Roughly 6% of the total US population struggles with addiction – while that might not seem like a substantial amount of people, it is in fact around 21 million Americans, a number so high that it trumps to total combined number of patients struggling with a form of malignant cancer. In recent years, the threat of addiction to society has increased drastically with the opioid crisis – it is estimated that in the US, a person dies from an opioid overdose roughly every 19 minutes.
It’s a staggering problem, and not something solely attributable to a single fault or factor. To make a positive change against addiction, it’s important to understand what it is, and why it has grown so much in recent years.
Addiction is not just an individual’s issue, or a reflection of their actions and choices. It is a disease – and the way it manifests and changes the brain helps explain why it’s so incredibly difficult to break out of an addiction.
Why Some People Get Addicted and Others Don’t
To clarify, there are several forms of addiction. Behavioral addiction is different from substance addiction, and there are people who can be addicted to a certain drug not primarily because of a physical dependency on the substance, but an emotional reliance on it as a form of coping.
Gambling, sex, internet, food, and video game addictions are all real conditions that can be addressed and treated. But they are separate from addiction on a physical level. When someone is addicted to a drug, continuous drug use has tweaked their brains to process substances and emotions differently. What used to make a person happy might no longer interest them anymore, and nothing in their life may come close to providing the same pleasure as their drug or drugs of choice.
It is the difference between liking something, and perhaps wanting it, and feeling like you really need it. We may want to spend our time in a certain way or do a certain thing. But we need to drink, eat, sleep. Addiction does not equate entirely to something as fundamental as hunger and thirst, but a drug craving is closer to these primal needs than our hankering for a donut from time to time.
The specifics involve changes in brain chemistry and neural function brought about by continuous drug use, in the way neurotransmitters are released and processed in the brain, and so on. When a person is addicted, they are trapped in a cycle.
Not everyone has the same reasons for their addiction. Poverty, genetics, environmental stress (abuse, trauma) and pure circumstantial bad luck all factor into how an addiction may develop. Many people occasionally use drugs, from widely available and popular drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, to illicit and prescription drugs like OxyContin and cocaine. But only some become addicted. Others grow out of their experimental phases and discontinue their drug use. Some die before an addiction can develop. And others yet continue using drugs like alcohol for decades without ever shown signs of addiction, such as a lack of control or destructive behavior.
There is no clear way to predict whether a person will get addicted or not – but there are factors that contribute to the risk of addiction. Heroin is more addictive than alcohol, and people who live under high amounts of pressure are more likely to misuse and abuse drugs than people who lead generally happy lives. But happy people can still get addicted – it is important never to forget that anyone can become an addict, given the right combination of factors.
If addiction is so dangerously prevalent and difficult to break, how could treatment possibly help? The answer is by cutting off the supply and starting a healing process. For some drugs, the only way out is through. In other cases, medicines exist to cut cravings and prevent drastic withdrawal symptoms, allowing for a safer and smoother process through early recovery.
However, no matter what a patient is on, going through detoxification and withdrawal is painful, and at times dangerous depending on the drugs involved. But it is a necessary process; it is the beginning of letting the mind and body heal from months or years of drug abuse. The brain never returns to a completely normal state after continuous drug use, but the cravings can be curbed and controlled, and a significant quality of life is possible without drugs.
How Years of Sobriety Can End
Recovery, as they say, never completely ends. Programs end, treatment plans come to an end, but staying clean and staying sober is a lifelong goal for an addict. And sometimes, there can be significant bumps in the road – even years after getting clean. High-profile celebrity relapses always serve as a cautionary tale to remind us that no one is exempt from potentially struggling with addiction, and even with the right resources, there are still times when a relapse just happens, and it can take weeks and months to recover. Demi Lovato’s recent overdose is a stark reminder that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.
But just because relapses occur does not mean they are something to be feared. The antithesis to a life ruled by addiction is a happy life well-lived in embrace of sobriety. It can take a while for anyone with a history of addiction to find comfort in their sobriety and find out who they truly want to be – and until then, staying clean is a daily challenge. Rehab helps patients equip themselves with the therapeutic tools they need to stave off some of the temptation, but it’s the support system that patients create for themselves through friends and family that truly help them stay clean.
Sometimes that is not enough, and the pressure can just get too high. Sometimes the stress piles on, and a person falters. But what counts the most is that they get back on track right thereafter, rather than spiraling out of control.
It’s Important to Get Help
Over 21 million Americans struggle with drug abuse, but only about a tenth of that number seek help. The process to getting the help you need can be difficult depending on your circumstances, but without help, there is almost no way out of an addiction.
A real addiction is not something you can overcome with sheer stubborn willpower or determination – it’s a disease that requires professional assistance to diagnose, isolate, treat, and manage.
If you or someone you love is fighting with an addiction, don’t hesitate to look for help.