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Understanding Drug Addiction as a Disease

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Is your loved one addicted to drugs? It must be painful to witness their transformation and not be able to do anything about it. Part of you probably blames them for continuing to consume, for allowing themselves to go down such a destructive path. This is especially true if your loved one used to have it all and is now turning their back on everything. Others stopped or recovered, so why are they not doing it? Well, their situation is not that simple. You will understand that once you stop seeing it as a choice and start seeing drug addiction as a disease.

It May Begin with a Bad Choice, but Addiction Is a Medical Problem

Yes, you can blame your loved one for trying drugs. They should not have done it. Whether it was curiosity, peer pressure, or the need for relief, they should have stayed away. But when they started, they surely had no idea things would evolve the way they did.

And if you blame them, blame yourself for having any amount of alcohol or taking opioids or antidepressants when you need them. Those pose a high risk of addiction themselves. Sure, there is no guarantee you will become addicted but what if you do?

Your loved one surely did not plan their addiction. It happened, and, somewhere along the way, they lost control. But do not judge them, label them, or blame them. It would be like blaming them for having schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, or another disease.

Yes, drug addiction is a disease, a brain disease, to be more specific. Here is why.

Drug Addiction as a Brain Disease

Our brain regulates our bodies’ basic functions and shapes our behavior, our responses to various stimuli. It does that by interpreting and adjusting the signals neurons send and receive through neurotransmitters.

Some drugs (heroin and marijuana) mimic the chemical structures of neurotransmitters and cause the neurons to send abnormal messages. Others (cocaine and amphetamine) cause the neurons to release excess neurotransmitters and amplify or disrupt communication between neurons.

Through their actions, drugs affect different brain areas impacting various functions:

  • Basal gangliaDrugs impact motivation and ability to enjoy healthy activities (socializing, eating, sex, etc). In the beginning, they activate the rewards center and enhance the pleasure the user feels from those activities. As tolerance sets in, the user starts needing the drug in higher and higher amounts in order to experience the same or any pleasure.
  • Extended amygdala – This brain area controls irritability, anxiety, and unease. Initially, drugs provide relief. As their effect wears off and addiction sets in, the user starts needing them in order to control their anxiety.
  • The prefrontal cortex – By affecting this brain region, drugs mess with the user’s ability to think, plan, make decisions, solve problems. They initially seem to improve but eventually end up undermining their self-control. This makes the user even more vulnerable to the changes occurring in the other two areas and drives them to seek drugs compulsively.
  • The brain stemMost affected by opioids, this area controls important life functions, like heart rate, breathing, or sleeping. Users start needing drugs in order to breathe and sleep normally, and their life is threatened in case of sudden, uncontrolled withdrawal.

These are already more details than you really need. A brain scan may prove the above changes but will not solve your loved one’s problem. You need to understand that they physically and mentally need the drug, even if it ends up hurting them.

Just like schizophrenia, paranoia, and other illnesses, drugs distort thinking and behavior. Your loved one does not use drugs by choice but because they need them, because they cannot function without them. They are probably aware of the negative implications but unable to fight them.

When they do not get their dose, they experience terrible withdrawal symptoms that range from physical pain to life-threatening seizures. This is more than your occasional craving for something sweet or a hot bath. It is a sick person’s need for ailment.

Treat them as you would if they were diagnosed with a serious condition. Help them notice the symptoms, accept the diagnosis, and get help. Understand their pain and struggle, and provide the comfort and support they need.

Do not judge them for being tempted to give up or relapsing, empower them to recover. With your love and support and professional help, they can get well. But remember that they do need professional help.

Do not leave everything to their will and desire to recover. They need detox, withdrawal symptom management and therapy that are only available in recovery centers. Recovery is a long and difficult process and you and your loved one will need all the help you can get to go through it.

Find the Help You Need at Asheville Recovery Center

We know that not only drug addicts need help but also their loved ones. We have the means and resources to provide it. Contact Asheville Recovery Center now to schedule a free consultation and find out more about our drug addiction recovery programs!