The other night I was watching the movie, “A Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet. The movie is based on the memories of David and Nic Sheff. It tells the story of Nic’s addiction to meth amphetamines and other addictive drugs. The story takes you on the journey of Nic’s addiction and the harrowing affects it has on his dad David and their family. This story resonates with so many people and their families today. In America 10 % percent of people over the age of 12 are addicted to drugs, and more than 15 million Americans are addicted to alcohol. Addiction does not discriminate. People from all walks of life can become addicts.
Addiction occurs when extensive drug or alcohol abuse has caused the person’s brain chemistry to change. “There is a part of the brain responsible for addiction. The name for this part of the brain is the limbic system. This system, also known as the ‘brain reward system,’ is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure.” Dopamine is a natural chemical in the brain that sends signals to the limbic system. When introduced into the limbic system, drugs either mimic dopamine or cause an overproduction of it in the brain. When a person naturally produces dopamine by satisfying thirst or hunger, it doesn’t reprogram the brain for addiction because these actions produce normal levels of dopamine. When addictive substances produce more dopamine in the brain than is necessary, addiction occurs.
“Addictive substances can release up to 10 times more dopamine than the natural reward behaviors.”1 Substance use floods the neuroreceptors with dopamine. This causes the “high” associated with drugs and alcohol. After continued abuse, the human brain is unable to naturally produce normal levels of dopamine. Drugs and alcohol take the reward system hostage. The result is craving the drugs that will restore dopamine levels to normal. A person in this scenario is no longer capable of feeling good without a drug.
While the primary focus on addiction is drugs and alcohol, people can develop addictions to other things, such as, food, shopping, gambling, nicotine, the internet, etc. There is scientific evidence that one person can become an addict, while another person may not. Genetics is a big factor in this. Approximately, 50- 75 % of people can be affected by their genes. Environment can play are part in an individual’s proneness to addiction as well. Growing up in an environment where adults participate in addictive behavior can result in children becoming addicts. “According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 45% percent of people with addiction have a mental health disorder.” 1
Addiction is not a choice. It’s not a moral failing or a character flaw, or something that “bad people” do. Most scientists and experts agree that addiction is a disease that is caused by biology, environment, and other factors.
Over time, drug and alcohol abuse can stop providing the user with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine releases small amounts in the brain and once the brain is altered by drug use, a higher dosage of the drug is required just to function at a base line level. These changes alter the brain and how the brain works, and this may help explain the compulsive and destructive behavior of addiction. According to Frank Tallis, “At first addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of this pleasure gradually diminishes, and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.” This pain is unbearable for people and they will seek out the substance, by stealing from family and friends, or any other means to help with horrible withdrawal symptoms.
A person can’t undo the damage drugs have done to their brain through sheer will power. Like other chronic illnesses such as asthma or type 2 diabetes, ongoing management of addictions is required for long term-recovery. This can include, behavioral therapy, peer support, and lifestyle changes.
Stigma is the main reason people won’t seek help. Therefore, 9 out of 10 people never receive treatment. This is a shame, because drug overdose is the number one cause of accidental deaths in America. There are many addictive drugs out there, but today, opioids have become the drug of choice for most addicts. It has become a nation-wide epidemic. Further research and exploration is needed. In my March blog, I will be exploring opioids and the dangers of addictive drug use.
If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, check out the addiction rehabs below.