Hi, this is Rick Visser. In my 30 plus 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.
The Brain is “Wired” for Addiction
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 emotional, reward/pleasure-driven part of the brain is very adult-like. But 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 brain’s pleasure center is repeatedly hyper-stimulated through drug and alcohol use, it becomes dominant and overrides brain’s logic centers. In fact, research shows that drug and alcohol use actually slow down the maturing and development of the brain’s logic and impulse control systems.
Pleasure vs. Logic
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 pleasure center dominates, while the logic system takes a back seat. It’s pleasure-seeking vs. mature thinking, and in the addict brain, pleasure 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 addict brain 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 become 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 Addict Brain Can Change!
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 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 pleasure system recalibrated to normal 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 is absolutely achievable. It’s called “recovery” and it works!