Below is a paper that I recently submitted to my social psychology class. I think it will help both people in recovery and those that have loved ones suffering from addiction to better understand the 'why'. Please enjoy and comment if the mood strikes you.
What is Addiction
Crack kills! Just say no! This is your brain on drugs! Any questions? These are slogans that we as a society have heard about drug use, and they all point to the general idea that drug use is a choice (yet they also fail to distinguish between use, abuse and addiction). This choice implies the assumption that people would actually choose to lead a life of death, destruction, pain, guilt, remorse and the like on purpose; and that they would equally ‘choose’ this path, instead of just ‘quitting’ their drug of choice.
Sadly it is the idea behind these media campaigns that has driven the multitude of stereotypes formed by family, loved ones, care givers and even medical providers, on why the addict continues to use. It is also this same mentality that drives the seemingly insatiable questions from family and loved ones, that are receive at treatment centers on almost a daily basis: “why don’t they just stop?”; “do they love drugs more than they love me?”; “why would they choose to do this to themselves?”; and the like.
Ironically, one of the keys to understanding that addiction is much more than just a ‘choice’ actually resides in some of the same anti-drug slogans. Take the popular commercial using eggs and a frying pan with the tag line “this is your brain on drugs.” This commercial of course insinuating that when people use drugs their brain is no longer thinking and processing information correctly. Now if we as a society understand that their brain is not functioning the way it should be because of drug use, how exactly is it that we expect the drug users malfunctioning brain to now “just say no;” and suddenly start making rational, logical, and sensible decisions about their life and their future?
The term addiction is actually very complex and tends to encompass a host of methodologies and theories all depending on who you talk to. For instance, the American Psychological Association is currently defining addiction as “a condition in which the body must have a drug to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms” (APA, 2015). This is a big variance from the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s definition which states that “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry” (ASAM, 2015). The ASAM goes on to point out that addiction is a ‘dysfunction’ in the mental circuits which causes an issues in “biological, psychological, social and spiritual” areas (2015). It is variances like these, along with disagreements, misunderstandings, ignorance and the like that continues to feed the current addiction stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminations; as society’s current understanding of addiction is going to obviously drive their reaction to it.
The Health Side of Addiction
The World Health Organization defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 2015). In addition to the actual damaging chemicals in the drugs themselves, addiction has many roots intertwined in this definition of health; as the ASAM points out, addiction resides in the mental, emotional, and physical.
Sadly it’s not just the addiction that is impacting the person health. “There are over 5 million adults in the United States (that) have co-occurring substance use disorder and serious psychological distress” (Magura, 2008). This is yet another reason that “just say no” doesn’t work, as it is often the co-occurring disorder that is helping to drive the addiction. Sometimes it is even the classic case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is it the addiction that is driving the disorder, or the disorder that is helping to drive the addiction; or worse yet are they independent but feeding off each other?
Stress, simply defined is “the upsetting of homeostasis” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. B3) and is one of the major contributors of addiction as well as one of the key reasons given for those in recovery as to why they relapsed.
One of the many reasons stress is such a contributing factor to addiction, is the addict’s poor to non-existent coping skills. The lack of coping skills is often amplified when combined with their normal negative and/or detrimental social support group. As until the addict reaches some state of recovery, their social group normally encompasses many other addicts who only serve to reinforce their already negative self-image and destructive thinking through the process of social learning. Addicts continue to learn how to be better addicts by “observing and imitation others” in their own social group (p. 244).
The Growth of Addiction
Social learning for addicts often starts while they are very young. A very high percentage of the people that I personally deal with on a daily basis had their first drug using experience with an immediate family member, and this experience happened long after seeing those family members use drugs for years. Social learning dictates that watching mommy and daddy do drugs “may not only increase a child’s likelihood of (using); it may also increase the child’ belief that (using) is okay when (something) provokes you” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 245).
This initial learning is then mentally reinforced in several ways. The mere exposure effect, helps the drugs “to be liked more after the individual has been repeatedly exposed to them” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 241). As the child will normally continued to be surrounded by the drugs, drug use, along with other people who use drugs until the child either leaves home, or until they are removed from the home by either the court system or another concerned member of the family.
The destructive mental conditioning often continues with classical conditioning, where “through repeated pairings, a neutral stimulus comes to evoke a conditioned response” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 242). In this case, using the drugs with family members makes for more acceptance of the family, a ‘happier’ family life, or the like. The person starts to associate drugs as not only a coping mechanism, but as an acceptance, and as the natural thing to do in a host of various other situations. This is the beginning process of the multitude of triggers that the addict will have to eventually deal with and redirect.
This then leads directly to operant conditioning, where a behavior is more likely to be repeated if it has been rewarded and less likely to be repeated if it meets with punishment (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 243). Meaning that when children are punished for not wanting to use with their family or loved ones, or reinforced when the children are praised for using and going along and of course, when their fears and worries go away with the drug. Depending on the reaction, they will be more or less likely to refuse in the future because of punishment or reward given.
The Self and Addiction. This type of outside learning continues until the person evolves more into the self. Many people’s reasoning for continuing to use drugs is they do not like the findings in their private self-awareness; which is “attending to your inner states, including emotions, thoughts, desires, and traits” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 78). For example, “feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affect and substance abuse as the individual struggles to dampen this painful feelings with drugs or alcohol” (Dearing, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2005). In reality, not just drugs and alcohol are used as dampening tools. People use foods, shopping, sex, extreme sports, gambling, gaming and the like to help redirect inner thinking.
Cultivating self-awareness, which “can make people behave less aggressively, conform more to their sexual morals, and stay on their diets” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 79) is very important for people in addiction. However, with the popular idea that addiction is “an incurable brain disease” it makes the goal of recovery look much more unattainable. And as we know if the “person does not feel he or she is making satisfactory progress, then avoiding self-awareness looms as the more appealing solution” (p. 79). Not surprisingly “drinking alcohol is one of the most common methods of reducing self-awareness” (p. 80). It is this natural reaction to dull self-awareness because of painful memories, which helps to drive the current addiction.
This internal learning process continues to spiral away from the recovery side of things, as self-regulation, “a process by which the self controls and changes itself” which happens to be vitally reliant on self-awareness, continues to slip away. Since they are intertwined, as self-awareness fades with drugs, alcohol and even self-serving bias, so does the ability self-regulate (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 80). And as self-regulation continues to fade, so does the ability for the addict to find recovery, or even realize that recovery might be needed.
Another issue with the ability to self-regulate is compounded with the looking-glass self. Meaning that “people learn about themselves from other people” (Baumeister, & Bushman, 2014, p. 82). Therefore, when people in addiction are surrounded by other people in addiction their “self-knowledge (that) comes from feedback received from other people” is skewed or biased to say the very least (p. 82). This is because they are getting their information from people who are themselves under the influence of drugs, extremely biased, and cognitively compromised as sources for their information.
To add insult to injury, their self-evaluation is often based on the use of downward social comparisons, which allows the addict to not make the necessary changes they should be making in their own lives. They look at other addicts and tell themselves, “Well at least I’m not as bad as they are”; “I don’t use as much as they do”, “I’m in more control then he is”, “At least I don’t use a needle” and the like. This may better help explain why many addicts do not seek out help until they themselves have hit their own “rock bottom.”
Conclusion. Keeping in mind that people are addicted to many things in life; gambling, gaming, extreme sports, sex, shopping, hording and the like. Saying that it is drugs that drives addiction, could be seen as synonymous to saying that gas is what drives a car. Meaning that this statement does not take into account: the wires, plugs, wheels, transmission, drivetrain, battery, alternator, starter, driver and the like that actually help in making the car ‘drive’. Until the idea of addiction changes in our populations understanding, from that of a choice to that of a whole ‘person’ issue, that also has the potential of having co-occurring disorders, people in recovery will be forced to stay “anonymous” and treatments will continue to fall miserably short of their intended mark.
We as a society, as well as professionals in the field of recovery need to understand that the addiction (drugs or otherwise) are just a symptom of what’s really wrong with the person. And until we stop addressing just those symptoms, we will continue to fail those we are trying to help; much like just adding a band aide to an injury without first cleaning out the broken glass inside wound.
Who am I?
I have been called "Sirthinkalot" and "The mender of souls." I am an addiction specialist and a full-time psychology student on the way to Dr. Davis in clinical psychology. I am currently crusading for the expedited paradigm shift in addiction recovery!