by Mark B. Kastleman

The “Great Mystery” of Addiction

One of the most frustrating aspects of drug and alcohol addiction—for the addict and their loved ones—is what I call, “The Great Mystery.” Why does the addict keep drinking or using when they know the same negative or destructive consequences will result every time? Why, at the “decision intersection” do they keep turning left when they know they should turn right? Why do they make the same mistakes over and over again, especially when these choices are wrecking their lives and their relationships? In response to these questions, the answer most addicts give is, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not really sure.” To them, and to their loved ones, it is a mystery.

The “Addiction Funnel”

One of the easiest ways to start unraveling the mystery of addiction is through an illustration I developed many years ago with my mentor, neuropsychologist Dr. Page Bailey. It’s called the “Addiction Funnel” and is a great way to begin understanding the brain science behind drug and alcohol addiction.

For this illustration, we’ll call our struggling individual, “John,” and use an example of a typical situation that often triggers an addict to seek escape. After a hard day at work, John is tired, stressed and burned out. He’s looking for a way to release the stress, escape the pressures of life and feel some pleasure. Based on past experience, John’s brain believers that the quickest, most powerful way to get this escape is by drinking or using. His brain has actually “learned” to seek this solution through consistent repetition and reward.

As soon as the very first thoughts of drinking or using enter his mind, John’s brain begins to change—it starts descending into the “Funnel.”    

The Addiction Funnel

Just the thoughts of using or drinking trigger John’s brain to begin releasing some powerful neurochemicals like Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin and Endorphins. These brain chemicals narrow John’s focus and start to “block out” what matters most to him, such as his future goals, health, career, loved ones, God, self-respect, etc. The deeper he drops into the funnel, the more narrowed, illogical and reckless he becomes. Finally, when he actually drinks or uses, John reaches the narrowest part of the Funnel where his brain releases its internal chemicals with a “rush.” He feels pleasure, escape and numbness against the stress, pressure and pains of life. It “appears” that he really has found the perfect solution to his struggles.

The Hell that Comes After

After the rush or high, John emerges from the narrow part of the Funnel and the neurochemicals start to fade. His brain begins returning to its wide perspective where logic, reasoning and consequences kick in. His “high” begins to morph into a “hell.” Powerful negative emotions start to bubble up, like guilt, regret, confusion, frustration, anger, self-loathing and self-hatred. Once again John is bewildered by the mystery of his addiction—”Why did I make the stupid decision to use again? I know how it always turns out!” And the BIG question that John and his loved ones always want answered is, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

Based on what you now know about the Funnel, what’s the answer to this question? Most would say, “He wasn’t thinking,” and of course that is right. But, based on the brain science of addiction and the overwhelming power of the neurochemical release in the Funnel, the most correct answer is, “He couldn’t think.” When he made the choice to jump into the Funnel, he actually gave up his ability to think logically, rationally, and to weigh the consequences. This type of thinking was not possible until he emerged from the narrow part of the Funnel, the brain chemicals faded, and his wide perspective returned.

The Never-Ending Cycle

Here’s a question for you—When John’s wide perspective returns and he’s hit by the shame of all his negative emotions, what does he often feel the need to do? That’s right, to escape the hellish aftermath of his choice to drink or use, he may go right back into the top of the Funnel and do it all again. This of course illustrates the “insanity” of addiction—doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

Before I started down my own path of lasting recovery, I remember being hopelessly trapped in this Funnel cycle. I called it the “rollercoaster ride from Hell.” When an addict emerges from the narrow part of the Funnel back to a state of logic and reality, they often pound their fist of the table and declare, “That’s it! That’s the last time I will ever do that!” Using sheer willpower, they engage in a desperate hand-to-hand combat with their addiction urges and temptations. It may be hours, days, weeks or months later, but eventually the battle wears the addict out until finally exhausted they give in and once again jump into the Funnel, and the cycle starts over.

In my article next month, I will talk about “Why willpower is NOT enough” and actually plunges the individual deeper into their addiction.

There is HOPE!

While the Addiction Funnel is very powerful, and many find themselves trapped in the Funnel Cycle, there is GREAT HOPE! Everyday at Action Recovery Group, we help individuals break free from the Funnel and get their lives back. The key is to realize that you can’t break out of the Funnel without help—alone, you’ll just keep going back again and again.

The first step is to talk with professionals who know what you’re going through. For over 30 years, my partner and Action Recovery Group’s Clinical Director Rick Visser has been helping addicts get clean and sober and stay that way! Rick and I, and all of our professional team know where you’re at because each of us has been through our own battles with addiction. We know how to help you get your life back.

The first step to regaining your freedom is to call us at 801-475-4673 for a Free Clinical Addiction Assessment. We’ll help you determine the very best course of action going forward. We accept most insurance plans, and if you’re uninsured or can’t afford treatment, we have Financial Aid Scholarships available.