In my 28 years as a substance abuse counselor, I have often heard professionals and recovering addicts express the belief that drug and alcohol addiction are primarily about people running away from, avoiding and self-medicating the stress, pain and pressures of life. While I believe that this most certainly plays a significant role in addiction, experience tells me there may be an equal or perhaps even more powerful motivator—the pursuit of pleasure. I submit that many addicts are more motivated by seeking pleasure than avoiding discomfort; more focused on pursuing the weekend-pleasure-high than blocking out the pain of back-to-work on Monday morning. Let me explain.
Drug and alcohol use often begins during the teen years. As a result, at an early age, the brains of alcohol and drug users are "hyper-stimulated," and over time this level of "pleasure" becomes the norm. Teens are especially vulnerable to this outcome because the teen brain is not yet fully developed. The teen's Limbic System—the emotional, reward/pleasure-driven part of the brain is very adult-like. But, the Prefrontal Cortex, the "logic system" of the brain where reasoning, consequences and future planning reside, doesn't fully mature until the early to mid twenties. When the Limbic System is repeatedly hyper-stimulated through drug and alcohol use, it becomes dominant and overrides the brain's logic centers. In fact, research shows that drug and alcohol use actually slow down the maturing and development of the Prefrontal Cortex.
Why is this important information for those struggling with substance abuse and their loved ones? Because it helps explain why addicts engage in so many foolish, illogical, self-centered and self-destructive behaviors. The Limbic System dominates, while the logic system takes a back seat. It's "limbic vs. logic," pleasure-seeking vs. mature thinking, and in the addict brain, the Limbic System wins much of the time. It doesn't care about consequences or future goals—it simply seeks the next pleasure rush. And after years of hyper-stimulation, the Limbic System doesn't like not having pleasure. It has become so accustomed and attuned to the rush of alcohol and drug use that in comparison, regular life becomes boring and eventually depressing, or even intolerable. This is why many addicts get to the place where they declare, "When I'm not drinking or using, I feel miserable."
The challenge is that addiction radically alters the brain's chemistry and wiring. An addict can't recover with the brain they have today—we have to help them rewire and readjust their brain back to normal pleasure levels where regular everyday life becomes enjoyable and fulfilling. We must help them get their logic system back in the driver's seat, and their Limbic System recalibrated to healthy pleasure levels. In essence, we have to guide addicts through the process of developing the emotional and spiritual maturity that was stolen from them through substance abuse. The miracle is that their brain can change, rewire and return to normal levels; they can mature and attain a sense of peace, purpose and enjoyment. It takes time and work, but it's absolutely achievable. It's called "recovery" and it works!
Rick Visser has 28 years as a trusted Substance Abuse Counselor