Alcoholism and addiction are diseases. The disease of addiction is progressive, predictable, and treatable. The short version is this:
In the body of someone who, for whatever reason, is predisposed to substance abuse, alcohol and drugs excite the BEST, MOST AWESOME feeling part of the brain. The part linked with sex, eating, great times with friends; the most powerful/primitive part. The effects of alcohol/other drugs (AOD) on the brain mimic that of our natural feel good chemicals – particularly dopamine. (These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters) In a body that is prone to react this way, the BODY needs more of the feel good. At the same time, though, the brain senses a kind of dopamine satiation and therefore produces less natural feel good, mood elevating and mood stabilizing chemicals. That means when the person is clean/sober, they have less natural dopamine and….. you guessed it, they want to feel good again. So, they use AOD. Where upon they feel better, and the brain registered “enough dopamine” and makes even less……
Eventually, the addict’s brain is such that they use AOD to not feel like crap. Clean/dry, they do not have sufficient natural feel good to feel normal, so they use to feel not like crap.
In a teen that began using at very young ages, the recreational use to addiction process can happen FAST (for reasons related to the underdeveloped brain, and the parts that are not developed). In an adult who started later, the progression may be slower.
And not everyone has the predisposition. The predisposition is correlated to genetics, early trauma, early educational challenges, early conduct challenges, having a co-occurring mental health issue (and some other stuff).
Alcoholism is a disease – like any other disease, lifestyle, behavioral, and cognitive changes support recovery. But, due to ignorance and misunderstanding and stigma, you would expect an alcoholic to “just stop” and “be strong”. You would never walk up to a cancer patient and say that, even if they need to make some changes (with the exception of cigarettes, which is an addiction and people feel they can say something.) You wouldn’t say it to an asthmatic or a person with diabetes.
Getting dry (not drinking) is the first step in recovering. (And drinking is the LAST act in a relapse). After abstinence, early recovery is full of risk and stress and a lot of stuff needs to be done to heal the brain. Healing activities that have the most impact are:
- Routine, especially combined with fellowship
- Meaningful social exchanges (the steps of 12 step programs do this, but there are other ways)
- Contemplative movement such as yoga, tai chi
- Quality Nutrition
- Cognitive behavioral intervention
- Meaningful service
- Forms of music, song, worship
The above list helps literally heal the brain. It disrupts the structure and chemical pattern that lead to AOD mis-use. An addicted brain is a changed brain – literally. Recovery necessitates a changed (let’s use the word healed) the brain. Like other lifelong diseases, the changes must continue in order for the disease to be managed. A recovering person must maintain a level of brain changing activity to keep neurotransmitters stable and from addiction patterns in the brain from gaining active status again.
My research and experience shows me that total abstinence is necessary. Although healing is possible, brains science has not yet developed to where a brain with an addictive response can be reversed and persons can be immune to being predisposed. At this point, people who were addicts can never *not* have a body that reacts in the way described here.
Recovery is a long, slow process. A 28 day treatment, a 3 month or 6 month treatment is only a crude beginning. Recovery is hard, and frequently stressful. Recovering people who have all elements in their favor still have dismal stats. Recovering people who don’t fill their lives with recovery positive brain impacting activity are going to use again. As such, healing, and recovery requires that the person with the disease continue to participate in sufficient brain-healing habits and activities. Relapse is associated with dropping recovery and healing; the brain’s malfunction then grows larger than the reduced mitigating and healing effects.
The 12 Step model works wonderfully for many. However, it is not the only way. Nor is it necessarily the best for everyone. I support people and assist them in incorporating 12 Step recovery into their lives. I also frequently assist persons for whom the 12 Step model is not a match. Contact me for more info. In the meantime, please see my resource page for a variety of options.
I want you and your family and friends to live a happy clean/sober life. Contact me to discuss the next step in recovery.
Contact me for my “Why Do I Need Help” article that describes the need for family members and friends to get help and support regardless of what the addict does (or doesn’t do!)