Thinking Differently About Addiction

For the past 6 years, I have lived in two worlds. For 40 hours a week I live in the world of substance abuse. I help individuals identify life’s struggles and how to deal with them in a healthy way. For the rest of my day I live in a world of Netflix, school, and the gym. I often have to separate the two to keep myself sane and sometimes I wonder what a “regular job” would feel like. Sometimes I go home and wonder what it felt like to not be worried about other people or to go home and not feel like I’ve affected someone’s life in a negative way. When I go home with this feeling, I remind myself that not everyone understands addiction and those that understand should work towards helping them change.

I work at an intensive outpatient program, which means that I sit in a room of people 3 times a week for 3 hours at a time. Yes, that sounds like a lot, but this little room creates a family. At the end of each group, I always have an ending tidbit about our subject and at the end I tell the group, “Okay, I’ll step off of my soap box now.” For one moment I would like to step on my soap box and talk about addiction.

When people think of “drug addicts” they imagine someone laying on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. It’s okay, you don’t have to pretend you didn’t imagine that because I did at one point in my life. When you think of a “drug addict” you think they look dirty, messy hair, poor, and unshaven. When you think of a “drug addict” you think of someone on the street. I would like to challenge your image with someone that wears a suit. I would like you to imagine a nurse, doctor, lawyer, construction worker, school teacher, and bus driver. I’m sure no one imagined those professions in connection with addiction. These are all professions my patients have been in while I treated them. Do you know why? Because addiction doesn’t discriminate.

Addiction changes you. Someone you imagine having a good “head” on his shoulders becomes someone else. Your brain chemistry changes. I’ll try to explain in the same manner that I explain this to my clients. Your brain can be split into three parts. The front part of your brain makes decisions, the middle part of your brain is your instinctive part and reward center, and the back part controls your balance and motion. The front part is the last to develop, and usually concludes developing in your 20s. So when your parents tell you in your teens that you don’t know how to make decisions, they are 100% correct (Just don’t tell mine I wrote that). Usually your frontal part and back part send neurons to each other to get through your regular day. The middle part is activated when you enjoy something and dopamine is released. When someone starts to abuse drugs they release more dopamine. You begin to train your brain to release dopamine during drug use when you’re happy, sad, celebrating, mad, and probably any trigger you could imagine. Suddenly the middle part goes from taking a back seat to taking the front seat and your brain is overloaded with dopamine. People who appeared very logical, suddenly become overwhelmed and their addiction takes the front seat because their brain is looking for that sensation. 

Addiction is more than a behavior. It can become something tangible. I often use the phrase, “That’s the addiction talking.” Because for many they start to do things they are not proud of. I’m not saying that every person addicted does things that are wrong, but pretty much every person does things they are not proud of. “Addiction can make you lose everything and not care while it’s happening.” This was a quote from one of my patients and I full-heartedly believe it. While I won’t say it’s okay to steal, punch someone, or end up naked in public. I am saying the next time you think of addiction, consider how it changes someone’s brain and they become someone else. Addiction is stigmatized and we can only work towards changing that by considering the effects it really has. Thank you for reading, I’ll step off my soap box now.

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