Christina Veselak, LMFT
Dn. Jan Veselak, M.A., LAC
Addiction is a pathological relationship with any mood altering substance, behavior or personal relationship that has potentially life threatening consequences. It is a relationship intended to improve the quality of someone’s life, which becomes destructively out of control over time. It is a process whereby a person centers their life around a substance, behavior or personal relationship in a way that interferes with their ability to function in an emotionally and physically healthy way.
Addictions usually begin with an experience of fun, excitement or feelings of euphoria; sometimes the experience is simply relief from emotional or physical pain or a feeling of normalcy for the first time in a person’s life. Like all feelings, these are mediated through the nervous system of the body. Our brains and nervous system release certain brain chemicals, neurotransmitters, in response to addictive substances or behaviors which elevate mood and relieve pain. We become attached to these sensations; they feel good, lift anxiety and give a sense of being alive. When we confuse these feelings with love and wellbeing, we lose other ways of relieving stress or feeling good. The brain gets used to high levels of these chemicals, becomes dependent upon them and develops the belief that it needs them to survive. The body cannot sustain such intensity and the parts of the brain that receive these chemicals begin to shut down. Tolerance develops. An addict needs more drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling or emotional intensity to get back those wonderful feelings. This is early addiction.
Once this takes place, the addict needs more stimuli to keep the brain pumping out these chemicals; they begin to obsess over getting the drugs, or continuing the behaviors. However, the more one uses, the more one depletes these brain chemicals. As use increases and more time is spent obtaining the drugs or dealing with the consequences of use, hangovers may increase, financial stress may occur and legal problems and relationship conflicts may begin. The addict changes their life to maintain use: life begins to revolve around finding, maintaining and recovering from addictive behaviors. All other aspects of life become less important over time. This is middle addiction.
As time goes on, the addict develops the defense of denial. The addict has two major faulty beliefs: 1) “I am in control of my behavior” and 2) “I don’t have a problem, I am not an addict”. The addict begins to develop elaborate ways to maintain these two beliefs. They cease to have fun or experience any elevated mood in response to addictive behavior. They continue using or acting out just to function and to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Emptiness and chaos develop internally and they lose all sense of connection to God or to a community of people. They feel a need to control their environment to reduce the internal chaos. Challenging these beliefs is terrifying, so others are blamed for the consequences of their addiction.
The more one uses the more one depletes the brain chemicals, this brings on feelings of depression, fatigue, fear and anxiety. Changes in chemistry bring on changes in thinking. The addict begins to make more mistakes, break rules, and seriously neglect responsibilities. As addictive behavior increases, brain chemicals decrease. As brain chemicals decrease, addictive behavior increases and a very vicious cycle continues. Attempts at abstinence create more anxiety and fear as the brain begins to believe it is dying. Thus, just deciding to stop rarely helps. However, this does not mean that the situation is hopeless.