What It Feels Like To Be An Addict
When stimulants become a detriment, and the art of surrender.
Drugs, alcohol, caffeine, food, and sex — what do they have in common? Other than the fact that they are all really fun to do, within that fun lies the very problem. Anything that feels good almost certainly can be addictive.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as, “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” Since the opioid epidemic in the U.S. exploded, the research into the cause of addiction has been growing exponentially. Including it’s ties to childhood related trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thanks to the brilliant psychologists hard at work, the science surrounding addiction is rapidly changing.
Now for the fun part. Food, drugs, alcohol, and sex all have the same effect on the brain, chemically. They all release the chemical dopamine, a pleasure molecule, from the brain into the blood stream. Dopamine hijacks the reward circuitry of the brain causing the brain to crave more of whatever gave it the good feeling, regardless of the consequences. It’s simple science, but it is one that over time can have detrimental effects on a person’s emotional and physical well-being.
For example, in the 1930’s psychologist B. F. Skinner created an experiment where an ordinary lab rat was put inside of a box that contained to levers. One lever, when pressed, would release food to the rats inside, and the other lever would send a small electric shock. Essentially the rats learned not to push the lever that caused it pain, and to continually push the lever that produced treats. This experiment is called “Skinner’s Box.”
Later, in the 1950’s, two more psychologists, James Olds and Peter Milsner modified the experiment by implanting electrodes into the rats brains that would stimulate the rat’s pleasure centers in the brain. The experiment worked so well that the rats would frantically push the reward lever upwards of 7000 times an hour. Then the electrodes were deactivated, the rats became lethargic, exhausted, and didn’t even want to partake in eating, sleeping, or running around any longer. Sound familiar? That’s because this is very similar to addiction-like behavior found in humans.
Dopamine is such a powerful chemical and it creates a very potent reaction in people. For addicts, chemicals, foods, television, social media, and yes even another person’s touch produces a dopamine rush in people’s brains. That is why these things feel so good to us, it’s hard-wired into our brains. We continually push the “lever” because it makes us feel good every time, despite the negative effects, and it can be an extremely vicious cycle to break.
Now for a personal note: I pose you a question to ponder: what would it feel like to be that lab rat? Stuck in that cage, with electrodes in your brain that are triggered by some unseen force through no fault of your own. In fact, you may not even be aware of the electrodes that are zapping your brain’s pleasure center repeatedly. Stuck in a box with no light, no windows, your only relief comes from one lever, while another is sure to bring you pain.
This is what it feels like to be an addict.
Most addicts are either trying to cover up, run from, or escape some sort of trauma in their past. Pain is essentially the catalyst for escapist behavior all across the board. For example, a sex addict may use pleasure as a means to escape their own intimacy issues. Or someone who is addicted to sugar and sweets simply eats the pain away. Or even is someone who uses drugs and alcohol, that is simply the only thing that they know how to do that helps them to cope. Addicts keep pulling the pleasure lever because all they know is pain otherwise.
If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous or a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, pretty much any member can tell you about the serenity prayer. It goes like this:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When you are being the rat in the cage, a slave to your impulses, you may be acting out of fear. The fear of electrocution, fear of success, fear of change… etc. Fear is painful, and we want to avoid pain at all costs. The rat does not have the wisdom to change because that rat is trapped inside the box. It’s not until we see beyond the box are we blessed to be able to see beyond the veil of addiction and the damage it causes us. If we dare to dream beyond the box, realize that the box is imaginary and, god forbid, leave the box entirely, there’s no telling what we are fully capable of.
That in itself is a scary thought for an addict. It’s much easier to stay inside the safety of the box and keep pushing the lever, forever doomed to repeating the same actions that bring us joy, because that is all we know. It is much safer inside the box because we know what happens there. You push the lever, you get a treat, you avoid pain. Simple. What is beyond our own sight is extremely scary, unknown, and dark. We cannot see what blessings (or lessons) we are capable of beholding because of our own ignorance.
Now a personal note. I had been inside that box for so long. I knew nothing of the outside world any longer. Addiction and fear-based avoidance was second nature, and I was skilled at avoiding emotional trauma. I was a slave to my own impulses or actions because I was afraid to change it. Newness, passion, and love was something I wanted, but had no idea how to attain it. Even when I would make strides in the right direction, I always felt like I had to take two steps backwards because seeing myself change was scary in itself. Even though I had passion, drive, and the godforsaken talent to get it — I still felt trapped inside the box of my own making.
The blessings that I wanted so deeply to experience were just as scary as never experiencing them in the first place, because I didn’t know how it would feel to receive them. I was in a constant state of fear of the unknown because, for whatever reason, I didn’t feel worthy of receiving it.
Addiction works like that. It is a double-edged sword, one side will cut you down, while the other side will cut down the things you need to re-stabilize yourself and truly be in control of your life.
When my grandmother passed away, I didn’t want any of her belongings except for a few things. One was a small fabergé egg. It is hand-painted, decorated in lace, with a satin lining that opens to where you can put small things in. It sat on top of her dresser for as long as I can remember, and now it sits atop of mine.
The second was a throw blanket which sat on the back of her sofa for years. Emblazoned on that throw, in cobalt blue stitching, is the serenity prayer. This surprised even me, I hadn’t ever thought about that blanket at all growing up, but for some reason, in the moments leading up to the final moments with her, this really caught my attention.
Something about that prayer called out to me that day and I believe she really wanted me to have it. To this day, it hangs in my closet, right behind my tuxedo — the one I bought for when I finally get married — but that is a totally different story I won’t go into today.
The serenity prayer haunts me in the best way. It follows me and appears at almost random moments in my day-to-day. Most recently, I found a bracelet that a friend gave me a while ago that has the serenity prayer engraved on it. I read it aloud and realized that there is a second part:
“…Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as a pathway to peace; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; forever in the next. Amen”
That was it. I had to learn how to surrender. I had to let go of my fear, my insecurity, my own ideals and expectations of how things should be. That was the cause of my pain, and the thing that I ran from the most. I feel like some people may feel similarly, which is why I am sharing this story today.
To summarize, I feel as if the key to managing addiction is to understand that it is indeed a part of you, but you don’t have to continue to be that rat, trapped in the box, and pressing the lever over and over again. The box is imaginary, and you have a choice if you wish to stay inside of it, or to surrender to the unknown. It is possible to find comfort in fear and to understand that, yeah, it is scary not knowing what happens next — but not knowing what the path may bring you, well, that is where the magic happens.
Instead, your challenge is just focus on the day, stay present and grounded, and to understand that no matter what you are doing, you are doing your best. Whatever situation comes up for you is meant to be a lesson, and many lessons are difficult to learn. Forgive yourself because you can always get back up when you fall down.
In the end, you cannot mess up what is meant for you, but you will have to work at it. Learn from your mistakes and surrender to the will of the universe. It always has your back. All you have to do is ask for the help, and to stop pulling that damn lever.