other social factors. If you’re living in a home with parents or siblings who regularly and openly use drugs, it’s going to lower your moral expectations of substance abuse.
Many people start their drug addiction using because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to throughout their lives. It can also be another way to self-medicate for mental illness or for trauma victims suffering from something they don’t understand.
Some people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will turn to drugs as a way to numb the psychological pain, and to help them sleep through difficult times.
It can have an impact on a person’s ability to control their emotions, certain memories, and to respond in certain situations. There are also times when people have had traumatic events in their childhood that they simply don’t know how to overcome. This can lead to adult anxiety—which is another psychological motivation for the use of drugs and alcohol.
If someone has extreme social anxiety, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to make themselves feel more outgoing and comfortable in the situations. They may also try to use drugs to stave off panic attacks or to help them sleep when they become overly anxious.
Unfortunately, a psychological addiction often gives way to a physical one. It’s always best to speak with a licensed psychiatrist if you’re experiencing any type of psychological symptom that may lead to drug use.
Separating the Person from the Addiction
Addiction can be heartbreaking for the family and friends of the person suffering from the disease. They often feel like they’ve lost the addict to their drug of choice, and they have a difficult time seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
A person who’s suffering from addiction may adopt a completely different personality. It’s important to remember that this isn’t who they are. It’s a combination of physical and psychological symptoms that have led them to prioritize their drug use above everything else.
The person and their addiction are two separate entities. The addiction often motivates them to behave in certain ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Accountability is very important, but so is an understanding of addiction as an actual disease.
Whether it’s via an intervention or a personally traumatic event, many suffering from addiction will eventually choose to seek help. This is a monumental turning point for those suffering from addiction. It means that they’ve acknowledged that they have a problem and that they don’t have control over their use of drugs and alcohol.
Recovery is possible. It’s important that everyone that was impacted by the addiction seek out their own individual therapy and personal salvation.