Addiction often sounds like a dirty word that polite society applies to down-and-outs who are living rough. Actually, addiction does not discriminate. Addiction is the act of medicating pain, which can be physical or emotional. Addiction is symptomatic of many things that prompt us to ‘use’ whatever is at our disposal to deal with the stress of life. Addiction can be as innocent as a brief distraction from life’s stresses or as deadly as an accidental overdose.
Hopefully the following words can give a brief description of what addiction really is: Addiction has historically been defined as a disease by the American Medical Association since 1955, when the World Health Organisation officially declared it so. It is a disease because it is quantified as having Primary, Progressive, Chronic and Fatal stages.
The nature/nurture argument has been around for some time but the cause of addiction is slowly being accepted as pre-determined via the neural chemical design of the brain. The more we practice the addictive cycle or behaviour, the more we reinforce the neural path or dig deeper the furrow that the electro chemical charge travels to either reach our pleasure centres or supply to us with what we feel deprived of, yet feel we must have. And yet this description needs further defining, as it could also describe the situation that applies to abusers.
Are all abuser’s addicts? No. So what is the difference between the two?
Many people who have worked in the addiction field for decades seem to come to the conclusion that addiction is what is done in order to de-stress, and if we can teach effective methods of de-stressing, then we can teach people to stop taking drugs. Studies have been done to show that soldiers in the midst of combat stress are prone to using drugs, yet when removed from that physical environment of combat stress, 90% of those abusing drugs stopped and the familiar 10% who are addicts continued to use.
Adolescents are another good example, as a lot of people in their early years experiment with drugs. While most will outgrow drugs as they move on to the next phase in their lives, the predictable 10% will continue using because they are ‘addicts’, not simply ‘abusers’.
Addiction is an impulsive, out-of-control behaviour that is due to the way one’s brain is ‘wired’. The ‘abuser’ seriously considers the idea: “I’m not going to do that again,” but when the ‘addict’ alters his mood with drugs he thinks, “Where’ve you been all my life?”
The actual drug varies greatly. While Native Americans have a weakness for ‘firewater’, Orientals prefer designer drugs in the opiate range rather than alcohol. People that live in warm, moist climates tend toward marijuana and hot dry climate inhabitants gravitate toward other drugs. The reality is, every addict has their drug of choice, no matter who, no matter where. It’s a matter of what it is that specifically fills the need of that part of their brain that is idling in deprivation mode.
A classic drug addiction example is nicotine and tobacco’s carcinogens. Dispensed in delivery, they have statistically been shown to globally kill millions of people each year, both the actual smokers and the passive smokers. If I’m smoking at home by myself, am I an abuser or an addict? If I am smoking in a public place in the presence of non-smokers after I’ve been given the mortality statistics, does this mean that I am practicing an addiction ‘out-of-control’ or am I simply abusing a drug? Actually, if you smoke, you are practicing a drug addiction.
Addiction is best defined as out-of-control behaviour. I use more than I intended. Everyone around me (including self) can see the negative consequences of this behaviour and yet I still do not stop. Delusion and denial is the powerful fuel that keeps my addiction alive.
In life we don’t decide to be left handed or right handed. We don’t decide to be heterosexual or homosexual. We don’t decide to be an accountant or an artist. Likewise, we don’t decide to be an addict or not. It is the way our brain is wired. Instinctively, societies have regarded addiction as deviant behaviour to be ‘corrected’, yet today we accept that it is a disease – and it is from this understanding that we are best equipped to deal with its root causes and cure these who find themselves in its clutches.
Don Lavender, BA M.Div, Camino Recovery
Originally published in Sur in English newspaper on the 19th September 2014