Understanding Addiction

When a loved one is suffering from addiction, it can be a very difficult thing for us to cope with. We want to understand our loved one’s struggle, but it’s hard to separate what we know to be true from what we feel in our hearts. We may be angry or frustrated with our loved one, and that’s natural. We may have trouble wrapping our heads around the gap between the person that we want our loved one to be and the person that they are when they are in the thrall of substance use — and that’s natural, too. As we consider addiction in all of its fearsome strangeness, it’s important for us to keep coming back to the facts of the disease. Even if you already know the things we’ll lay out below, it may help to read through them again and contemplate them. It takes great patience to understand a loved one’s addiction, but it can be done.

Addiction is a disease

The most important thing that we each need to understand about addiction is that it is a disease. Like other diseases, addiction has physical manifestations and physical symptoms. Addiction works within the brain and within the body (in ways that we’ll discuss in more depth in just a moment). Addiction’s consequences can take forms that make it hard to remember that we’re dealing with a physical disease, not with the “choices” of an individual in the way that we might normally define that word. But we need to remember this, all the same.

How addiction works

Addiction works by taking over normal functions of the brain and using them to drive a virtually unstoppable desire. Different addictive substances work in different ways, but there are also characteristics that all physically addictive (and even some psychologically addictive) substances have in common. Generally, an addiction hijacks one of the “pleasure pathways” in the brain. Our brains process certain feelings using transmitters and receptors. An addictive substance uses some method to short-circuit that communication between synapses, producing an unnatural effect using our brain’s natural blueprint. For instance, cocaine produces pleasure by attaching to “dopamine transporters,” which are things that our brain uses to take dopamine back up after it is used to communicate between synapses. With the reuptake system clogged up, the synapse experiences a buildup of dopamine. And since dopamine produces a pleasurable feeling when it binds with a receptor, cocaine users feel good.

The problem is that our brains react to such short-circuiting. Confident that things are working normally, our brains will change the way they do business in order to account for this new normal. So, for instance, a cocaine addict’s brain will stop releasing as much dopamine, convinced it has enough. But it won’t have enough — not without cocaine.

The result, of course, is an addict who needs a particular drug just to feel normal. Addiction leads to increased tolerance, terrible physical symptoms, horrible cravings, and more. Addiction leads, in a manner of speaking, to even deeper addiction.

Addiction is common

Addiction is a devastating disease, and it can make us feel like we are alone when we or a loved one are suffering from it. But the reality is that addiction is an incredibly common thing.

Nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to a drug. In the vast majority of cases — about two out of every three — that drug is alcohol. In other cases, the drug may be an opioid or an amphetamine. But however you slice it, about 10% of all Americans are dealing with some kind of addiction. You are not alone.

Breaking the cycle isn’t easy. The path forward is through therapy and perhaps rehabilitation centers, explain the professionals at The Stillwater Centre, an addiction treatment center in Southern Ontario. Addicts need to be careful their whole lives, and there may be setbacks. A better life is possible, though, for them — and for you and your family.

Struggling with understanding

Supporting a loved one who is an addict can be very hard to do. You should do your best, while also understanding that you, too, are only human. Consider working with a therapist to set boundaries and work through your own feelings. But try to remember the nature of addiction as we described it above. Your loved one is suffering from a disease, and they no doubt wish, as you do, for a cure.

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