If you’ve never experienced addiction, it can seem like a perplexing phenomenon. Here’s an illustration to help you understand. Those who are or have been addicted will relate.
Imagine the worst you have ever had to pee in your entire life. Maybe you were stuck in a traffic jam and it got so bad that you resorted to peeing into a water bottle. Maybe you peed your pants. Or maybe you’ve never actually popped but it was so close that the pain was excruciating and your bladder was absolutely quaking.
I remember one time I was riding the train, and suddenly I had to pee so bad that it felt like my bladder was a swollen basketball. All the train stops were in residential areas for the next 15 minutes. I got off at the nearest commercial center, moved my pounding, urine-filled body as expediently as I could without peeing my pants, and burst into the first fast food restaurant I saw. I asked the cashier if I could use the bathroom. She said it was for customers only. I declared, “It’s an emergency, and I’m using your bathroom. Thank you.” I charged to the back where I found the bathroom and peed furiously for what felt like several minutes.
In that moment when your bladder is screaming at you, are you thinking of anything else? Is there any other priority that matters more at that moment? You know that this is a temporary problem and soon it will be relieved — you hope. (Worst case scenario, you just pee your pants, right?) In that moment, everything else in your life takes a backseat in your mind — your loved ones, your job, your most pressing and urging problems and concerns in life all fall to the wayside as your brain goes into pure animalistic instinct, and you can think of only one thing: FIND A TOILET AND PEE.
That is how it feels to be in the grips of an addictive urge. Addiction is a brain disease that, through a series of biochemical mechanisms resulting from repeated behaviors, creates an overwhelming, animalistic urge as pressing and intense as the bursting bladder. When that urge takes hold, logic flies out the window. The urge can’t be reasoned with. It feels like a biological emergency. Every cell in your body screams at you to GET THAT FIX, just like your bladder screams at you to find a toilet. Nothing matters more in that moment. All rational thoughts, all concerns, all reasons for not using dissipate in the face of that desperate urge.
The fix feels like the unleashing of the pee into the toilet. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh…llelujah. Every muscle relaxes. You can breathe again. You can think again — or, more accurately, you can’t think again, finally free of the neurotic storm that exists when withdrawing from the last fix. And so the cycle continues. You get the fix, and you feel normal until you begin to withdraw, and the process repeats itself. This is why addiction is so overpowering and so incredibly challenging to overcome.
Unlike with the steady rhythm of our bladders filling and emptying throughout our lives, addiction progresses. If the same amount of the hit was always needed to create that feeling of relief, addiction wouldn’t escalate. The alcoholic would down those four drinks a day and feel fine. The sex addict would indulge for a few hours each night and carry on. For the coke addict, a line each morning could function like a daily antidepressant. Habitual, like a bladder emptying and filling, over and over. No harm.
But that’s not how addiction works. With addiction, a tolerance develops. The amount of a given drug needed in order to feel relief multiplies exponentially over the years. The withdrawal becomes more severe, and the compulsion to use grows in power. The negative consequences begin to pile up. Addictive substances and behaviors are usually harmful to begin with but manageable when merely vices. Remember, the dose makes the poison. When addiction is underway, the amounts of these substances and behaviors are downright destructive. But the addict can’t stop because the brain is diseased — at every level, from damaged neurotransmitters to conditioned responses.
The addicted brain now functions like a popping bladder, screaming for relief.
Fortunately, there is an answer. Recovery is possible, and all over the world, people are recovering from addiction every day. Recovery begins with abstaining from the addictive substance or behavior, going through withdrawal, and using a massive toolkit to overcome the discomfort and live effectively while the brain heals itself.
That’s the good news — the brain does heal, if given the opportunity. It’s now common knowledge that the brain is plastic, meaning that our neural wiring changes depending on the neural pathways that we reinforce. Not only can our neural pathways change with time, but our biochemistry can heal and adapt the longer we abstain. Amino-acid therapy is one example of a protocol for restoring the chemistry of the brain, giving the recovering addict a chance to heal physically. Nutrition can be another key piece.
The fact that addiction is a disease is not a euphemism — it’s biology. The addicted brain is in a state of disease, and recovery involves an understanding that the person is not their disease. They are stuck in a hell of biological emergencies and progressive illness. The wreckage that typically lies littered about the addict is a result of consequences unfolding from the disease of addiction, like a person who lives in desperation to pee kicking down walls to find a toilet.
To recover, not only does one need to ride out withdrawal, unravel the patterns, and heal the brain and body, they must also address the underlying pain that led to the use of an anaesthetic in the first place. It takes a village. It often takes a higher power. Having the understanding of others can go a long way, too.