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Substance Abuse

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Added April 23, 2014

What Is Addiction?

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Treat an illness of the spirit? Why just "say no" just doesn't always work.


"I'm addicted to chocolate," we say as we open our seventh Hershey's kiss. Or "I'm addicted to the Internet," we laugh as we notice 300 minutes have gone by since we logged on. There's no doubt the word "addiction" is one we kind of throw around lightly. As with so many other terms (like tragedy), we tend to apply the word frivolously. If we can do without an eighth piece of chocolate, why can't that person give up cigarettes or alcohol, or something else? If it's true that two-thirds of Americans drink, what makes one out of 13 become an alcoholic?


Controversy constantly swirls around what is addiction and what is a lack of will power and motivation. Perhaps the word "dependence," rather than addiction best describes the meaning of this slippery term. Why do people quit again and again, subjecting themselves to a period of agonizing withdrawal? How come they don't learn from experience that this habit invades, undermines, and destroys everything meaningful in life?


What is addiction?

An addiction can be described as the physiological inability to say no, a loss of control over your intake of a substance, or the practicing of a habit. Areas of the brain that regulate pleasure and motivation are damaged by drug use and there's no evidence that this damage can be repaired. Once drugs are in your brain, they behave like a computer virus, reprogramming and remodeling the circuits. Unfortunately unlike your computer, you can't replace your hard drive. Doctors say that's why drug abusers find it difficult to overcome their addictions.


The alcohol, the cigarette, the drug is not the primary cause of addiction.

Would you be surprised to know that the taking of a drug does not cause addiction? It is the relationship of the addicted person with the object of his or her excessive behavior that defines addiction. It is a mix of psychological, social and biological forces that determines addiction. It is each person's individual experience and genetic heritage that shapes our brain's reaction to an addictive substance or habit.


Are people who abuse drugs and alcohol just weaker than the rest of us?

How many times have you heard it said, "Didn't he know what would happen? Couldn't he control himself? How could he do that? Where was his willpower? Researchers now know that addicts don't suffer from a failure of willpower; they suffer from a chronic disease with a physical, emotional and spiritual component. Telling an anorexic to eat or a heroin addict to get clean will not work. People in the grip of an addiction can't hear what other people are saying. This disease doesn't render them blameless, but it does defy reason. In recent years we have found miraculous cures for some physical illnesses, but addiction is still looked upon with ignorance. 


The task then is not to condemn those dependent on drugs or alcohol. Instead of feeling superior or getting angry, we should view them with the same compassion we would any sick person. And we must learn, as we observe, that the price of an initial bit of pleasure from any of these seductive activities is way too high.

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