Science of Opioid Addiction
Addiction to opiates is a powerful physiological process and medical condition. It is very important to note that addiction happens because of physical changes in the physical structure of the brain. These changes are why we call addiction a “brain disease.”
Despite what many people in our society think, we know that addiction is not a bad habit, a weakness of character, or a lack of strength, determination, discipline, or will power. Addiction – commonly referred to as dependence or dependency – does not discriminate and is an equal-opportunity disease. People from all walks of life – brick layers, physicians, electricians, judges, insurance agents, construction workers, clergy, lawyers, retail clerks, CEOs, sales representatives, nurses, pharmacists, truck drivers and even heads of state – have all experienced the same devastating reality of opioid addiction and the personal and family problems it causes.
It is important to note that addiction to opiate drugs is a medical condition and responds best to medically based treatment. Opioid addiction is chronic, progressive, and terminal if not treated. Only rarely can the progression of the disease be reversed without formal treatment intervention. Once the brain structure physically changes, the person loses the ability to make logical choices and decisions. Making the obvious and simple choice not to use is no longer simple because the brain begins to crave opiates just like people crave the essential elements of life: food, water, and sleep. Just as someone becomes intensely symptomatic when deprived of food, water or sleep, the person who is addicted to opiates becomes increasingly ill from withdrawal if the addiction is not fed.
The addicted person faces an overwhelming compulsion and obsession to feed the disease and near-constant cravings for the opioid drug. In our clinical experience, we have never treated anyone who made a conscious choice to become addicted when they first started using drugs; the only choice they made was the choice to begin using. We offer this explanation only as a way to highlight the fact that addiction is a powerful disease over which many people are initially powerless.
The overwhelming urge to use is difficult for many people to understand – especially for those who do not use drugs. Family members and significant others are frequently frustrated because the addicted person cannot simply stop using. We can assure you that if it were as simple as making that choice, no person suffering from addiction would ever choose to continue down that destructive path.
For a person addicted to opiate drugs, the uncontrollable urge to use is best explained through a simple comparison to hunger and thirst. The longer a person goes without satisfying the body’s demand for food and water, the more intense their physical discomfort becomes. The hungry person becomes keenly and intently focused on finding something to eat in the same manner that an addicted person focuses on finding more drugs to satisfy the cravings. A person who is thirsty simply cannot focus on anything else until the thirst is quenched. Hunger and thirst become life’s first priorities. Similarly, drug seeking becomes a priority for persons suffering from addiction. This is a simple but incredibly powerful physiological phenomenon that dictates behavior until the need is met. This is also what drives good people to commit crimes and to act in ways that are uncharacteristic and abnormal.
We know that physical addiction is extremely powerful and all-consuming. Unless treated, the drive to use eventually overwhelms the person. Unfortunately, family members, significant others and even co-workers can be drawn into the web of this powerful disease.