“Why can’t I stop?” This is the question most often asked by individuals and families struggling with addiction. Some ask it of themselves and others ask it of their loved ones out of anger, disappointment, frustration, and so on. Many people don’t realize that recovering from an addiction is a process. It requires hard work and many other deliberate changes to sustain one’s sobriety. Listed below are some factors that, if not addressed, can make it difficult – but not by any means impossible – to “just stop.”
Repeated exposure to a substance of abuse can cause the body to adapt to its presence, altering the body’s physiology. Eventually the body expects the substance in order to function according to its new “normal.” Chronic use tricks the brain into thinking it is producing the chemical that is artificially being fed to it. As a result, the brain’s natural production and output of mood regulating chemicals is altered.
When use is stopped, especially abruptly, the body can go into somewhat of a shock causing physical withdrawal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, tremors, seizures, etc.). The person is compelled to use again to stop the withdrawal symptoms.
With continued use, people condition themselves to rely on their substance of choice as a way to cope with mental and emotional discomfort. Each time relief is provided (real or perceived, regardless of how temporary), the use is reinforced. For instance, if one uses whenever he or she is anxious in order to relax, anxiety can become a trigger due to the association between the use and relief from anxiety.
This also brings up the topic of co-morbidity, or having more than one disorder at the same time, such as alcoholism and depression. Since substances of abuse can both mask and mimic symptoms of other mental health diagnoses, it can be difficult to differentiate what came first and can perpetuate a self-destructive cycle of self-medication.
Once enslaved to physical and/or psychological dependence, many alter their lifestyles to make room for and protect the addiction. They will do whatever is needed to prevent physical withdrawal and/or mental and emotional discomfort. For example, someone who was always honest and outgoing may begin deceiving family or friends and isolating to avoid getting caught and having to face judgment or potential ultimatums.
In extreme cases, this can alter a person’s belief system as well as his or her way of thinking and behaving. Even if use is stopped, people struggling with an addiction who do not address the altered lifestyle run the risk of becoming a “dry drunk.”
Despite the physical, psychological and lifestyle changes that addiction causes, there is hope. If you – or a family member – are struggling with addiction, get help. Millions of Americans have restored their lives to sanity through the help of health care providers, substance abuse counselors, treatment programs, AA, Al-ANON, Celebrate Recovery and other support groups. The journey to sobriety begins with the first step – seeking help.