What exactly is addiction and why do people struggle so much with it? The cause of drug addiction is debated among many people. There is no single cause. Addiction is serious. It should not be taken lightly. Many people are addicts or at least know someone who is or may be an addict. I believe addicts themselves and the people who care about them should be more educated about what addiction really is. What are the risk factors, the symptoms, the withdrawal symptoms and treatment options? I have answered these questions in hopes of helping other addicts.
Drug addiction is considered a progressive disease that if left untreated can result in death. When we become addicted we have lost control of the desire and need for the substance. This loss of control causes us to become consumed by the desire and the need for the substance. Addiction produces changes in the brain that cause our behavior to change. This change in behavior is what leads to the loss of control. “This is not something that develops overnight for any individual. Generally there is a series of steps that individuals go through from experimentation and occasional use to the actual loss of control.” (HBO). The progression of this disease has no specific time frame. It differs from person to person. Regardless of time, addiction follows the same path. We become addicted, our disease progresses, and either we get help and recover or we take one of the following options: jail, institution, or death.
Drug addiction affects many people; men and women of all ages, races and backgrounds. Statistics show drug addiction to be two to three times higher in men than in women and highest among ages 15 to 24 (Handforth). The cause of drug addiction is different in every individual. There are certain risk factors that can predispose a person to becoming addicted to drugs. Genetics play a part when determining if addiction is present. If we come from a family with a history of substance abuse it is likely that we will inherit the disease. The environment we come from can also have an impact on whether or not we become addicts. Our surroundings all have influenced us. Abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences could all increase our risk for developing addiction. When these things happen and are not dealt with in the correct way we can sometimes turn to drugs to take the emotional pain away. A risk factor could also be psychological. If any of us have disorders such as depression and anxiety we sometimes self-medicate with illegal drugs. Then become addicted to the drugs. Drug addiction has no single cause. There are many factors, other than the ones mentioned, that contribute to whether or not we become an addict.
There are two different aspects that make up addiction. First is the physical addiction and the second is the psychological addiction. Physical addiction, also known as physical dependence, happens within the body and psychological addiction happens within the brain. Drugs such as cocaine do not cause a physical addiction; however, drugs such as heroin cause major physical and psychological addiction. Some individuals think physical addiction is the worst type, but research shows that psychological addiction can be just as serious. James Handforth of EzineArticels writes, “Cocaine, for example, does not cause physical dependence–but it is considered one of the easiest drugs to get hooked on and one of the hardest to give up.” It does not matter whether a drug is physically addictive, psychologically addictive or both. Addiction is a serious illness that should be treated as soon as possible.
Physical dependence occurs when we consume a substance on a regular, daily basis. The body gets accustomed to having the drug in its system. When we are physically addicted the body builds a tolerance to the drug, which means more of the drug is needed to produce the same effect or “high” (Melemis). Addiction is very damaging to the body and changes the way it normally functions. All drugs do not affect the body the same way. One thing they do have in common is that they destroy the immune systems. Therefore, we become very susceptible to common diseases and infections. Drug use slows down our metabolism causing us not to feel as hungry. Most of us, when in active addiction, are underweight due to a slower metabolism. All drugs destroy the organs.
If we smoke our substances we will have problems with our lungs and respiratory system and will be at higher risk of developing lung cancer. If we use drugs intravenously we will be at risk of contracting Hepatitis C and HIV. Almost all illegal drugs, and some legal ones like pain killers, are damaging to the liver and kidneys. Many of us become anemic; have weak, thin hair; weak nails; and poor skin tone because drug abuse prevents proper absorption of important vitamins and minerals. There is not one part of the body that addiction does not affect. When we are actively using we do not realize what we are doing to ourselves. It is not until we come out of the fog of drug addiction that we see the damage that we have done; some of which is irreversible.
Although the drugs of addiction cause different physical effects, all of them can change the way the brain functions. Using drugs causes the dopamine levels in the brain to increase. Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that is associated with pleasure. Other things that cause the release of dopamine are sex, eating, and drinking. Dopamine is also what causes an addict to crave a substance. When we use drugs the increase in dopamine causes a “feel good” feeling (Alphonse). This immediate gratification is what makes us want to keep using drugs. The increase in dopamine causes the chemistry in the brain to change. The brain does not like this change and tries to keep things balanced by developing a tolerance. We then need more and more of the drug to get “high.” As these events happen the brain begins to decrease the amount of dopamine that is available. Some of us may claim to feel depressed because of the decrease in dopamine. The changes that occur in the brain are sometimes permanent. The effects of long-term drug use depend on the type of drugs we are addicted to, but could include loss of concentration, depression, and anxiety. This is why some of us turn back to drugs long after we have stopped. When drugs are abused for a long period of time they are stored in the body’s fat cells and continue to do damage to our bodies long after we quit.
When we transition from recreational drug use to addiction our behavior quickly becomes focused on seeking and obtaining drugs. This is when we usually believe that our drug use is under control and that it is not having any negative effects on our lives. When in reality it is the total opposite. This is referred to as being “in denial.” Lack of control over drug use, being in denial, and being unaware of the situation are a few signs that substance use is becoming a problem. When we feel we need the drug in order to be able to function in our daily lives is known as psychological dependence. We become physically addicted when our bodies become use to the presence of the drug. When we stop using withdrawal occurs, and we will experience cravings.
As we continue to use we find it becomes harder and harder to go without the drug. Some other symptoms of drug addiction include: failing attempts to stop using, maintaining a drug supply, spending money on drugs we cannot afford, and doing things that we wouldn’t normally do. When we become addicted everything changes: our personalities, our morals, and our behaviors. It’s hard for someone who has never been addicted to fully understand what is happening to us. Dr. Nora Volkow said, “Imagine a person that wants to stop doing something and they cannot, despite catastrophic consequences. We are not speaking of little consequences. These are catastrophic and yet they cannot control their behavior.” The man or woman our families and friends once knew is taken over by an addict. Addiction does not discriminate. It will take your our lives if we allow it.
Withdrawal is a word none of us ever want to hear. It occurs because we have developed a physical dependence on drugs. When our drug use is stopped the body goes into shock. The symptoms of withdrawal are not the same in every circumstance. It depends on how long we have been using, what kind of drugs we use, and how much we use on a regular basis. The first stage of withdrawal is called the acute stage. During this stage physical symptoms may last for a couple weeks. Opiates produce the worse withdrawal symptoms in the acute stage. Symptoms could include, but are not limited to: body aches, leg cramps, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, and flu-like symptoms. After the first stage we enter the post-acute stage where the brain begins to function normally. There are fewer physical symptoms and more emotional symptoms like craving, anxiety, and depression. Some drugs produce severe withdrawal symptoms, which is the reason many of us do not quit or return to using very soon after quitting.
We get to point in our addiction where enough is enough. We realize the damage we are doing and decide to quit. In order to recover we need to take certain steps. There are many different options out there. Dr. Nora Volkow from the NIDA points out that, “Research shows that combining addiction treatment with behavior therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients.” Twelve step programs are meetings that held every week. They offer support from other addicts. There are residential treatment facilities that can teach us how to live sober lives. A residential facility is a program where we can live with other addicts. They teach ways to live without drugs and skills to become successful parts of society. There are day programs available where we can go during the day. The program offers classes and groups related to addiction and relapse prevention. Each of these treatment options also teaches us how to change the behaviors that led us to use. Each of us experiences recovery differently no matter which option we choose. The important thing to remember is that in order to succeed we have to want to succeed.
Addiction may be one of the hardest demons to conquer, but recovery is possible. It takes more than good intentions to stop using. The most important thing we have to learn in recovery is change. If we don’t change then nothing changes and we will continue to use. Recovery is the process of creating new lives. Sometimes we relapse and return to using. Relapse is also a part of the process and doesn’t equal failure. It is a sign that there are things standing in the way of our success; other things that may need to change. Recovery can change our lives in great ways, but it takes work. So much work that some of us will consider giving up. Let’s do ourselves a favor and keep trying. We are worth it!
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