There are a lot of things that could be improved in the area of addiction, starting with challenging people’s understanding of addiction and the biases they hold against those affected by it. People who struggle with addiction, particularly with substance use are sometimes dehumanised by the general public who attribute their decisions and actions to a lack of morality and self-control. The language used to speak about these people can also be very stigmatizing and cause harm to the mental health and wellbeing of those affected as well as their loved ones.

Despite the fact addiction is a widespread issue that affects millions of people across the globe regardless of their culture, religion or repute, the public attitude of addiction continues to be plagued with stigma, shame and personal blame. When it comes to diseases such as HIV and Cancer, there’s so much compassion and sympathy offered to those suffering. On the flip side, people with substance use problems are pitied, treated like low-lives, criminals and failures. Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge or unwillingness to learn is what continues to propagate the negative connotations associated with substance addiction and this can prevent people from seeking help when they need it most.

As someone who’s very interested in understanding the process of addiction, how it develops, what makes some people more susceptible than others and things of that nature, it’s important that I shed some light on the importance of humanising addiction. I want to encourage my readers to try to understand the complexity of addiction and have genuine sympathy for people who are struggling to recover.    

Understanding how the brain responds to addiction:

The first step is to understand how big of a role the brain plays in the development of addiction. In the initial stages of taking an addictive substance, it can hijack the brain reward pathways. The brain reward pathway involves a connection between several regions including the VTA, limbic system as well as the frontal cortex. This reward pathway is designed to reward healthy pleasure-seeking behaviours such as eating food, getting good quality sleep, engaging in sexual activity etc. However, when an addictive substance is introduced, the brain increases the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine whereby high levels of the chemical are actioned in the synapsis. Through this process, the brain becomes rewired to crave the euphoric feeling obtained from the substance and as such the brain begins to reward drug-taking behaviours.

Depending on how strong the drug is, the person can be influenced to continue reaching out for it until they become dependent on it and began to use it just to feel normal again.  People who become dependent develop a tolerance for the drug and primarily use it to relieve the physical, mental and emotional withdrawal symptoms that can accompany substance use. This can include insomnia, vomiting, physical pain, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc.  The temporary relief of pain from the withdrawal symptoms can then become the driving force that pushes the dependency. Also during this stage, the person may develop a tolerance to the drug and gradually find that they need more of the drug in order to experience the same effects they used to from smaller doses. This can elude their willpower and set them on the path to addiction.

Usually, a person can be classified as having reached the level of addiction when they show signs of compulsive drug-seeking behaviour and neurochemical changes to the brain due to prolonged exposure to the drug has been noted.  However, keep in mind that this information varies and only a trained professional can diagnose addiction through consultation and assessment. The takeaway message in this section is that if a substance is capable of changing a person’s brain chemicals and impair the parts of the brain that are responsible for judgement, learning, memory and emotions then perhaps more people should start seeing addiction as a disease like any other and not a personal choice.

Addiction isn’t the same as getting over a bad habit. It’s can’t be cured simply by having self-control alone or by avoiding the substance. The reason most people struggle with recovering despite their attempts is that the brain morphs the drug-taking behaviours into a habitual behaviour that has a set response which then becomes cemented into the brain structure. Reversing the chemical imbalances in the brain is an important step towards recovery and this can be achieved by connecting with specialists, coming up with a recovery plan that captures a holistic approach where the person is encouraged to take control of all aspects of their life. To stabilize the brain and monitor drug-taking behaviours, medication can be an option as this can help bring relief from the withdrawal symptoms that often cause people to relapse.

The question about morality:

When it comes to the question of morality, some people believe, in the initial stages of taking drugs, it’s a choice and the person should bear full responsibility for the consequences that may follow that choice. However, the sad truth is that although in some instances, the initial intake can be a choice, there are also a lot of factors that influence that choice which is left out of the conversation. Peer pressure, the desire to experiment and lack of knowledge about the real damage that drugs can cause are all huge factors that can lead people to make uninformed decisions. Things such as family/relationship breakdowns, financial hardships, traumatic events, mental health disorders as well as early exposure to drugs/alcohol can all increases a person’s chances of developing an addiction. Furthermore, most people don’t become addicted from the initial intake. In most cases, there has to be a prolonged exposure and by the time they realize they’ve become dependent on the drug, the damage has already been done. Their reason for taking the drug can go from casual experimentation to a desperate physical and mental need very quickly.

Substances like drugs and alcohol can be extremely addictive, to the point where a person’s capacity to make informed decisions and act in a socially acceptable manner gradually debilitates. Understand that majority of people struggling with addiction would not willingly choose to engage in self-destructive behaviours; putting their safety, relationships and health at risk just to satisfy their craving for the addictive substance. People struggling with addiction are more likely to attempt and commit suicide, be at risk of drug-induced self-harm, become homeless and are even more likely to be incarcerated. This just goes to show, the problem is beyond their control because absolutely no one starts drinking alcohol or taking drugs with the intention to become addicted. Unfortunately for those that do end up developing a substance disorder, it’s an unforeseen consequence that can leave almost irrevocable damage to their overall health.

Final thoughts:

The good news is that there is hope and with effective treatment, people can recover and lead healthier lives. A huge part of that process includes not stripping people of their humanity by labelling them using negative terms. There’s a psychology theory called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ which basically shows that people have a tendency to attribute someone else’s actions to their character or personality while attributing their own behaviour to external situational factors outside of their control. This theory often makes me wonder when some people argue that addiction is a choice, would they still feel the same way if they were affected by it directly? Or would they prefer others to take into consideration the circumstances and factors that lead them to be in that unfortunate predicament? Like with any other disease, addiction does not discriminate and any one of us or our loved ones could fall victim to it. As such, please remember that at every stage of their journey, people battling addiction deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and a non-judgemental attitude. Only then can we humanise addiction and effectively break down the barriers preventing people from seeking help.

The Conscious Nomad

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