There is no one who does not have an addiction
We usually think of addiction as being linked to certain substances like alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. We look down upon and even pity those who cannot stop consuming these substances, which ultimately costs them their family, job, and life...
Without a doubt, this is the most cruel and harsh form of addiction. However, know that it is not the only one.
You might be surprised to learn that everyone, absolutely everyone (and if not, then let them raise their hand in disagreement), is addicted, even to the least expected things.
The obvious addictions and the not-so-obvious ones...
To understand this broader way of understanding addiction, we have to make a distinction between what we call dry addictions and non-dry addictions. These two types of addictions may not manifest in the same way, but they activate the same brain dynamics:
- Non-dry addictions:
These are addictions to specific substances like alcohol, ecstasy, marijuana, ketamine, certain medications, stimulants, and a long list, unfortunately, increasingly endless.They are called non-dry addictions because the person who consumes "knows" and can keep track of what they consume or stop consuming (two bottles of alcohol, ten grams of cocaine, three cigarettes).
- Dry addictions:
Dry addictions are those in which all, or the majority of us, are somehow involved. This includes addiction to people, addiction to parental contact with children, addiction to work, control, social media, certain harmful habits like complaining or worrying, exaggerated behaviors such as the need to help, give opinions, or always be right, even physical activity, carbohydrates, chocolate, laziness, or procrastination.
They are called dry addictions because the person who suffers from them cannot precisely quantify or know exactly when that addiction started. It cannot be measured, for example, in the need for attachment, an unhealthy habit, or an unhealthy exaggeration.
To be addicted is to be a slave.
In order to understand why I call it addiction, something that others might underestimate or downplay as mere "habits or behaviors," I have to turn to the magic of the etymology of words.
The word addiction, psychoanalysts often associate it with "the unsaid." So, those people who cannot put into words what they are going through, act it out by consuming certain substances. However, there is another meaning of the word "addiction" that is more precise and even more dangerous. "Adicto" comes from "adictus," which means "given to..." and derives from legal matters. In ancient Rome, when someone ceased to be a slave and returned to their "normal" life, they did not have their own goods available. They would then, without much awareness of the consequences, begin to buy what they could not afford, gamble, participate in competitions, and thus become a slave again, but this time to their unpaid debts. In other words, the word "adicto" is associated with "being held captive," "being a slave to," "being surrendered to a specific situation," without managing to break free from those circumstances.
With this meaning of the word addiction, we can say that we are all addicts because we are "tied" to something we cannot stop doing. Anything over which we have lost the power of decision is an addiction. There is something within us, more primitive, that pushes us to do it: we cannot stop sending that message, working, eating, getting angry, worrying, seeking it, going to the gym.
Sometimes, we are addicts and do not even realize it because we have naturalized certain behaviors, or their consequences may not be so severe in the short term, but they do have consequences, even if we are not fully aware of them! For example, a person addicted to another person can end up doing anything, a person addicted to complaining can become increasingly isolated, a person addicted to anger can harm their heart health, a person addicted to work can lose their family, and a person addicted to flour can develop morbid obesity or damage their brain due to excessive gluten.
How does addiction work?
Addiction generates a habituation to certain chemical states in the body. The difference between a dry addiction and a non-dry one is that in a non-dry addiction, the addict becomes dependent on an external substance that they "need" to consume to feel certain sensations in their body or to generate a brain state from which they cannot abstain. On the other hand, in dry addictions, the person needs specific levels of neurotransmitters in their blood. So, for example, a person who always gets angry "needs" to find reasons to get upset and thus increase the levels of noradrenaline, adrenaline, and cortisol in their blood. These are chemicals they have become addicted to over time by repeating the same behavior.
Addiction in the brain
- In substance addiction...
The brain as an organ gets damaged. The more consumption, the more the brain resembles a kind of Emmental cheese with holes that erode a large part of reasoning, and it's no longer possible to think properly. The damage in these cases is both functional and organic. As a consequence, severe alterations can occur, such as deep depression, marked paranoia, aggressive behavior, schizophrenia, etc., etc.
And marijuana? Marijuana too!! Those who need to deny or underestimate its effects on the brain to continue consuming their joints peacefully should know that there is no debate, and it's not a personal opinion; it's what science says, and there are no shades of gray here. I don't judge those who decide to smoke, but be aware that marijuana does damage the brain... and it can lead to addiction. As Charly García once said: "The first one is a gift, the second one you pay for."
Some may say, "But marijuana is healthier than regular cigarettes; it has fewer chemicals and toxins." That may be true, or it may not, but that's not the point.
Tobacco affects lung health, and marijuana disrupts mental health. The main cause of hospitalization due to psychosis is marijuana consumption. One joint more, one joint less... "damages the brain" and alters its functions. For those who are interested in keeping their brain intact and in perfect condition to make life decisions with clarity and consistency, know this: marijuana does not support this purpose. But it does relax!! Yes, exactly... it relaxes so much... that it eventually deteriorates the virtue of willpower, the constancy to follow through on what is started, the ability to determine, the skill of discipline, and tenacity. Again, it's not an "opinion," it's "science," plain and simple. Those who choose to smoke marijuana should be aware of its consequences and not deny reality to downplay its significance.
Each person is responsible for the place they give to their brain as the main command of their body. The way our life ultimately shapes up is based on the decisions we make, and it's not the same to decide with an intoxicated or damaged brain as it is with a clean, intact, and well-cared-for one.
The good news is that our brain, despite the mistreatment it often receives, is miraculous and gives us another chance if we know how to seize it. This possibility is called neurogenesis (generating neurons). If one stops consuming "completely," and the brain becomes clean and polished, with time, the neighboring neurons to the damaged ones can acquire the functions of those whose damage was not irreversible. Why? Because the so-called "neighboring" neurons always keep a backup, a kind of backup copy in case it might be needed. But when substance abuse was too sustained over time and excessive... there is no reserve that's sufficient. Taking care of recovering brain health in time can make a difference between before and after, or even between life and death. It depends on each individual.
- In dry addictions....
The organ itself is not damaged, but the neural circuits are altered. In other words, the connections between neurons become rigid and repetitive. What does this mean? It means that neurons repeat the same circuit over and over again: "Every time I..., then": "Every time I feel sad, I open the fridge." "Every time I feel lonely, I call him/her." "Every time I stop working, I feel anxious and go back to work to relieve that tension." "Every time something doesn't go as I want, I get angry." "Every time someone has a different opinion, I seek to be right." "Every time there's a delay, I worry and think the worst."
Where to start detoxifying ourselves from what hurts us?
When we can't "stop doing..." the first step is to stop justifying, denying, and honestly recognize that we are slaves to certain tendencies that harm us, damage our relationships, or reduce our quality of life.
The second step is to seek help. When we are addicts, it is very difficult to straighten things out on our own by just relying on willpower. It requires a deeper inner work and a brain re-structuring to detoxify ourselves from harmful habits. We need to regenerate the neural circuits that have been out of circulation and "open new paths" in our brain. In this sense, psychologists act as biologists and chemists, helping people generate new connections through new behaviors that lead to different emotions, which, as a result, produce renewed chemical states in the body. A person who learns to approach things differently detoxifies their body from neurotransmitters associated with certain habits. As a consequence, it becomes easier for them to avoid falling into the same patterns because they have designed alternative pathways in their brain. "Every time I feel lonely... I meditate, call a friend, go for a walk, watch a movie" (calling "him" or "her" is no longer the only option).
A brain that ingests substances or "can't stop" behaving in a certain way loses freedom. Becoming slaves to something, whatever it may be, robs us of freedom and decision-making capacity in our lives. If we want to be free, we have the responsibility to re-educate our brain with determination, willpower, and compassion, recognizing it as the most important command center of our body. An unclean, addicted, or rigid brain doesn't lead us to any good place. Honoring it, taking care of it, and not subjecting it to damage, whether from ourselves or others, is the best favor we can do if we want to live a healthy life. And not only protect it from the negative but also nourish it with the positive and plant seeds that make it more vigorous, lush, beneficial, and fruitful.
A healthy brain thinks well. Thinking well helps us make lucid decisions. Making lucid decisions means choosing what's best for ourselves, and choosing what's best for ourselves leads to a fulfilling and happy life.
The next time you drink, smoke, inhale, inject, or repeat the same old patterns... take a pause. A split second can make the difference between continuing down the same path or taking the first step in a different direction that leads to more dignified, meritorious places, and makes you proud of your courage to honor your life and change the direction that always leads you to hit the same brick wall head-on.
We are all addicts, but we can all stop being so if we work on ourselves with real commitment, firmness, and strong integrity.