Friends and family members of drug addicts often struggle to understand what it means to be addicted. A common misconception is that addicts have a choice and that they do not quit using simply because they enjoy doing drugs. Addicts are often accused of being selfish or are characterized as weak-willed. People that have never experienced addiction wonder why people who use drugs can’t just stop using on their own.
Most drug users believe they can quit on their own, and many will try. You have probably heard that drug addiction is a disease. It is a far more complex and insidious disease than the common cold. It starts in the brain but can spread to affect all areas of a person’s life and body.
When a person uses drugs for the first time, the drugs flood their brain with a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine signals pleasure in the brain. Normally dopamine is released to encourage us to repeat healthy behaviors like eating and exercising. In other words, dopamine helps our brain to prioritize necessary functions. By releasing artificially high levels of dopamine, drugs exploit this process, causing our brain to prioritize drug use above all other functions.
Think of how you feel when you are hungry. Now think of a time when you felt extremely hungry. Food deprivation can quickly escalate from mild discomfort to a complete inability to operate on a normal level. The brain of an addict believes that doing drugs is more important even than food. The brain and body go into panic mode when an addict tries to quit using.
If an addict continues to resist using drugs, their body will go into withdrawal. The brain now believes that a need is not being met, and it and the body are reacting as if death is imminent. That is why addicts going through withdrawal often behave as if getting drugs is a matter of life or death; their brain is telling them it is.
Few people – addicts or not – have the strength to resist such an impulse. That is why people who use drugs struggle to quit. Once their brain chemistry has been altered, using drugs feels as necessary as eating.
Fortunately, you can help them quit. Addiction recovery services can give addicts a safe place to endure the symptoms of withdrawal. Then, addicts can learn how to function without drugs again. Because the brain often goes on craving drugs even after withdrawal, addiction recovery services also teach addicts how to resist the impulse to use again in the future.
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