Psych stuff about addiction

I have had to go to a Narcotics Anonymous and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for class. It was interesting and it’s really wonderful that these organizations exist. For those who don’t know, these are support groups for alcoholics trying to or who have quit drinking, and the same for drug abusers (and it’s any kind of drug ,from crack cocaine to nicotine). These are the 12 step programs. It is a spiritual but not religious set up – you have to give your life over to whatever higher power you believe in. I’m not quite sure what atheists do in that situation, but I’m positive they are welcome.

We made sure to identify ourselves as students to those running the meetings and they were quite welcoming and kind. The meetings were remarkable for how open and loving they were. They were ritualistic, with readings from the charters and definitions of addicts and such, but then there was sharing. People felt safe to share anything and everything about their struggles because they were in a room full of people who would understand and empathize. Some of it was wonderful and some was heartbreaking, but it was all honest and real and those who shared got so much support from the group that it must have felt incredible cathartic.

The surprising thing to me was that there were people there who had been sober for 20 or more years alongside people who had been sober for 30 days. Addiction isn’t a disease that can be cured. Many addicts substitute one drug or activity for another – smokers who take to eating or chewing gum once they quit, or drug addicts who turn to alcohol or exercise. Addiction is a lifelong disease and people who have been addicted to one thing are more likely to become addicted to another. I was a smoker for 18 years; now I am very careful about how much I drink because I know alcoholism runs in my family and I have the type of body and mind that is prone to addiction.

I know a lot of people believe that it’s just a matter of willpower. It is and it isn’t. It takes so much strength to overcome an addiction. Some people can do it  easily, for others it’s much harder, and for still others it is impossible. It’s not a failure of character, it’s body chemistry. I was lucky, I smoked during my first and second pregnancies – 4 cigarettes a day then back up to a pack a day when I had the kids. I just couldn’t give them up totally. During my third pregnancy, some hormonal/chemical switch flipped and I went from being addicted to just not wanting them anymore. That’s not to say that I haven’t gotten cravings for them over the last 7 years – I have – but whatever chemical connection that made me want them was redirected or severed during that last pregnancy. I had tried to quit 8 times before that. It proved to me that it’s not just willpower. I really wanted to quit those 8 times. Really. But it wasn’t until the chemical component was turned off that I was able to.

Wanting to quit is less than half the battle. Some people can muscle through the physical withdrawals but staying clean and sober isn’t just a matter of willpower. Every cell in your body is screaming for that fix of whatever. It physically hurts when you don’t get it and there is nothing else you can think about. You know when you really have to pee and there’s no bathroom around? Your bladder starts to cramp up and you can’t think about anything but getting to the restroom and how far away that is and how good it’s going to feel, but it’s 5 miles to the next motorway exit. You start making deals with God to keep from wetting your pants, you consider just pulling off the road and running into the bushes except you’re on the freeway and there are no bushes. It’s kind of like that. All. The. Time. It takes over your life. It becomes hard to focus on anything but your body and whatever it was that you were using – how you can so very easily just go out and get some more, you have the money, it’s just a few blocks away, no one will ever know if I do it quickly, and it’ll make the pain go away.

Don’t ever think that addiction is just something that can be turned on and off. It’s a disease with both physical and mental components. Withdrawals can even be deadly in some cases. Groups like NA and AA are incredible for the support that offer to those who are getting clean and sober and those who have been for a while. The cravings never fully go away. It’s been 7 years and I still want a cigarette when I get too stressed, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who was addicted to something stronger. The groups and individual sponsors help keep the cravings from becoming overwhelming. There are groups for overeaters and gamblers and all sorts of addictions.

I would urge everyone to go to a meeting whether you have an addiction or not. Most people know someone who is addicted to something, be it nicotine, alcohol, sex, gambling, or whatever, and these groups are an incredible resource. Everything said there is expected to stay within that room – confidentiality is one of the keys to a successful environment. But experiencing a meeting will restore your faith in humanity. There are stories of incredible pain that will show you what addiction can do to a person or a family, and there is so much non-judgmental support and empathy that even those who are struggling through the worst of it can feel loved and accepted. There are stories of triumph, and I guarantee that when someone stands up and says they’ve been clean for 30 days (or some small amount of time), you are going to clap harder for them than you clapped for your child’s recital.

I felt so honored to be in the room with these people who have struggled so hard and made it. They talked about partners still using and being out on the street, they talked about the trouble their kids are getting into and the guilt or bewilderment they feel, they talked about how much better their lives were now that they are sober, they talked about the importance of getting a health check-up once you stop using because the addiction and abuse of a substance masks all sorts of health problems. They overwhelmingly talked about how grateful they are to have the group. It was humbling.

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