Nobody sets out to become an addict, and everyone’s story is different. Some of us started using drugs with friends. Some of us had a painkiller prescription after surgery and ended up not being able to quit. Some of us used Adder all or other prescription medications to help focus in school, only to find ourselves taking them “just for fun”.
Because drugs made us feel good. You may be surprised to see that on a website about addiction, but the first step in recovery is admitting that you have a problem. This is easier when we learn how addiction happens, because when we understand addiction, we understand that addiction is not our fault. It’s the brain’s natural response to a sudden, intense rush of pleasure.
Our brains are incredibly complex machines made up of about 100 billion cells called neurons, which depend on chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with each-other. There are about 30 neurotransmitters in the human brain, with subtle variations pushing that number up to 100 depending on how you count. Addiction happens because of one of these neurotransmitters, called dopamine.
Dopamine is produced whenever our brain wants to reward us for something, and it has two primary effects. First of all, it makes us feel good. Secondly, and most importantly for addicts, it activates the part of our brain that stores memories, so we remember that when we did such-and-such a thing, we felt good. Psychologists call this the Pleasure Principle, and it’s incredibly important for human life.
Food, money, exercise and even sex cause the brain to release dopamine, to encourage us to do more of those things. Without dopamine, there’s a good chance none of us would be here, because our brains depend on dopamine to reward us.
Different drugs interact with our brains in different ways, but all addictive drugs cause our brains to release dopamine. The problem is that they cause the brain to release a huge surge of dopamine all at once, creating a particularly strong desire to use the drug again. Some drugs release ten times as much dopamine as normal activities, so it’s no wonder they make us feel good.
Trying a drug and liking it is not the same as being addicted, although it’s the only way for an addiction to start. Addiction happens because of another natural process called tolerance. When our brains keep getting the same signal, eventually it stops registering the same reward. Imagine you’re going to a relative’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.
When you first walk through the door, the smell of roasting turkey hits you like a brick wall. Your brain responds by making your mouth water and your stomach rumble. Now imagine you spend an hour in that house. You won’t smell the turkey anymore. That’s because your brain has kept getting the same signal, and eventually decides to filter it out.
A similar thing happens when our brains interact with drugs. The first time, the rush of dopamine is intense. It’s the best we’ve ever felt. But if we use the drug again and again, our brains get used to it and begin to compensate by shutting down brain cells that release dopamine.
Eventually, normal activities are no longer enjoyable, because the drug has trained our brains to release less dopamine. Our brains get so used to the drug that we hardly get high at all anymore. Our dopamine levels may even be so low that we feel depressed without the drug. Eventually, the addiction becomes so powerful that we’re willing to do foolish, even self-destructive things just to get more of the drug.
The word “addiction” comes from the Latin word for “enslaved by”, and it’s an accurate term. Addiction literally enslaves our brains. When we understand that we’ve been enslaved, we can stop being ashamed and admit that we have a problem, which is the first step towards recovery.