Recently the war on drugs has been raging more fiercely than ever. And I am not talking about the war between drug dealers and law enforcement. I am talking about a different war. A war that rages deep within the soul of every person who is struggling with addiction. A war they are fighting with no one but themselves. A nameless, faceless enemy who takes no pity and has no prejudice against anyone or anything it destroys. This enemy imprisons everyone in its path and has no mercy for the weak or the wounded. It will encompass your entire being and leave an almost unrecognizable shell of who you once were. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away. Some escape with their lives while others escape through death.
Having personally dealt with addiction, I felt compelled to research the subject. Lately I’ve grown so tired of seeing the negative comments people write on local news articles and social media posts about people suffering from addiction I decided that before I say my piece, it would be best to do some extensive research on the matter. The last thing I want to do is end up sounding like some of the uneducated, entitled, and downright mean people I’ve seen talking about the subject they feel so strongly on but actually know nothing about.
Nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. The most common drugs that cause addiction are opioids, narcotic pain relievers, and cocaine. Addiction affects everyone; there are no stereotypes. Some of the most insightful and intelligent individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life have been addicts. They are not soulless or heartless, I assure you. It’s easy to categorize the type of people you would classify as “drug addicts.” The problem is there is no category. Young or old, rich or poor, average or brilliant, addiction does not care. It can live inside of anyone like a virus, dormant for a while until it rears its ugly head to remind you that it still exists. It’s like a past lover you can’t seem to erase from your mind, an old friend with whom you share a thousand memories, a foggy dream that you can barely remember or a nightmare that you can’t forget.
But where does addiction come from? The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term which relates to being “enslaved by” or “bound to” a certain thing. If you have ever struggled with addiction or know someone who has, this makes perfect sense. Addiction exerts a powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving a substance, loss of control over use, and continuing involvement with the substance despite the consequences. The most controversial subject by far is the classification of addiction as a disease. Today, addiction is recognized as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just like cardiovascular disease is a disease that attacks the heart, addiction is a disease that “hijacks” the brain.
To understand addiction as a disease, perhaps we will need to understand the brain and the way it functions on a more scientific level. Your brain is who you are. It controls everything about you. It is what allows you to think, speak, move, breathe, and feel. The brain receives information from your environment, both internal and external, and integrates it so that you can function under all sorts of different circumstances. When drugs enter the brain, they interfere with its normal processes and eventually lead to changes in how well it works. Continued drug use over time can lead to addiction.
Drugs are chemicals. When someone puts chemicals into their body, they tamper with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. Different drugs, because of their different chemical structures, affect the brain in different ways. There are at least two known ways drugs affect the brain: imitating its natural chemical messengers and overstimulating its “reward circuit.” The high that someone feels when they use drugs is the result of the brain releasing large amounts of dopamine, which is a natural neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure. Over time with continued use the brain starts to adjust to the surges of dopamine, which is why an addict has to continue to use more and more of their drug of choice at one time to recreate the intense feeling of euphoria. Eventually, the continued surges of dopamine will start to kill off the neurons in the brain. As a result, the ability to feel any pleasure is greatly reduced. The pleasure associated with the drug subsides and yet the memory of the desired effect and the absolute need to recreate it persists. Instead of feeling normal and using drugs to get high, the addict will start needing the drug just to feel normal and need to use in excessive amounts to get high.
Mark Twain once joked about his addiction to tobacco by saying, “Quitting is easy, I’ve done it often.” Many addicts go through long periods of time without taking the drug, but the risk of relapse is always there. Even after years of sobriety, the addict may experience a “trigger” and relapse. Addicts are victims of conditioned learning, which creates habitual responses. Drug-induced changes in the links between brain cells establish associations between the drug experience and the circumstances in which it occurs. Memories can be relived when addicts are exposed to any reminder of those circumstances. During recovery, the dopamine reward circuit recuperates, but the addict will always be at risk of a relapse. Talk about a lifelong commitment.
The definition of a disease is an impairment of health or a condition of abnormal functioning. What could be more abnormal than wanting to inject a foreign substance into your body just for fun several times per day? If we ignore all the controversy, and just look at addiction from a scientific standpoint, it can in fact be classified as a disease. A self-inflicted disease, yes. But a disease nonetheless.
Now, am I comparing someone struggling with addiction to someone who is struggling with cancer? No. There can be no comparison between cancer and addiction. They are on completely different spectrums. I do support the research that has proven addiction is in fact a disease, and I sympathize with any person who is struggling with the disease of addiction, but there is no denying the fact that they bring it upon themselves. Every person who chooses to pick up a drug is completely cognizant of the decision they are making. It’s no one else’s fault but the individual who consciously chooses to pick up and use.
It’s easy to pass judgment on addicts. But if you have never been affected by this epidemic, directly or indirectly, you have no place to judge anyone. I’ve read the comments on social media sites. “Kill them all,” “Put them all on an island and nuke it,” “Natural selection.” It’s heartbreaking to see how ignorant some people can be. Whether or not you want to believe it, an addict is still a person, a weak and wounded person, self-defeated and broken. And even though their pain is self-inflicted, it doesn’t make it hurt any less. Although an addict may be no one to you, they are somebody to someone. It’s easy to cast stones and look down upon those who let their demons get the best of them—until it happens to you.
It could be your child, your mother, your sister, your best friend, it could even be you. You may have more in common with an addict than you think. Have you ever felt like you weren’t good enough? The pressure of life becomes unbearable and you just want to run far away and escape the madness. Maybe your escape is a few drinks after a hard day. Or maybe it’s heading down to the local convenience store and buying a couple bucks’ worth of scratch-off lottery tickets, hoping and praying for a streak of luck or another chance. Maybe you’re so frustrated at the end of a long day that you come home angry and take it out on your spouse or your children. Every one of us does things we aren’t proud of. Addiction is more relatable than you think. No one is above it. Everyone has their demons. Some are just better at hiding them than others. Before you pass judgment on another person, remember that they are human just like you.
No matter what side you’re on, I’m sure we can all agree that the crisis we are facing is heartbreaking. These are real people we are losing. They are human. They are addicts, but they are not monsters. They are sick and suffering. And the numbers are growing every day. Addiction is a tragedy, although it may not seem that way to everyone. In a world filled with devastating natural disasters, school shootings, and child abuse, it’s hard to consider such a self-induced problem a tragedy. But to those directly affected by it, it is tragic nonetheless. What could be more tragic than the loss of a beautiful life? I don’t expect everyone to understand. But if you don’t understand, please, feel free to stay quiet.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, here are some helpful resources. There is another way.