By Jamie Busby - Staff Author
"Hello, my name's Jamie and I'm an alcoholic".... "Hello Jamie" they reply in unison. I'v embarrassingly uttered this phrase and heard that reply many times over the years at AA meetings. However, I have not been to any kind of support group meeting for at least 7 years. Yet I remain "sober".
So, I am a 45 year old recovering, NOT recovered, alcoholic. I also have a prescription drug dependency; Benzodiazepines are my thing, tranquilisers, valium/diazepam. I was initially prescribed them over 20 years ago for the crushing anxiety, agoraphobia,etc... that I suffered due to my alcohol addiction. "Benzos" are very moreish to the wrong person and are the one vice that stubbornly remains, as does the anxiety,etc... These meds are all very closely monitored by my doctor and at a relatively low dose.
I finally went into detox and rehab on October 25th 2002 at the age of 29. I have over 16 years sobriety under my belt. Impressive? No. Not to me. I'd rather be able to drink booze but I had my moment of clarity and realised it was stop or die. It's the hardest pill I'v ever had to swallow, no pun intended. It still occasionally pisses me off that I'm affected, but that's just tough shit. I somehow found the inspiration to go for the "Stop" option and here we are.
Like countless millions of people around the world, I am an addict. As well as being born with a predisposition to addiction, my upbringing played a large part in it all too. Not an excuse, this is just how it is. In hindsight, I knew all this as a teenager because I could feel it and knew I was "different". Things were not quite "right", but of course I didn't understand the significance.
I have also seen the argument in the title of this article do the rounds regularly over the years so I'v decided to give my thoughts on the subject. This will not be just my opinion, we shall look at this neutrally as much as possible and base it off both experiences and real science. (Though I am opinionated and have strong feelings on the matter). I will leave my email address at the bottom and would love to hear your thoughts.
First things first, my abstinence from AA meetings needs a mention. I hate them. I can't think of a worse way to approach this, on a psychological level, than keeping your mind focused on the problem with others in the same boat. Some people I'v known go to an AA meeting every day, even though they may be 20+ years sober. In my opinion, they're addicted to AA meetings. I'll say no more on that, I know the way I feel is a minority viewpoint. If AA works for you then that's brilliant.
I will be using 2 totally different sources, linked at the bottom, and examine them. Or pull them apart where necessary. My little sob story's out the way so let's begin.
Let's take heroin as an example. Apparently, after 20 days use, you become physically dependent on it. This is nonsense. Some heroin addicts are completely hooked after their first "hit" whereas some people can use heroin on and off for a lifetime and never crave it. They certainly like it and enjoy it's effects, but addiction does not take hold.
If you've ever had surgery or an accident that requires a hospital stay, you will possibly have been prescribed diamorphine as a painkiller. This is heroin, but in a very pure form compared to what you would buy off a drug dealer on the street.
However, studies of people who have been on diamorphine for extended periods have shown that the vast majority do not become addicts. Far from it, most people recover and go home, diamorphine-free with no horrific withdrawal symptoms. This is a huge argument against addiction being a choice. Why does it not grab everyone in it's evil clutches?
There was a famous experiment conducted many years ago where a rat was placed in a cage. It had a choice of drinking bottles. One was simply water and the other was water containing either heroin or cocaine. Inevitably, the rat fell in love with the drugged water and would drink it until it's eventual death from overdose.
In the 1970's, a psychology professor called Bruce Alexander realised that testing on a rat that was effectively in solitary confinement might be affecting the results. After all, with absolutely nothing to do and no stimulation, it's fairly obvious that the rat will seek out the only pleasure or comfort available; the drugged water. It does not know it will cause it's death so laps it up.
Therefore, Dr. Alexander built what was called "rat park", tantamount to a theme park for rats. Everything they would need was there; toys and stimulating things to do plus most importantly, lots of other rats. They had it all, including the drugged and clean water.
Guess what happened? The rats rarely drank the drugged water. None of them used it in any way that suggested they were in the grip of addiction and there was not one overdose. The choice was still there but the rats turned it down, clearly because their environment was a good one, if you're a rat.
A similar experiment was run amongst humans. It was called the "Vietnam War". 20% of US troops in Vietnam used heroin at levels that should have made addicts of them all. But what happened? 95% of those who used heroin during the war simply stopped when they went back to America. They didn't need a detox or rehab, most of them didn't even suffer from withdrawal symptoms.
Again, this is another argument about addiction being a choice. The soldiers returned home to their own personal versions of "rat park", with family and friends and everything THEY needed, and simply stopped using heroin.
Humans are social animals with a built-in desire to connect with others. When this is taken away or simply not available, people may turn to substances or behaviours that give relief or pleasure of some sort to compensate for what is lacking. They had not become technically addicted so retained the choice to stop.
However, someone does not have to experience a war to suffer this contrast. Many suffer childhood trauma that causes untold psychological damage. This may or may not lead to isolation but regardless, this too can be dangerous. Combine that with being genetically born a potential addict and you have a recipe for an almost guaranteed disaster at some point.
Bear in mind that literally ANYTHING you can think of is potentially addictive. People nowadays are most definitely addicted to social media but there is also other illegal drugs, alcohol, sex, food (too much or too little), pornography, nicotine, sugar, spending money, gambling, TV, video games, exercise... I could go on, for days, but you get the point. And I also believe that every single person has an addiction of sorts to something, however ridiculous it may sound. If you think hard enough you will know yours. If not, I apologise for suggesting you are an addict...
The rest of this first particular source got a bit wishy-washy. They state that "the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection" meaning with others socially. Personally, sobriety is a great start and also a great end if that's all you can manage. At the end of the day, the main goal for an addict is to stop feeding the addiction. Many other problems can surface at this point but I'm not sure having a good social structure around you is the complete simple answer, although it's most definitely a huge bonus. I have a supportive network around me but I remain at the basic "not using" stage I was at the day I left rehab over 16 years ago. But that is good enough for me, for now.
Moving on, my other source was a TED talk by Dr. Robert Lefever. A somewhat controversial figure, he is a rampant addict himself but found a way through it and went on to create his own version of "rehab". As an addict and also a doctor of medicine, I was fascinated to hear what he had to say and what I thought of his perceptions.
He describes himself as having an "addictive nature" though he has been free from those addictions for 31 years. However, he is very clear that he is STILL an addict. This is true of all addiction, it does not go away. I spoke to a specialist many years ago and they told me that alcohol addiction, for example, is actually progressive even when the addict is not using alcohol. Basically, even after 20 years of no booze, if they were to start again they would be at a point much further down their torrid road than where they left it.
Another fact about addicts is that there is no "Off" switch. Whatever it is an addict is addicted to is compulsive, they always want more. An alcoholic cannot have a couple of pints of beer. It's either drink till you drop or nothing, there is no middle ground.
Lefever's family, much like mine, have a long history of addiction of some nature. Be it alcohol, gambling, anything, it has somehow been passed down. It is known that the brain structure of a potential addict is different to the expected norm. It's also known that if addiction takes hold, the structure of that person's brain physically changes; All pointers to addiction being a disease.
This does not detract from the fact that EVERYONE is susceptible to addiction of some type, it's just that some are born more inclined to it. Dr. Lefever contends that 1 in 6 people have a predisposition to addiction and the other 5 do not. This is clearly not the case, it's just that some have more of a predisposition than others, a high risk group if you will. And you never know if you're in it till addiction strikes. Nobody is immune.
He refers to addiction as a "neurotransmission disease". Important brain chemistry related to this includes dopamine and serotonin, the pleasure chemicals in our brain. An addict needs more stimulus to achieve production of these happy hormones that create a feeling of well-being. After all, that's all that anyone is looking for surely, a sense of well-being? I could only find it in alcohol, others will find it elsewhere in a multitude of ways we've already discussed.
An addict also does not tend to realise they are an addict or the carnage they are creating all around them, affecting everyone they know and love. It's not so much denial as disbelief, so ridiculous that it CAN'T be true, no way can I have a problem. Again, another sign of disease in the body and mind. There's no question of choice involved here.
Dr. Lefever's research has led him to believe that addiction comes in the form of 3 clusters;
Hedonistic - Alcohol, recreational drugs, mood-altering prescription drugs, nicotine, gambling, sex addiction.
Self-Nurturing - Food; can involve one or all from binging, vomiting and starving. "Using food to change the mood"... Shopping, spending money, work, exercise.
Relationships - Helping others by using oneself as a drug for other people and vice versa. In business, using staff or clients or colleagues as personal "drugs" to make one feel better.
He believes that all 3 clusters are the work of 1 gene. Some people will fall into 1 cluster, others into all 3, but there is no difference; it's all the work of 1 particular gene. This is a very broad approach in what he describes as his method of treating neurotransmission disease. Nonetheless, the clusters do seem to make sense to me in that they cover different types of "symptoms". Addiction is Addiction; you're snatched by the one that pushes your buttons.
He also believes that neurotransmission disease has 3 distinct causes; Genetic, Trauma and Exposure (to the substance and/or behaviour). Thus, he believes that treatment should be in reverse order of these causes.
Abstinence, followed by emotional therapy that works on feelings. For the genetic dilemma, he recommends the 12-step program as created by Alcoholics Anonymous. I have already made my personal thoughts clear on that, but I refuse to rubbish this man's work because of my personal opinions. More importantly, if you are reading this and a regular attendee of AA/NA meetings, I mean no offence and do not want to introduce any doubt.
He continues to talk about group therapy, addicts helping other addicts and the need for counsellors and therapists to be recovering addicts themselves. The link is below, I urge you to view it if you are interested, I have only touched on a few salient points.
My opinion will never change, addiction is a disease. It is the whole energy of a human at "dis-ease" with life for reasons of genetics and upbringing combined. You could add that there's a bit of bad luck in there somewhere but I don't truly believe that, addicts are born AND made.
The element of choice is seemingly always there for addicts but for those who are not afflicted, they do not realise that this option of choice is effectively removed. The brain is an incredible thing, possibly without limit, as are it's effects on an individual born with slightly different wiring.
The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; volume 5) is the Bible for mental health practitioners and Addiction is included as a mental illness. I will link what the American Psychiatric Association has to say about it at the bottom; they call it a "brain disease". This is not in any way the basis of my opinion, just more evidence for what I believe.
Addiction affects more people than most of us realise. I would guess that for every known addict out there, there are at least another 10 that have issues just as severe. It might be 100 times as many. I don't know, but it affects a lot more people than those officially recognised as having addiction problems.
But there is help, please seek it, your doctor is the best place to start and there are numerous helplines in every country. Do not be worried about reaching out, either for yourself or a loved one, people want to help and you might just save a life.
Please contact me for any reason you like regarding this subject, I am fascinated to know your thoughts. My email: [email protected]
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