I recently read an article by Brianna Lyman called – ´´Stop calling your drug addiction a disease´´ and felt compelled to write and share this open response. You are welcome to view the original article by clicking HERE.
I appreciate fully what it is to feel baffled, confused and infuriated with the addict. Really I do. I have been the loved one on the outside looking in desperate for that person to wake up, wishing I could shake some sense in to them and incite them to ´´pull it together´´. It is natural to have anger and frustration come through, because both are really fear in disguise. I have felt this. I have felt this, in spite of also being the addict. Yes, I know both sides of the fence intimately, and in many ways I am deeply privileged to do so, as only experience can ever truly allow us to understand anything. All else is speculation and information.
However, in the potential absence of experience, I will now attempt to convey a more complete and fully informed picture of what it really means to be an addict and why addiction is not a disease per se, but is most definitely not the fault or choice of the addict.
In her article Brianna explained that the only reason we call addiction a disease, is because certain chemicals affect the dopamine response in the brain, thus inducing a good feeling and desire for more. Other than this Brianna made very clear that it is the addicts fault that they are addicted because they ´´chose´´ to put that substance in their body in the first place.
It is absolutely true that many substances, including heroin, cocaine, alcohol, sugar and even cheese, affect the dopamine (pleasure) receptors in the brain making some substances more addictive than others. However, how then is it that many people, most people in fact, also chose to consume these very same substances - be it cocaine or Camembert, heroin or Haagen Daaz - and yet do not get addicted?
This is because dopamine can help get us hooked on a bad habit, but true addiction is much more than a bad habit to be broken. So what is it? True addiction, chronic addiction, is what I call the perfect storm.
Some people will be particularly susceptible to habit forming substances and struggle to control the amount they use once they have picked up. They may also create a dramatic change in personality and behaviour. This is because some people process substances differently and suffer an allergic – an adverse – reaction. When a substance hits their system they develop what is known as a ´´phenomenon of craving´´. Upon consuming even the smallest amount, a need for more is stimulated which is so powerful and all consuming, that they will be entirely unable to overcome or override it. For somebody who does not suffer this, it is almost impossible to comprehend. I have personally come to believe that this ohenomonon of craving and the body´s inability to process the sunstance ´´normally´´ is somehow related to the nervous system being stuck in trauma - fight or flight.
This would be termed as acute alcoholism or addiction. These people may lose control at the time of using, but like general users or heavy drinkers with bad habits, will be able to stop should they chose. They will likely be able to stop, and stay stopped.
The true or chronic alcoholic or addict will find themselves unable to stop, either at all, or for any prolonged period of time (years), in spite of a crushing desire to do so. To be in the grip of addiction is to be held hostage by yourself. Any person in a well mind would of course, simply stop such a destructive behaviour. This much is obvious. But that’s the point; the addict is not well, they have a disease, they are suffering with a mental and physical illness that deprives them of the ability to take logical action in the way any well person would.
You cannot know true addiction until all you want in the world is to be free of the need to use, but have no ability at all to overcome the compulsion that is killing you quietly. To be a victim of your own incapacity to stop something that is wounding both you and those you love, is soul destroying. I know what it is to sob over a white powered mirror desperate not to use, whilst being simultaneously just as desperate not to get the cocaine wet, because I could not be without it… I could not breathe without it. I know what it is to be violently ill with every sip of vodka but be completely unable to stop swallowing it like life blood.
My addictions nearly stole a life, my life, a life that I was desperate to live. So why did I use to begin with and what made me, unlike some others, categorically unable to tame the beast for more than 10 years?
Many people may suffer with depression (mental illness) and may even become dependent upon substances to ´´medicate´´ that depression, but they are able to process the substance in their system properly, and therefore the craving and compulsive use is never sparked. They may use to change the way they feel, but will be very capable of picking it up and putting it down.
Some people suffer with the adverse reaction to chemical substances that sparks the phenomenon of craving and compulsive use, but not the severe mental and emotional imbalance. They may get out of control when using, but again, will be very capable of leaving it alone if need be and perfectly fine without it.
True (chronic) alcoholics and addicts suffer with both the adverse reaction and the mental imbalance. This devastating combination renders them completely powerless to stop, moderate, contain or control their use.
This condemns us to a vicious and violent cycle of needing to reach for something to change the way we feel because we are simply unable to process ´´life on life terms´´ and our emotional response to the world is completely skewed. In then reaching for that substance and sparking the craving, we are bound to continue to use it compulsively in spite of the fact it may be inducing more suffering. Sound insane? That’s because it is.
Alcoholism and addiction is an imbalance of both body and mind. An affliction that at the time is nearly impossible for the addict or alcoholic to grasp, see, or understand. To someone on the outside it will seem like baffling behaviour. But trust me; the addict baffles themselves just as much.
The paranoid schizophrenic, although they suffer, will not necessarily believe or understand they are ill and embrace treatment. It is no different for a true addict, and yet for some reason we condemn them to a different box.
Is it painful to watch someone destroy themselves? Of course. But is it also painful to be the assassin of your own crumbling heart? Without question. Having sat on both sides of the table – I would go as far as to suggest that the latter is the more miserable existence.
I feel it is exceptionally important to also note that studies increasingly show, (note the work of esteemed psychiatrist and leading trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk) that the type of addiction and alcoholism mentioned here is almost always rooted in trauma. We are coming to understand trauma in a far more broad reaching capacity than ever before. Trauma can range from the obvious, such as abuse, to circumstances so subtle that only the well trained eye will spot it. Our brains, belief systems and the filters through which we process and experience life are mapped by our experiences. Traumatic experiences change the brain and in turn the way we see the world. Trauma locks the brain and body in to a state of hyperarousal causing the individual to be suspended in a state of intolerable fear and anxiety. They simply never feel safe, secure or at ease and are prone to deep depression and sense of disconnection from the world around them. This emotional and mental imbalance condemns them to need to numb, and quite simply, escape themselves. If our perception and reception of life is off whack, as an addicts is, there is always a reason why.
To appreciate the part that trauma imprint plays in addiction is not about blame or negation of personal responsibility. I fully believe that as we come to adulthood we all become responsible for our own healing and wellbeing. However, what this understanding does begin to do is crack open our awareness to the tragic plight of the alcoholic and addict, as well as all those whom the addiction ripple effects. The addict is simply someone doomed by faulty brain and body function, and healing is not easy.
I speak from experience when I say that the addict carries more self-loathing and shame than one could ever impose upon them. That said, we want to relinquish the need to fix or mollycoddle, for then we simply become the enabler and get in the way of the addicts own journey towards help and health. We must however learn to view them through informed and compassionate eyes, because blame and anger are unproductive. Hostility never initiates healing, for anyone, on either side of the street.
Indra Aimee Rai is a Kundalini/Tantra Yogini and Transformational Life Coach who specialises in healing anxiety, depression, trauma and addiction holistically. If you are interested to learn more about what is detailed in the above article, understand how it relates to you, or would like to discuss your own struggles or desire to heal then please get in touch for a free no strings attached consultation (online or in person).
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