Not everyone who drinks or uses drugs is an addict. So why am I an addict? They say that the first step in addressing any problem is admitting that you have a problem, but admitting I was an addict was the last thing I wanted to do. It seemed to me that admitting that I was a drug addict was admitting that I was a flawed human being, that my willpower was worthless, and I was forever inferior to others. Through talking to other addicts and a lot of research, I learned that just like diabetes, addiction was a disease and, though I didn’t necessarily choose it, I could learn to live with it as soon as I identified as someone who has the disease.
Progression of Addiction
Since the 1950’s, addiction has been known by the AMA (American Medical Association), as a mental disease. A disease is understood as something that is progressive, chronic and fatal, and when I was honest about my condition, it was clear to see that the way I used drugs and alcohol fit into this model.
I remember being 17 and going to parties with friends. It seemed as though everyone around me was interested in socializing with others and listening to the music. Though I was good at pretending, all that I could focus on was the alcohol and pills I saw going around the party. Other people’s observance of me was just an obstacle I had to dart around as I consumed as much as I could. The older I got, the more I became a daily user and adopted new drugs into my regiment, going from alcohol and pills to street drugs like meth and heroin.
Substances like alcohol and drugs affect the dopamine neurotransmitters, which creates pleasure in the brain. Basically, they make the brain think it is experiencing something great that feels really good, better than the basic pleasures like food and sex. Because of the extreme pleasure, the brain’s natural state, or hedonic set-point is increased. Therefore, basic “feel goods” like food and sex don’t feel as good anymore in comparison.
After repetition of this pattern of consuming drugs and alcohol, the brain stops producing as much dopamine, or “pleasure chemicals,” because it is getting it from an external source. This means that someone who uses substances like these is making it difficult to feel good normally, thus creating a habit or physical dependence on the drugs to feel good. Some people’s brains are more susceptible to a dependence or addiction than others, though anyone has the potential to become addicted.
When did I cross the line of addiction?
I don’t know where I crossed the line from heavy use to addiction, but at about 18 or 19 I was a full blown daily user of opiates and benzos. If I stopped using these drugs everyday, I would get very sick so now I was not just mentally dependent, I was physically dependent. My life started going down hill as I began to flunk classes in college, get in trouble with my family and visited the county jail. I was beginning to think I had a problem.
There are some buzzwords that are commonly connected as a part of addiction and two of these are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance is described as needing more of the substance one is using to achieve the same affect. This happens after repeated frequent use of the substance. So for an opiate addict, this looks like taking two Vicodin and getting high, to having to take ten Vicodin to get high a few weeks later.
Withdrawal happens when a person becomes physically dependent. Once someone begins to develop a tolerance to a drug, they will probably have withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the drug. With opiates, the symptoms may feel like body aches, nausea, restlessness and anxiety. Drug or alcohol withdrawal typically needs to be monitored by medical staff because the symptoms are so uncomfortable that if the person wants to stop, they may feel it is impossible without medical help because the symptoms are so uncomfortable.
Identifying My Problem
After a few visits to treatment centers many AA meetings, and seeing where I could relate to people in recovery instead of looking at the differences in my story, I too identified “my problem,” as the disease of addiction. I recognized that on my own, I could not stop the patterns of behaviors I was participating in my life. I couldn’t fully commit to staying away from the drugs that my body and mind seemed to crave, even if I got a few months free from them.
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, they call this place, “the jumping off point.” I did not yet know how to stay sober and find peace, but I knew I had to change something because I was miserable with the way things were going. Even when I put my best effort into stopping the types of behaviors I was acting upon, I alone was not able to stop. Though it was a scary place to be in, at least in that moment I had some relief in admitting that I too was an addict. At that moment, I could decide to do something different and ask for help.
Changing Behaviors and Recovering from Addiction
Though for some addiction is a fatal disease, many do find recovery. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. For me, recovery has been more of a process of letting go of old beliefs systems that were causing me more harm than good and adopting new ones which become more real through changing my behaviors.
It has been internal growth through intensive therapeutic work and 12-step practices which then is manifested as external successes in my life. Recovery has taken place in my life through both treatment and a continual practice of the 12-step program. Today my recovery is my most precious gift which intertwines into all areas of my life.