If getting clean was easy, addiction would not exist. Addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive substance use despite clear harmful consequences. Unlike doing something out of bad judgment, malicious intent, or temporary ignorance, a person struggling with addiction struggles to stop when their behavior is becoming painfully self-destructive. This is what makes drug withdrawal so tough to overcome.
Among many reasons, one that stands out as difficult to deal with is drug withdrawal. When the body reaches a certain point of substance use, trying to stop causes you to become physically sick. Your body rejects sobriety, pushing you to start using again to feel better. You are compelled to oblige – or suffer through painful symptoms on your way to getting clean.
For many, this is nothing short of treachery. For others, it is almost like their bodies are telling them it is okay to keep using. Either way, withdrawal symptoms are confusing – because of addiction is so clearly harmful and involves gradually destroying your brain and harming your organs, why does the body insist that you do not stop using?
To tackle that question, it is important to understand addiction and the organ it affects the most.
Dependence, Drug Withdrawal and Tolerance
We have defined addiction as a disease of self-destructive behavior, but what triggers it? The answer lies in the brain. When a person introduces a drug into the bloodstream through their preferred method, it makes its way into the brain. There, drugs bind to receptors in the neurons – the brain’s cells – mimicking other neurotransmitters that the brain produces naturally. Then, the drugs take their effects.
Benzodiazepines and alcohol function similarly, for example. These are both depressants, which means they reduce certain nervous activity and brain functionality. The reason alcohol causes cognitive impairment and makes you “drunk” is because of its effects on your motor function, and your language center. In this sense, alcohol is like sedatives and tranquilizers, which were commonly abused in the past.
Cocaine and amphetamines, on the other hand, are stimulants. They drastically drive up the amount of dopamine in your system, making you happy, excited, and motivated. This can come at the cost of straining the heart and other organs.
Opiates are special, in that they combat and block pain – but they also boast incredible addictiveness.
All these drugs have something in common, and that is this “addictiveness”. A drug is made addictive by how the brain reacts to it – when you take an opioid, a shot of vodka, or barbiturates/benzodiazepine, you experience a high that leaves you feeling great, and then crashing. That first use is never enough to cause an addiction, but the taste does drive the brain to crave a second hit. Over time, as the hits accumulate, the experience becomes a compulsive need.
That’s where dependence kicks in. Chemical dependence is when the body needs its drugs to continue functioning, to the point where it will react violently – through painful drug withdrawal symptoms – to the absence of drugs.
Tolerance plays another role, as part of the brain trying to defend itself from the powerful effects of the drugs by adapting to them. Adaptation is the key to survival, and it is the key to our ability to grow, learn, and get stronger. But in the context of addiction, adapting to the effects of a drug means it becomes progressively less effective at the same dosage, requiring a higher dosage to elicit the same response.
Over weeks and months, this drives up a person’s risk of hitting their overdose limit, while pushing them further and further into a place where no other form of stimulation can bring them any joy anymore.
Dependence, withdrawals, and tolerance. First and foremost, drugs attack and alter the brain, and everything else follows.
Different Drugs, Different Drug Withdrawal Sypmtoms
Just as drugs affect the brain in different ways, so do drug withdrawal symptoms differ from drug to drug. While nausea and muscle pain are common symptoms, some withdrawal symptoms are much more severe than others, while some symptoms are more common among certain drugs.
Severity is not necessarily tied to the drug, of course – while withdrawal from depressants is typically more dangerous than drug withdrawal from stimulants, a heavy addiction to cocaine can still be very difficult and painful to break.
Always Seek Medical Assistance
Due to the nature of drug withdrawal symptoms as dangerous side effects of long-term substance use, it is a good idea to seek help at a clinic, rehab center or sober living environment before you attempt to get clean and go through withdrawal.
Having medical professionals nearby could save your life should something go completely wrong.
Looking Into the Long-Term
It is impossible to tell what the future might hold, but you can determine where it goes by your own hand and intent. Over time, your recovery will lead you to dark places mentally – times when the urge to use is stronger than it usually is. For many of those times, staying strong can be enough to resist a relapse. But do not try solely to rely on yourself. While recovery is your journey, there is no shame in asking for help – and if you want to get better, you will need all the help you can get.
By involving your family and your friends in your recovery and helping them better understand addiction and the struggle you are going through, you can tap into a support system that allows you to stay clean even when you feel like you do not want to. Discipline can take you far in recovery, but there are times when you need motivation more than discipline, and times when neither work, and you just need someone to hold you and help you heal and cope.
Tackling drug withdrawal, overcoming the ordeal, and coming out the other side determined to stay clean is a strong start. Be sure to take every advantage you can get moving forward, from joining group therapies to living in sober living communities, to working with your therapist and your family to create a better understanding between you all and find the support system you need.