There is a stigma in our country (and around the world) that drug and alcohol addiction only affects people who struggle economically or affects homeless people who are living on the streets. However, the truth is that when it comes to developing problems with dependence, remember that drug addiction does not discriminate. Numerous white collar workers and even celebrities struggle with dependence every day of their lives. One example of this would be Danny Bonaduce. Danny Bonaduce admits that while he was famous for his role in ‘Partridge Family’, he lived behind a dumpster because of his drug addiction. While he had both money and fame, he struggled with addiction at the same time.
Most people have no idea how or why someone develops a dependence on illicit substances. Oftentimes, people assume that this comes down to a lack of willpower or moral principles. The truth is that it is a complex issue that takes more than just ‘good intentions’ to get rid of. Thankfully, because of scientific research and countless research studies, we have a better understanding of what addiction is, what it is not, and how we should treat it.
What is the Definition?
Problems with dependence are often chronic, meaning that it comes back repeatedly unless it is treated effectively. This is not an issue that most people ‘resolve’ on their own; instead, they rely on professional help. Even though the initial decision to abuse alcohol or narcotics may be voluntary for most people, the brain changes in such a way that it becomes difficult for the addicted person to resist those intense impulses to continue using.
While there are certain socio-economic groups more prone to experimenting with drug use (mainly because of availability), there is nothing in the definition of ‘addiction’ that would suggest that celebrities or other affluent people are somehow less affected.
Understanding what Happens in the Brain
Many illicit substances alter the brain’s communication system. This disrupts the way that our nerve cells are able to process, receive and send out information. This happens in at least two distinct ways:
- By causing an overstimulation in the “reward circuit” of the brain
- By emulating the brain’s natural chemical messengers
There are some substances (heroin and marijuana for example) that have a similar chemical composition as our neurotransmitters – our chemical messengers. Because they are so similar to our neurotransmitters, the use of these drugs can ‘trick’ the receptors of our brain into activating nerve cells and sending out uncharacteristic messages.
Other substances (methamphetamine and cocaine for example) will force the nerve cells to release unusually large amounts of natural neurotransmitters. The primary example here is dopamine, the chemical that is responsible for feelings of enjoyment and happiness. Alternatively, these drugs make sure that our brains are unable to recycle these brain chemicals. Recycling these chemicals is a necessary part of shutting down the communication between our neurons.
Because of this inability to stop the communication, the brain is flooded with dopamine. This overstimulates the reward system and generates euphoric effects because of the presence of the drug. In essence, because of the way these illicit substances work, users are actively ‘teaching’ themselves that they need to continue abusing drugs in order to reap the rewarding, pleasurable sensations.
The Brain Starts to Expect the Dopamine
Because the brain becomes accustomed to having overwhelming surges of dopamine available, it gradually starts to reduce the natural production, simply because it is not ‘necessary’. Alternatively, it may decrease the number of dopamine receptors in the area of our brain responsible for ‘rewarding good behavior‘. The result of this is twofold: the user starts to enjoy the drug of choice less (causing them to use more in order to chase after the previously achieved euphoric sensation) and they are unable to enjoy the same things in life that they previously found rewarding. Many commonly refer to this as ‘building up a tolerance’.
As a result, previous experiences such as seeing family members, playing sports, seeing someone they have romantic feelings for, no longer produce the same rewarding sensation as before. There is nothing that we are able to do naturally that can replicate the tremendous surge of dopamine that becomes standard because of substance abuse.
Other Changes to Long-Term Users
When a user continues to abuse drugs for a prolonged period, it leads to other changes to other brain chemical systems and circuits as well. One example is glutamate – a neurotransmitter that affects our ability to learn and our reward circuit. When drug abuse alters the optimal concentration of glutamate, the brain is automatically going to try to compensate for the imbalanced levels. As a result, it may impair the user’s cognitive function. Several studies of the brains of those living with long-term drug dependence have shown specific changes in the brain. These changes happened to areas imperative to behavior control, memory, learning, decision making and judgment. This could explain why the user continues to seek out illicit substances, despite knowing the negative consequences of his or her actions.
Scientific Advances in treatment
It should be clear by now that addiction is an issue that can plague anyone, because with continued drug abuse comes the risk of long-term changes to the brain. Fortunately, it is possible to help people recover from the powerful disruptive effects of addiction. Studies have shown that combining behavioral therapy with biophysical detoxification is the best way to guarantee success for most patients. Research shows us that those approaches specifically tailored to the drug abuse patterns of the patient are more successful.
It is possible to overcome dependence with the right treatment and guidance. One of the first steps to any recovery process needs to be the realization that a problem exists. While it may have been difficult for him to do, Danny Bonaduce, recognizing that he has a problem with substance abuse, was the first step towards living a sober life.