We were all kids at one time who had big dreams. When we were asked what is was, we wanted to be when we grew up? Doctors, ballerinas, and firemen were quick responses. None of us grew up thinking it would be fun to struggle with addiction.
However, this is the reality for many drug addicts and alcoholics. There are many people who view addiction as a moral failing, a result of poor choices. But times have changed, science has progressed and we now recognise addiction as a brain disorder.
Of all the organs in the body the brain is the most intricate and complex. This 15cm, 1300-gram organ is the epicentre of all human activity. The brain dictates all body activities from breathing, to enjoying a meal and dictating one’s emotions. The brain has evolved over time in a way that ensures our survival. The brain registers all pleasures in the same way; a sexual encounter, an alcoholic beverage reward, a delicious meal or a psychoactive drug are all characterized by the same unique signature neurotransmitter release: dopamine. Our brains are designed to seek out experiences that derive pleasure, and repeat these experiences. The purpose of this is to promote survival by rewarding life sustaining behaviours such eating and procreation. In an area wherefood is scarce when food is eventually found and consumed, this triggers the pleasure reward system in the brain, releasing dopamine.
This pleasurable experience becomes associated with the behaviour that led to that experience. This reward system facilitates future endeavours to find food and ensure survival. This very same system that facilitates human survival also rewards drug use and alcohol consumption.
Drugs and alcohol target the brain’s pleasure centre; saturating the brain with dopamine and making us feel good. This provides motivation in repeated substance abuse despite the harmful cost. This euphoria initiates a snowball effect in the brain manifested by intense craving and loss of control. Once addicted, seeking drugs and alcohol become the primary focus.
Once someone is addicted, drinking and using drugs are no longer a choice. Addicted people are compelled to continue using despite the negative effects and their best intentions. Addiction is a disease characterized by the psychological and physical inability to stop using and drinking substances despite the accompanied chaos.
This is why Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign failed miserably. Once addicted, treatment helps to rewire the brain to use the survival reward system in the way it was intended. Once the brain has been hijacked by addiction, frequently the addict or alcoholic cannot see that their using or drinking has become a problem.
The addict or alcoholic often makes excuses that justify and rationalise their thinking and errant behaviour. It’s incredibly rare that at some point in the addictive process patients get an “aha” moment and acknowledge their need for rehab. Once our brains have been rewired to “addicted” we’re using just to feel normal and get by. A part of effective addiction treatment enables the patient to develop alternative sources of joy and reward. Often addicted people isolate themselves to use secretly and these patients need to work harder as their recovery progresses to restore natural “joy.” Learning to reengage in social interactions in a healthy manner and deriving pleasure from other activities takes time and a lot of support and guidance.
This is where treatment comes in. Drug rehab facilities help the addict and to start experiencing joy and connectedness to the world around them without the use of drugs or alcohol. Don’t delay, if you or a loved one is battling with this crippling disease there is help out there.