I started my counseling career in the early 80’s working in an alcohol and drug treatment center in St. Louis, Missouri. It was the heyday of the treatment industry, an exciting time for clients as well as for counselors as there were many new developments appearing and our understanding of addiction was expanding rapidly. We knew we were getting the upper hand on addiction.
But here we are, thirty years later, and some things haven’t changed.
Despite the newer developments like neuroscience and brain imaging, Suboxone, Vivitrol and all the other technologies available to combat addiction, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that we still have addiction and it’s very much alive and well right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Druggie! Junkie! Alky! Loser! MethHead! Terrible names we have for the various forms of addict, you know, those people! As a society, we often use labels to distance ourselves from those who are …other. Yet, when we really think about it, how many of us have family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors and companions who for one reason or another fell into the trap of addiction?
What we really discover is that those people are actually our people. Either by way of genetics, upbringing, circumstances, their brains became hijacked by the insidious process we call addiction, often through no fault of their own—being on a pain medication and the brain said, “Oh, this feels good! I’ll have some more of that, please!” Or experimenting as kids, like they do, only the other kids knew when to quit and you kept on going because very quickly, you discovered you couldn’t stop.
It’s like the actual word “addiction” itself. It’s from the Latin word “Addictus.” An addictus was someone in ancient Rome who found themselves needing a loan of money, typically from someone more wealthy like a senator or merchant. They gave you the loan because you got in debt by spending too much and being that you weren’t good with money to begin with, you fell behind in your repayment plan to the senator, what with interest and all. Before you knew it, your debt had escalated to the point that you now only had one choice…you had to become a personal slave to the senator to work off the debt. The catch was that because of growing interest, you could never earn back your freedom. You were now a slave for life.
And isn’t that so similar to addiction as we understand it? Let’s face it, no one wakes up one morning and says, “Mmm…given the state of my life, I think I’ll make myself become an addict.”
But one day you do wake up and say, “How did this happen? I hate my life! I have to do something or I’ll die!” (And quite literally, you could.)
Yes, addicts frequently do bad things—they lie, they steal, they cheat and some of them engage in all sorts of terrible crimes. Yet we also find that these are things that in their normal minds they would never have done. The problem is that they’re no longer in their normal minds. Their brains were hijacked, quite literally. The part of the brain that makes moral decisions, that knows the difference between good and bad has now been railroaded by the other part of the brain, the mid-brain, which is highly operative during the course of addiction and doesn’t care about good and bad…it only cares about feeling good or not feeling bad and will do anything, anything to serve those needs.
That’s where treatment comes in. During treatment, you learn how to no longer be a slave, an addictus to the mid-brain. You learn that by not using alcohol and drugs, by abstaining from all mood-altering chemicals, you can re-claim that wayward brain and start being in charge of your own life again.
It’s not easy…let’s not be naive here. It takes heroic effort to abstain from mood-altering chemicals. But it can be done. There are over 23 million recovering people in the United States who can testify to that. And of those 23 million recovering people, many of them took advantage of a support network because addiction is a process of isolation and secrecy.
That’s what treatment and 12-Step programs are all about. Finding a group of people who get you, without judging you and who know how to be there for you when you need it most.
What I’ve learned by working in the addiction field all these years is that all addicts were once someone’s little boy or girl, filled with the innocence of childhood but for one reason or another, life got to them as they grew up and through genetics, circumstances, curiosity and environment they walked into the neurochemical trap we call addiction.
The other thing I’ve learned is that there is a way out. It’s a gradual way out, a way out that involves pain and effort but it’s a way out that brings you freedom and peace. To quote a line from p.133 of the AA Big Book, it makes you “happy, joyous and free.”
It’s been my privilege to have been part of that journey with many recovering people and now it’s my privilege to be part of that journey with the patients at Sage Neuroscience Center Intensive Outpatient Program.