What is the Cause of Drug Addiction?
I wish there was an easy answer to this question. Many people have dedicated their entire lives’ work to solving this question. Some have concluded addiction is caused genetically, some of us are just born with a predisposition. Others have credited addiction to coping with traumatic or emotional experiences in adolescents. I am sure many people with drug abuse issues can relate to some of these theories, but I couldn’t.
I had alcohol abuse issues on one side of my family, but as far as I know, I was the first to use heroin. After seeing multiple counselors, I concluded there was nothing in my upbringing I was trying to block our by using drugs. I always felt a bit envious of other drug users in recovery who related to these addiction cause theories. Many people told me to stop worrying about the causes and just focus on my recovery so I moved along with my recovery program, but I knew there had to be another cause of drug addiction.
Ultimately, I came to my own conclusion. Hopefully, if you are also struggling to relate to the prevailing theories, this will help you understand another, possibly more universal, cause of drug addiction.
Doped up on Dopamine
We humans are programmed to strive for happiness, every day, every second of our lives. I am not a scientist, but I will attempt to describe in words a lay person can understand and hopefully any person struggling with addiction can relate to.
Biologically, dopamine release in your brain plays a huge role in happiness. Dopamine give people a sense of well-being and can alleviate depression. Simple things, like having sex, seeing your child smile, completing a bachelor’s degree, eating your favorite type of cheesecake, or even laying in your bed after a long day at work trigger the release of dopamine in our brain. Every time dopamine is released after one of these activities, Glutamine, another chemical, is also released in our brain. Glutamine, tells our brain that these activities are good because they release dopamine, making us happy and we need to be happy to survive.
This totally makes sense when it comes to eating food, or having sex, right? Our body needs to know that survival is dependent on food, exercise and reproduction, obviously. With constant surges of dopamine followed by Glutamine, pathways form in our brain. The more we use heroin or other drugs to get a dopamine release, the deeper these pathways become etched into our brains.
I know it sounds far-fetched, but these are actual, physical pathways that get deeper and stronger each time we flood them with chemicals by getting high. Eat food, dopamine releases down the pathway, dopamine release triggers Glutamine release back down the pathway, rinse, repeat and so on and so on. These pathways are carved right from the beginning of our lives while our mother feeds us, dopamine releases as our tummies get full and our brain gets happy, Glutamine releases and an hour later we are crying for another feeding.
Dr. Warren Whitfield does a wonderful job explaining this process with some pretty great visuals in this YouTube video: https://youtu.be/qfuqf-0VqYs
I feel happy, oh so happy 🙂
This all sounds well and good and if we were still cavemen, I have no doubt we would figure out how to survive. However, in modern times, we have figured out how to play with these chemicals. Introducing drugs into the mix, we can release happy chemicals at staggering rates. All it takes is one pill, one huff, one snort, one shot, one patch and you are flooding your brain in happy chemicals!
Since happiness is a fundamental human need, you can see why drugs can be so appealing. Once you experiment a few times, it is easy to form a habit. Shit, your brain is helping you. The more we experiment, the deeper the pathway in our brain becomes and the easier it is to interchange getting high to getting happy.
Every time you get high you are reinforcing your brain that this is what you need to survive. Yes, to survive. This instant gratification becomes a habit very quickly. If a user is already unhappy, it would be very easy to drown our all the “Just Say No” and “War on Drugs” speeches they have cataloged in the grade 5 memories section of their brain and just keep on making themselves happy.
Why won’t it last?
After allowing myself to get clean, I was able to grasp this explanation of using drugs became a habit in the first place. Only then was I able to identify that I was only creating very short term bouts of happiness of every time I pushed that needle in. Without a balance, a good dose of long term happiness, I would continue the cycle of using, spikes of happiness followed by depression, eventually wearing out the receptors in my brain.
Eventually, my brain found it difficult to produce much more natural happy (dopamine) of its own. With moderation and/or abstinence, depending on the substance, I was able to get back to setting long term goals in my life. This doesn’t mean that all people need to be cut off from every substance. After long term abuse, some users need prescription drugs to help their brain heal or function normally.
With a counselor, I broke all my long term goals into smaller, more readily achievable goals. Once I was able to get my tasks under control, I was able to focus on achieving these goals. Achieving these bigger life goals will eventually lead me to happiness on a different level.
Long term happiness feels different from the instant happiness brought on by a drug fix; it requires patience. Without patience, I end up right back in a chaotic using cycle. Unfortunately, I am still very quick to forget all of this, but finding an addiction cause that made sense for me was a milestone in my recovery. Hopefully it helps in yours as well.