The Simple Science of Addiction

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Until I understood the science of addiction, I fought it like a heavyweight after a fancy belt, and continued to drink despite negative consequences. I tried for a long time to get sober. And by “tried” I mean that I did all the things that addicts do when it becomes obvious that their drinking or drug use is becoming a problem.  I made deals with myself – I’ll only drink on weekends (you know, Thursday through Monday), I’ll only buy a pint of vodka at a time, I’ll only drink wine, I won’t drink alone, if a certain song comes on the radio when I’m in the car, I won’t pull into the liquor store.  I made deals with the people who care about me.  I made deals with God.  I woke up every morning vowing that “today’s the day!” denouncing this godforsaken lifestyle with dreams of one that didn’t involve 24/7 self-loathing.  I was at the jumping off point where I could no longer imagine a life ruled by alcohol, yet I could not yet imagine life without it.

As difficult as it was at that time to plan my days and nights around procuring alcohol, monitoring my consumption, hiding bottles, keeping my glazed eyes averted, canceling plans, keeping my lies straight, scribbling notes about what I did while my brain was taking a break from making memories, and suffering through day-long hangovers, the prospect of quitting felt even more daunting.

I was raised to believe that all things worth accomplishing are hard, and during my childhood, I was always expected to be accomplishing something, so naturally, a lot of things felt hard. As an adult allowed to make her own choices, I rebelled against the notion of hard work.  Exercise is hard.  Getting a degree is hard.  Prepping a room for a top-notch paint job is hard.  And getting sober felt insurmountably hard.  I equated getting sober with relinquishing my freedom, being bound to my misery, and never having another spontaneously fun moment for the whole rest of my life.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Even when I broke it down to its simplest form – not drinking is an act of inactivity, and it doesn’t get much easier than not doing something – I still couldn’t figure out the mechanics of making this overwhelming, life-altering change.  I still thought I could control this beast.

In a moment of divinely inspired clarity with which there were no accompanying lightning bolts or visions from the great beyond, I surrendered and decided to enter treatment.  It was there that I learned the science of addiction, and I swear I heard the proverbial angels sing when everything finally clicked.  I really do not have any control over what happens after I put a drink or a drug in my body any more than your average Joe has control over what happens after they eat a box of laxatives. 

Approximately 1 in 10 people living in the United States experience a biological phenomenon so disruptive that their brain chemistry is severely altered by the introduction of the very first drink or drug.  Just as there are people in the world who can smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day for 60 years and never develop lung cancer, so too there are people who can drink or drug with impunity.  Their pleasure centers don’t light up like a pyrotechnic display and rearrange like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle.  For those prone to addiction, however, it’s a whole different story.

Human beings weren’t designed to live in a state of euphoria.  Our chemical makeup is such that we routinely feel things outside of our personal homeostatic states such as sadness, anger, depression, and fear as well as joy, happiness, elation, and excitement.  Most of us prefer the feelings that are on the plus side of the spectrum, so we actively seek them out.  When we stumble upon an activity or a substance that not only induces these feelings but enhances them, our brains imprint that memory and nudge us to repeat it, steering us toward feelings of wellbeing.  Even our brains dig having a good time.  When we finish a strenuous workout, spend time with loved ones, eat delicious baked goods, enjoy a glass of wine, or win a few bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket, chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are deployed to the brain and trigger all those yummy feels which can include a moderate level of euphoria, depending on the circumstances.  As the body does its job of neutralizing this overabundance of neurotransmitters, we once again even out and go about our day.  The same thing happens in reverse in response to trauma, sadness, illness, and disappointment.  Some days we can feel like human metronomes. 

Certain activities can trigger a larger than normal release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is one of our happy, feel-good hormones.  Some individuals experience this spike when they gamble, shop, overeat, fall in love, and have sex.  We feel a little euphoric, and our brains say “Wow, that was awesome!  Let’s be sure to do that again, please!”

Now if we think of those experiences as the tiny, plastic, dollar store water gun of dopamine release, then drugs are the extreme, mega deluxe, super soaker version.  They hit the bloodstream, and it’s game on!  Neurotransmitters flood the brain like a horde of chimpanzees run amok at a banana farm.  Drugs not only signal the brain to open the hormone floodgate, but when we reach the red zone and have exhausted our natural supply, the drugs themselves masquerade as the feel-good chemicals. We feel a surge of euphoria while our brains are trying to figure out what’s going on and corral all these extra hormones.  But the brain is only capable of a limited amount of crowd control at once, so while we’re busy reabsorbing as many of the excess chemical fireworks as we can, our brains are left going “Hot damn, that was so intense, I will do literally anything to live in this space forever!”

Meanwhile, in the brain’s hormonal control center, imagine a bunch of underpaid factory workers hustling night and day to fulfill the dopamine orders.  They’re exhausted, sweaty, and malnourished from trying to keep up production, and eventually, they simply quit.  They punch out and just go home.  There’s no one left in there to do all the manufacturing jobs including cooking up the dopamine, so the brain is left depleted and starving for its next fix.  It’s much like being dropped into a desert without water.  Our most primitive selves take over on a life or death mission to right the wrong of dopamine depletion, which is why addicts will go to such dangerous lengths to get drunk or high.

If we human beings weren’t the biological miracles that we are, operating in a continual state of fluctuation to stay balanced, we could just do some drugs to feel like superheroes for a few hours, and when we start to feel like mere mortals again, swallow, snort, or inject the same amount of our drug of choice, and carry on being this magical version of ourselves.  If that’s how it worked, drugs would be sold in the organic produce aisle of your local supermarket.

Remember when I said that we weren’t meant to live in a state of constant euphoria?  Yeah, our creator had some tricks up his sleeve back in the day.  We are highly adaptable creatures, so our brains very quickly reset the bar over which we need to jump to feel that thing that every addict chases from day one.  It does this over and over again until no amount or combination of drugs produces the euphoria it once did.  By then all the hormonal gymnastics have left us feeling empty, exhausted, depressed, and so sick that our only choices are to double down and risk overdose and death or to surrender and get help.

Surrendering, as it turns out, was much easier in real life than it was in my imagination.  For me, recovery started with a stint in inpatient rehab, followed by my immersion in 12-step fellowship, but there are nearly as many paths to recovery as there are addicts.  Oftentimes, treatment begins with medically-supervised detoxification where medication, proper nutrition, and emotional support are offered throughout the withdrawal period.  Upon completion, one may choose to enter inpatient rehabilitation, a partial hospitalization program, intensive outpatient rehab, part-time outpatient treatment, and/or take part in an independent recovery program such as a 12-step fellowship.

Intensive treatment for the ravages of long-term substance abuse is an excellent start, but addiction rehabilitation should be considered a lifelong endeavor.  It is a rare individual who is ever considered “cured” of this devastating disease.  Eventually, with sustained abstinence, proper nutrition, and lifestyle changes, hormonal regulation and cognitive functioning return, but our muscle memory is astonishing.  Even a minor relapse has the power to ignite a cycle of craving and obsession that will deliver a person directly to his or her bottom.  Relapse offers no grace period – we pick up exactly where we left off, and oftentimes there isn’t far to go from there.

Avenues Recovery Center offers every level of drug and alcohol rehabilitation at its seven locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maryland, Louisiana, and Oklahoma Drug Rehab centers.  Please explore our website for more information on what programs are offered at each location or give us a call at 855-200-8585.

Find lasting sobriety at Avenues.

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