Exploring the disease of addiction
Addiction is an equal opportunity offender. It creeps in and hides under our very eyes. It doesn’t matter whether one is well-to-do or poor or on skid-row. It doesn’t matter if a person is faced with jail if he or she doesn’t quit. The brain keeps telling the addict that the substance is a basic need. Addicts don’t quit their addiction just for fun.
I was sitting across from a mother and her teen son who was intending to apply to colleges. I could tell the teen was high, and mom didn’t know it. When I asked him about his involvement with drugs and alcohol he came right out with the amount and frequency of use, declared that he could quit if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to just then. I tried to explain that drugs re-wire the brain, especially at his young age. Just like learning math or music the brain structures change, adapt and crave. It’s not as easy as you would think to quit. In fact, some people find quitting very disempowering because they have to seek treatment from experts as opposed to finding answers within themselves. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease for which there’s no cure other than abstinence.
Developmental psychologist Marc Lewis (http://bit.ly/2fsfVV6) disputed this neurological explanation, and argued, perhaps because he cured himself, that addiction is a behavioral problem and not a disease. However, neuroscience has disproven this theory. Jeff Georgi (http://bit.ly/2fshkLx) has been a researcher and clinical director of the Duke Addictions and Intervention Program in the Department of Behavioral Science at Duke University Medical Center for the last 25 years. He is an expert on brain neuro-science and offers research that gives hope for preventing addiction. For example, when the brain is still in the developmental stages, it’s malleable and easily absorbs new substances. The brain circuitry does what it’s supposed to do: it adapts to the environment. One substance that primes the brain for addiction is nicotine. Smoking is far more harmful to teens than commonly thought. The nicotine in cigarettes primes the brain’s nicotinic receptors to seek out more substances (the Velcro effect). This is good information to have so that if we catch our teens smoking, we can educate them about the incredibly noxious, long-lasting effects of pre-programming the nicotinic brain receptors.
It becomes disheartening news for people who would like to quit on their own, thinking it’s just a matter of self-control and motivation, to accept that they have no control over their addiction, regardless of their drug of choice. Addiction is a progressive disease that steals people’s hearts and ability to live their lives. It’s not a character defect. In fact, their belief that they can retain control over addiction is counterproductive. Millions of people recover from addiction every day once they accept that they are powerless, and get help from professionals, support from their family and friends, and treat addiction as a disease no different than cancer or diabetes.
In fact, the person afflicted with cancer gets more support than an addict or a mentally ill person. The latter suffer from a brain disorder that cannot be identified by looking at the person, and is often shunned. Some theorists link addiction to early trauma and suffering, claiming that our psychological and social relationships shape our physiological and biological beings. The Developing Mind by Dan Siegel provides an explanation of how early experiences from attachment to trauma affect our biological, emotional and interpersonal functioning.
On the other hand, Gabor Maté argues that not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, rather, they result from painful experiences. Hence, addiction is about pain that some suffer more than others. The key then for Maté is not “why the addiction” but “why the pain?” “A hurt is at the center of all addictive behavior,” writes Maté, in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. “It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic.” This would lead us to believe that addiction offers refuge from pain, and therefore, it is pain that needs treatment.
In conclusion, most research on neuroplasticity shows that addiction is a brain disease. Keeping our kids safe starts with protecting their brains from noxious substances, including cigarettes, while they are teens. Behaviorally, there is hope in the fact that a person can learn new habits and the brain can change in response (e.g. addiction is not your future - it’s not your be-all-end-all – your brain can and will change when you practice new behaviors). Treating addiction as both a neurological and behavioral issue may offer the best treatment approach. Opening up a community dialogue in order to provide sources for treatment and support for recovery will give the addict the power of hope.
C. Claire Law, M.S. is an educational consultant on Daniel Island. She and her husband Chip Law work with teens who seek a good-fit college, boarding school or therapeutic program. She can be reached at email@example.com or www.eduave.com.
Teens & Substance Abuse
A Community Forum on
Addiction and Hope
Tuesday, November 29
7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Bishop England High School
Performing Arts Center
The event, open to all community members, will feature a panel of addiction and recovery experts who will lead a discussion on this important topic, as well as an information fair with participants from a variety of addiction/treatment resources.