Addiction is a complicated topic. The current most commonly accepted view is that it is a disease of the brain. However, experts continue to research and debate many aspects of addiction, including whether or not addiction is a disease, a mental illness, or a learning disorder, with compelling arguments and evidence for each, and whether drug dependence and addiction mean the same thing. While this can be frustrating, and the debates are unlikely to be resolved in the near future, effective treatment is possible.
What we do know is that addiction results when a person uses one or more substances (e.g., heroin, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol) and/or engages in one or more activities (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use and/or activities become compulsive and interfere with normal life responsibilities, like work, health, and relationships. What is becoming more widely recognized is that if a substance or an activity positively affects the pleasure centers of the brain, there is the potential for some people to become addicted. This is why you may hear of people being addicted to everything from sugar to porn, and everything in between.
Addiction Not About Morality
Unfortunately, people who are addicted may not be aware that their drug(s) use/activities are out of control and causing problems for themselves and others. Even worse, those who are aware may not care or may be unable to stop, despite the negative consequences. That being said, it is vitally important for everyone to understand that addiction has nothing to do with a person’s morality or strength of character and that its cause is not simply pleasure seeking.
As the body adapts to the presence of a drug over time, more of the drug is required to achieve the same effect. This is known as tolerance and is an aspect of physical addiction to a drug. Another aspect of physical addiction is withdrawal, a group of symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, anxiety, and diarrhea in the case of heroin/opiates, which occurs as the body adapts to a person suddenly stopping or reducing the intake of a drug. Withdrawal symptoms are often so unpleasant that drug addicts continue to use, despite negative consequences, in order to avoid them.
However, most people experiencing addiction are responding in a maladaptive way to being emotionally stressed/in emotional pain when they compulsively use drugs, exercise, gamble, etc., regardless of whether or not the person has a physical addiction. For instance, many opiate addicts will tell you that their opiate of choice kills their emotional pain just as well as it kills physical pain, as maladaptive as that may be.
Here’s a great essay about heroin addiction by Matthew Brazel, 34, a heroin addict serving 6 to 15 years at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord:
I wake as if I hadn’t been sleeping at all. I couldn’t have been sleeping for more than a couple hours. I was absolutely impoverished by the day’s unbidden detoxification, yet here I lie with a mind in overdrive, feeling the tightness in my chest that reminds me once again that I’m dope sick and have no legitimate way to change it.
Alone, with the exception of my innocent offspring sleeping soundly next to me, unaware of the depravity that clouds his world like a rolling sandstorm. Clogging every crevice, choking any possibility he’ll have of a normal life. Sanding down the frail foundation he was born into.
I look at him as I gently raise my tired, achy body out of bed, trying desperately not to wake him.
My head and patience could not handle a fussing infant right now. He’s so beautiful, so peaceful, lying on his back with both arms raised above his head, palms up, framing his chubby cheeks. He’s fast asleep even though he’s half soaked by my toxic sweat.
I carefully slide him out of my drug sick puddle and cover him back up with the multitude of blankets we must pile on our bed because we can’t afford heat. Blankets that haven’t been washed since before we moved our little family out of her father’s little house into this little apartment that consists only of one bedroom, one bathroom, one closet and a kitchen.
No living room, not that we would do much living in it even if we had one.
No, these days we spend most of our time in the car looking for heroin, or some scheme for money to afford it. That’s what we spend most of our money on as well, hence the lack of heat.
Of course we get whatever our son needs, but mostly he’s supported by the state, and our families when they have the mind to buy for him themselves. For such is the life of a junkie.
The whole world tastes like cellophane. It’s in the air I breathe, the food I eat (when I eat) and most prevalent in the cigarettes I smoke. I hate cigarettes when I’m sick. Yet, much like my addiction, I keep lighting them, expecting something different. My every minute is about consuming something bad for me, hoping to feel good or better.
I feel a chill down my spine as I walk out into our short hallway that leads to our kitchen. The chill is not due so much to the cold air and my still-damp back, but more just another symptom of my self-induced disease, which is what the anonymous groups of the world would call my affliction.
Merriam-Webster’s tenth edition would define disease as trouble, a condition of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that impairs normal function, or a harmful development. This puzzles me because even when I’m high and feeling great I think I’m experiencing this definition of disease. But in all honesty I believe we as humans need to label everything, if for nothing more than to have some word to take the blame.
There’s a dingy sour smell that assaults my nose right away. I should be used to it since I choose to live around it every day, but much like the feeling of shoving a dull needle through the scar on my arm, or the very sickness I feel at least four times a week, I never do. It’s the smell of dirty laundry that we keep saying we will do when we are sick, but won’t until we get our heads right. Then we don’t stress about it when we are high. That seems to be the cycle with most of our responsibilities.
And this responsibility smells like dirty socks and cellophane.
The light is on in the bathroom that happens to be located right across the hall from our closet and is illuminating the festering mountain of laundry that stands chest high. For awhile we would sift through it and do smell checks for the cleanest clothes, but now we just steal more potential soiled clothing whenever we go to Walmart. Our son’s laundry is separate from our own in a basket we keep in the kitchen. His grandmother comes by once or twice a week to take him and his laundry. I always worry that she’s not going to bring either one of them back.
The sharp light in the bathroom pierces my eyes, but I don’t know what’s brighter, the watts in that bulb or the pale, clammy skin of my girlfriend’s naked body sitting on the toilet half asleep with the bathroom trash can between her legs just in case she regurgitates the nothing we ate today.
Not a very endearing sight for sure, yet I love and completely adore her, which is why I’m so willing to go to great lengths and take such verboten risks to see her happy, and not in the state she’s in right now. But I must not lie to myself, I do it for me as well.
I notice a needle hanging out in her limp hand. At first the junkie in me starts to amp up, thinking she might have been holding out on me, but I quickly let that accusation evaporate. I know she has nothing, because if she did she wouldn’t be sitting there. She’d be in bed sound asleep with our son. However, such a suspicion is valid when dealing with a junkie.
As the late eccentric journalist of the drug culture Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug.”
She must have been shooting up water. One of the foolhardy remedies an intravenous heroin addict uses to temporarily trick the mind and veins into registering a dose. I will say, though, that it does help with irritable arms and furthermore hydrates. I want to wake her, but don’t. As heartbreaking as this looks, she is sleeping, no matter how uncomfortably. It would be much crueler to steal that away from her.
Continuing down the hall another few feet I enter our cluttered and haphazardly shaped kitchen. There’s no table or chairs. There’s a sink full of dirty dishes that’s on the same schedule as the laundry. There’s a stove we never use and a microwave we always use. Like everything else, it is a small kitchen. Nevertheless, there are three huge windows. The sills almost touch the floor. They pop out the apartment much like a bay window, making half a hexagon in the kitchen, adding to its already odd shape. A quaint table would fit nicely there, but be that as it may, we put a mattress there instead.
Our apartment is mostly carpeted with the most threadbare rug. The kitchen is the only place that has linoleum, therefore the only place our son can maneuver his bumper car of a walker, and that’s exactly what he does with it. The mattress was placed there for days, much like the one we’re about to embark on, when we are too tired and dope sick to properly take care of the poor child. We can slump here while the boy safely bounces around the room, hazard-free.
I walk up to our off-white refrigerator and reach for the handle. As I do this, it occurs to me that this fridge could have actually been white at one time, but time and lack of cleaning left it looking tarnished and grimy.
Opening the refrigerator, I have to move in such an angle as to allow the kitchen light to illuminate its contents, which appears, for the moment, to be more depressing than the fact that we let ourselves neglect everything in our lives, and accept it every day, so we can be high for just one day at a time.
I reach into the dark, cold, empty hole that seems to be an exact expression of my life. I pull out a half-empty disposable cup from Wendy’s and take a sip. It tastes like flat, watered-down Sprite, and cellophane. It’s disgusting.
The blankets on our bed, our laundry and dishes; our bodies and the needles we are content to stick in them. Our wasted lives we are determined to spend wasted.
Disgusting, but it’s all we have.
The compulsion to take action to kill/numb emotional pain/stress when under certain kinds of emotional pain/stress helps to explain why people who are addicted often switch one addiction for another, whether it be a change in drug(s), a change in activities, a change from addictive drugs to addictive activities, or vice versa. It is the compulsion to take action rather than the focus of the addiction itself that matters in what is commonly known as a psychological addiction. Therefore, it is important for those seeking treatment to address the underlying causes of the compulsion to take action when emotionally stressed, for example childhood sexual abuse or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) if long-term recovery and a new life of well-being are to be realized.