What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic, but treatable, brain disease. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health, social or legal consequences. This lack of control is directly related to drug and/or alcohol induced changes in the brain. These changes can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

The brains of addicted people “have been modified by the drug in such a way that absence of the drug makes a signal to their brain that is equivalent to the signal of when you are starving,” says National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora Volkow. It is “as if the individual was in a state of deprivation, where taking the drug is indispensable for survival. It’s as powerful as that.”

For much of the past century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When scientists began to study addictive behavior in the 1930’s, people addicted to drugs were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punishment rather than prevention and treatment. Today, thanks to science, our views and our responses to addiction and other substance use disorders have changed dramatically. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of compulsive drug use, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem. As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. (NIDA)

Signs and symptoms of addiction include secrecy, neglecting other activities, relationship issues, tolerance (development of resistance to the effects of alcohol or other drugs over time) and withdrawal, a painful or unpleasant physical response when the substance is withheld. Many people with this illness deny that they are addicted. They often make excuses or rationalize why they need to use a particular substance. Addiction typically worsens over time. This progression can usually be measured by the amount, frequency and context of a person’s substance use. As their illness intensifies, so does their tolerance; they may use more often, and use in situations they never imagined when they first began to drink or take drugs.

“This is not something that develops overnight for any individual,” says addiction expert Dr. Kathleen Brady. “Generally there’s a series of steps that individuals go through from experimentation and occasional use to the actual loss of control of use. And it really is that process that defines addiction.”

Addiction is a treatable disease that is similar to a lot of other well-known diseases, such as heart disease. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of the underlying organ, have serious harmful consequences, and are preventable and treatable, but if left untreated, can last a lifetime.

Relapse is common among addiction and does not mean the treatment has completely failed. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse at some point is not only possible, but likely. The prevalence of relapse in addiction treatment is similar to relapse rates for other common chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply embedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment has failed. For a person recovering from addiction, lapsing back to drug use indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted or that another treatment should be tried.

Stigma of Addiction

Stigma is one of the meanest and most difficult aspects of addiction because it makes it harder for individuals and families to deal with their problems and get the help they need. Because of public confusion and uncertainty about addiction, and the enormous stigma of the disease, only 10 percent of the people in need of alcohol and drug treatment each year get help

The Stigma of Addiction Costs Lives

People who are victims of stigma often internalize the hate it carries, transforming it to shame and hiding from its effects. Too often, individuals struggling with addiction and their families begin to accept the ideas that addiction is their own fault and that maybe they are too weak to do anything about it. In many ways, hiding an addiction problem is the rational thing to do because seeking help can mean losing a job, medical insurance or even your children.

The fear of being labeled as an addict, fired from a job, denied insurance or ousted from a home keeps thousands of addicted people from coming forward. Please help us to erase myths and stereotypes and to raise awareness about the realities of addiction and recovery.