Since the cocaine scourge of the ’70s and ’80s and the ongoing tragedy of the opiate epidemic, the American public has become painfully aware of the societal impact of addiction. Because of the prevalence and lethality of fentanyl-laced opiate overdoses almost everyone knows of a family that has lost a loved one. And despite all the time, effort and money invested in eradicating tobacco we now have to confront the growing addiction to nicotine through the expanding use of nicotine vape pens.
So what is this societal menace we call addiction? It’s standard definition requires the presence of four components:
- The substance is used to elicit a positive reward state.
- Physical dependence develops so that when ongoing use is not possible a withdrawal state ensues.
- Tolerance to the substance develops over time so that increasingly higher dosages are required to both impart the “high” as well as avoid the development of active withdrawal.
- Ongoing substance abuse occurs despite the dangers present. Most addicts will tell you that they are aware of the risks involved, including arrest, incarceration, the dangers of the environments visited to get the drug, fatal overdose or other non-fatal medical complications (like heart attacks from cocaine, liver disease from alcohol, HIV from intravenous use) and the deleterious impact on family, job, relationships and quality of life. It is as if there is a disconnection between the logical part of the brain and the addicted centers of the brain. More on this later.
On a practical level it is often helpful to restate the problem from another vantage point. Consider the traditional definition of alcoholism. Included in this definition is the need to consume alcoholic beverages upon awakening in ever increasing amounts to avoid alcohol withdrawal, continued imbibing despite the havoc created in one’s life and the rationalization and/or denial employed when loved ones try to talk sense into the alcoholic. This understanding is important but I also contend that one can have an alcohol problem without meeting the alcoholism criteria. Consider the individual who comes home from work every day to consume several beers or a couple of hard liquor drinks. When asked about this custom one will often hear that it is a way to “unwind” and shake off the stress of the day. Why? What about identifying the stressors and attempt to minimize them. Eradicating the source of stress may not always be possible but learning how to more effectively cope with life stress is. Why not substitute time with loved ones/friends, go for a run, meditate, listen to music or see a mental health clinician? All too often in our society we reach for a pill, a drink or an illicit substance to relieve our discomfort. The individual identified here may not meet addict criteria but can be viewed as having a substance related problem. Because of the impact of this problem on one’s life course and life quality, failure to address it becomes unfortunate. Societal acceptance of such maladaptive coping behavior is a big part of the problem, not too different from the common usage of sleeping pills in individuals who should instead directly address their insomnia.
The modern approach to addiction treatment began in the mid 1930’s after meetings between Bill W. and a surgeon now known as Dr. Bob. Dr. Bob recognized alcoholism as a disease process and not merely a social or moral weakness. Out of this came Alcoholics Anonymous whose tenets, Big Book and twelve steps comprise the bulwark of addiction treatment to this day. The twelve step model is an important component in the clinical approach to the addict but it would be unfair to suggest that “one size fits all”.
Classic AA considers the use of any mind-altering medication as taboo to the process of recovery. This is an understandable concept during AA’s early years. However, as addiction science has advanced a more balanced approach is needed. Brain imaging, genetic advances and careful epidemiologic research have all contributed to a more holistic systems approach to recovery. We now know that there are individuals whose addiction has been the direct result of their genetic makeup. As suggested in a previous paper on a systems approach I suggested that there are some individuals whose genetic predisposition only results in clinical pathology when interacting with situational stressors that subsequently activates the biologic psychopathology.
This discussion would not be complete if we did not review the concept of addiction as self-medication. This refers to individuals who discover that the illicit drug or alcoholic beverage serves to reduce or eradicate painful or troublesome mental state symptoms. A classic example is that of social anxiety. Social anxiety disorders can be devastating to say the least and often start in the teenage years. So when a teen discovers at a party that an alcoholic beverage successfully controls the anxiety and for the first time allows the individual to socially interact without emotional constraints, alcohol becomes a necessary ingredient for future social endeavors. Unfortunately, dependence and tolerance ensue and leads to a whole host of new difficulties. Opiates and marijuana similarly modulate social anxiety or panic attacks. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) represents another example. When the impulsive, terribly restless and hyperactive young person with an inability to focus and control a busy head finds these symptoms almost normalized upon to exposure to recreational cocaine. In fact, cocaine might represent an effective ADHD treatment modality if it were not for its horrendous addiction potential, it’s very short duration of action as well as to say the least, its illegality.
The above discussion introduces the concept of self-medication. Self-medication must be considered in all cases of addiction because once the core psychiatric problem is identified a more definitive treatment becomes possible. By stabilizing the underlying disorder the addictive process has a better chance of entering into an enduring recovery. This does not suggest that the twelve step approach is unnecessary. In fact, the combination of treatment addressing the non-substance abuse psychiatric disorder in conjunction with traditional recovery methods maximizes the outcome.
We now understand that the biology of addiction involves brain regions that get reprogrammed. As a consequence, these brain areas begins to act independently from the healthy rational parts of the brain that under normal circumstances keep us out of harm’s way. These addiction centers are essentially highjacked by the drug and can successfully pathologically influence healthy brain areas. A critical goal of addiction treatment is to help the individual develop coping skills and capabilities that subsequently allow for ability to recover control over previously all powerful addiction centers.
As you can see, successful addiction treatment requires a careful multi-system and bio-psycho-social evaluation and treatment planning that serves as the foundation for a future free of drug abuse. Each person with the scourge of addiction deserves an individualized open-minded approach. Despite all the negative media attention that addiction has garnered, the future has never been brighter for treatment. Prevention remains the ultimate goal and an ongoing challenge.