Many people can have a hard time understanding why drug addicts have difficulty in quitting drugs, despite the major life consequences that follow from their use. It would seem logical that if the use of a substance is causing a lot of issues in someone’s life that they should just stop using the substance. However, this is a lot easier said than done. Many addicts who want to get clean require not just quitting a substance but changing their entire lives, as substances are often intertwined with who they hang out with, where they live, what they do for work, etc. Changing a life could take years of dedication and hard work. However, if given the right treatment, help, and resources, changing one’s life through recovery is possible.
Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism stated, “A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth. The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain”. It is possible that the first use of drugs could have been a choice, but after the initial high the brain can become “high jacked”, physically and psychologically having the brain rely increasingly more on the drugs to function. Becoming addicted to substances causes the “normal” hardwiring of the brain to begin working against itself, causing the pleasure or reward circuits to become overly active and sending your danger-sensing emotional circuits into overdrive, making a user feel stressed and anxious when they cannot use. This is where drugs become a necessity and now are needed to keep the body functioning normally or to keep from throwing the body into deprivation (withdrawal). Simply “just stopping” something that your body is using to function normally is often impossible without medical help or treatment.
Maureen Boyle, a public health advisor and director of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated that “Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. It’s a combination of your genetics, your neurobiology and how that interacts with psychological and social factors”. In a way, addiction is similar to any other chronic disease such as diabetes or cancer, it cannot be prevented genetically but it does have ways it can be managed and treated in order to live with it throughout a lifetime. This is another reason why “just stopping” is not a concept that makes sense for addressing this disease, addicts cannot just get rid of their genetic components. Brain-imaging studies in a 2011 review of studies published in the journal of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, found that people with alcohol, cocaine or opioid use disorders show impaired activity in their prefrontal cortex and a loss of neurons in their brain. As an addict’s addiction gets worse, they actually start to lose the ability to make sound decisions and regulate their impulses due to the degeneration of the body. This helps the addiction to stay in a vicious cycle of having limited bodily resources and then impairing the ones that are left which in turn are unable to function properly to keep the body from using.
Although addiction is a chronic disorder, it can be managed with treatment. Many addicts are able to give up their addictive behaviors with help from treatment centers, sponsors, therapists, and support groups. These support structures help addicts to learn the skills needed to re-engage with life and how to manage their cravings and mental health issues in order to stay sober. Recovery is a process and takes a lot of hard work and determination. Supporting a loved one and helping them through this process can make living with this disorder a lot easier.