It’s been said that addiction treatment today is in about the same phase of development as sexual education was in the 1950s.
The average person’s views on this “baffling condition” are often tainted by fear, taboo, subjective personal anecdotes and imprecise language.
We will not make progress on this issue until we clear up some of the confusion and mysticism surrounding addiction and what it takes to become addiction-free.
While all substance addictions follow predictable patterns, my own experience is with alcohol addiction.
So, what is addiction?
It is a biochemical disorder, with genetic roots and environmental catalysts, that hijacks the brain and causes it to operate as if a specific substance is strictly necessary for survival.
By “necessary,” I mean in the same category as air, water, and food.
If you find it baffling that an addict can be “tricked” by his own brain into consuming an addictive substance, you can get a good idea of how this works by imagining what tricks your brain might play on you if you decided to voluntarily go without water or food for several days.
Beating substance addiction involves two major challenges: treating the brain disorder itself, and reversing false beliefs that addicts have manufactured to live congruently with their addictions.
When a substance satisfies a biochemical need – which it eventually will for people with genetic susceptibilities specific to that substance, and who consume that substance repeatedly – it becomes protected by survival instincts that are stronger than reason, social norms, and even family bonds.
Addicts accommodate this reality by internalizing beliefs that are untrue and detrimental: “Anyone who tries to deprive me of this substance is trying to hurt me” – “The world is unfair because I need to keep hurting myself with this substance to feel okay” – “This substance is MY thing, and I CHOOSE it as part of my unique identity.”
The typical addicts’ mind contains hundreds of questionable beliefs that reinforce the substance filling a chemical need. Often these beliefs are unconscious and therefore remain unquestioned.
This is one reason why addicts slip into their own world and away from family and friends, especially those who sincerely want to help them.
I have always been a silver lining optimist. And so, as absurd as it sounds, I found ways to manufacture false beliefs that highlighted the bright side of being addicted to alcohol.
Others had been in my shoes (i.e., addicted to alcohol) and done great things! Churchill (whose biography I read while drinking gin and tonics) drank every day and saved his country. Hemingway was a legendary novelist/drunk. My boss at work downs martinis every night and he earned $X last year!
My subconscious conclusions: Real men drink, and alcohol propagates success by making people calm and confident and euphoric.
Never mind the facts: Alcohol is a depressant and Churchill incidentally suffered from lifelong depression, Hemingway drank himself into impotence and eventually committed suicide, and my boss reeked of alcohol and grumpily stumbled in late every other morning.
Of course, the primary fact is that my life has nothing to do with any of these men, two of whom have been dead for a very long time. In retrospect it’s kind of funny that in groping for rationalizations, my alcoholic brain latched on to idealizations of famous dead people!
I now see that drinking has nothing to do with being a man, or masculinity per se, and that drinking is certainly not a predictor of success. My old beliefs about alcohol were cherry-picked products of my own confirmation bias.
When I drank, I was proof that even the most intellectually curious addict’s reality becomes fundamentally detached from the world that non-addicted people (and now I) live in.
Addicts are deluded, but they are not born liars. They acknowledge the truth of their condition in rare and lucid moments. Their half-realization that their beliefs about their substance are untrue adds to their overwhelming sense of existential panic, which increases over time anyway as a biochemical symptom of withdrawal.
Often they resolve to quit and it appears that they have lied when they fail to follow through. However, they are primarily slaves to their survival mechanisms, ruled by the pain-pleasure principle, which in the case of addiction is more intense than most non-addicts can imagine.
If you still suspect that addiction is a failure of willpower rather than a biochemical disorder, consider new research that shows that addictive cravings can be identified in the brain after death.
I’m all about mind over matter, but there’s a limit. It’s impossible to assert your will with a bullet in your brain – or even with tiny proteins that trigger your brain on a molecular level to prioritize an addictive chemical over food and water. (And these proteins are just one in a cascade of structural brain alterations wrought by substance addiction.)
For a person to recover, the biochemical chains first need to be broken. Most people understand that withdrawal symptoms require medical attention, and that particularly heavy drinkers who quit cold turkey can have fatal seizures.
Fewer people know that nutritional supplements can rapidly speed up the process of brain repair, by which I mean a total restoration of the brain’s ability to produce natural reward chemicals that make life feel livable without the addictive substance.
In addition to biochemical repair, the false beliefs that allowed the person to coexist with their addiction need to be confronted and debunked.
This is where my book – Drinking Sucks! – can come in to help. If you or someone you know is addicted to alcohol, all of the internalized rationalizations about alcohol need to go! Treatment centers and 12-step programs will NOT help you reverse this conditioning.
Actually, this book covers more than mental conditioning. The process of biochemical repair is covered in detail, and I also present a practical template for self-improvement as a non-drinker.
Positive lifestyle changes, spiritual centeredness, and worldly curiosity- things that are impossible to sustain during an active addiction – can fill the biochemical and psychological voids created by quitting the addiction.