UNDERSTAND ADDICTION & THE BRAIN TRANSCRIPT
DR. STEVEN M. MELEMIS, MD, PHD
One of the really amazing things about addiction is that there are strains of mice that behave just like alcoholic humans. Which is, if you give them one drink, one drink leads to more drinks. They have a hard time stopping. The defining quality. And that after all is the defining quality of an addiction. An addiction is not how easy it is to go without using. Sometimes people will say, “I don’t have an addiction because I can go for a week or month without using.” An addiction is how hard it is to stop once you start using. And that’s what these mice do. Once they have one drink, they keep on drinking. And here’s the really amazing part of the story. If you take these mice and cut open their brain and look at the wiring of their brain, the brain of the alcoholic mouse is actually wired differently than the brain of the nonalcoholic mouse. Right down to their nerve cells and their brain chemistry, the one mouse is different from the other.
And I think that tells you three important lessons about addiction.
The first lesson is that addiction is a condition of the wiring of the brain. If it can happen to mice it can happen to anybody. Addiction is not about how strong you are, how smart you are, or how determined you are. It is about how your brain is wired. If your brain is wired in a particular way, you will get a buzz from drugs and alcohol that other people just don’t get.
Understanding each other
This is why non-addicts have a hard time understanding addicts. A non-addict will have one or two drinks and stop naturally. They don’t have to think about stopping. They don’t have to count their drinks. They just stop. And if they have a few more drinks, they don’t even like the feeling. Whereas after two or three drinks an addict is just getting started.
Because the addict’s brain feels drugs and alcohol differently than the non-addict, because their brain is wired differently. Treat it like every other disease. So the first lesson is that addiction is a condition of the wiring of the brain. And therefore you should approach it like every other medical condition. If you had heart disease or diabetes for example, you wouldn't think to yourself “Oh my God I'm an awful person.” You would think, "now that I have this condition, what must I do to get on with my life." And that’s the way you should approach addiction.
Is it a choice or a disease?
One of the big questions about addiction is whether it is a disease or a choice. Some people feel that addiction is a choice, because addicts choose to use, and therefore they can choose to not use. But most addicts think addiction is a condition, because they have a hard time controlling their use. So, which is it? Well the answer is, it’s both. Disease and a choice. Addiction is a medical condition because the brain of an addict is wired differently than the brain of a non-addict. Therefore addicts feel drugs and alcohol differently than non-addict, and that’s why they have a harder time controlling their use. On the other hand, using drugs or alcohol is a choice, and therefore addicts can choose to stop and change their lives. Both statements are correct because they focus on different time periods. That’s the key. Addiction is a choice before you pick up the first drink – but a condition after that.
The second lesson of addiction is that it is hardwired into you. It's as much a part of you is the color of your eyes are. And because of that, the buzz that you get from drugs and alcohol will never go away. Your cravings will get less over time, and it will be easier to control them. But even after one year or 10 years of recovery that buzz that you get will still be the same.
You’ve probably heard of the idea of neuroplasticity. The fact that you can change the wiring of your brain by learning new things. The problem is that you can’t unlearn something. Once you’ve experienced addiction, there is no going back. You can’t change the wiring of your brain back to the way it was.
So if addiction is hardwired into you, and the buzz that you get from drugs and alcohol will never go away, the second lesson of addiction is that total abstinence is important for recovery.
But here’s the problem. After you’ve been in recovery for six months or 12 months, you will think to yourself “This is the longest time I’ve gone without using, and I feel stronger now than I have ever felt before. And surely now that I’ve learned new coping skills and changed my life, surely now I can go back to controlling my using. I promise you will think that. Not because you’re doing a bad job, but because that is the nature of addiction. And when that day comes, you have to ask yourself, “has the color of my eyes changed?” Because that’s what this is about.
The second lesson of addiction is that total abstinence is important for recovery.
Since you can't change the color of your eyes or the wiring of your brain how do you treat addiction?
The third lesson is you don’t treat addiction by just stopping using. You treat an addiction by creating a new life where it's easier to not use. That’s so important I’m going to say it one more time. You do not treat an addiction by simply stopping using. You treat an addiction by creating a new life where it's easier to not use. If all you do is stop using, then everything that brought you here will eventually catch up with you all over again. If all you do is stop using, then nothing changes if nothing changes.
This is an opportunity
The fact that you have to change your life means that you have an opportunity for change. This is the gift that your addiction has given you. Your addiction has given you one gift, the chance to stop in the middle of your life, to reevaluate your life, and to make some changes. And if you use this opportunity correctly, you can go on and be happier than you've ever been. If you use this opportunity, you can look back on your addiction as one of the best things that ever happened to you.
I encourage you to make the most of this chance. Start now to improve your life.