I SHOT heroin and cocaine while attending Columbia in the 1980s, sometimes injecting many times a day and leaving scars that are still visible. I kept using, even after I was suspended from school, after I overdosed and even after I was arrested for dealing, despite knowing that this could reduce my chances of staying out of prison…every time I tried to quit, I relapsed within months.
Addiction is indeed a brain problem, but it’s not a degenerative pathology like Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, nor is it evidence of a criminal mind.
Instead, it’s a learning disorder, a difference in the wiring of the brain that affects the way we process information about motivation, reward and punishment.
Scientists have documented the connection between learning processes and addiction for decades
In essence, addiction occurs when these brain systems are focused on the wrong objects: a drug or self-destructive behavior like excessive gambling instead of a new sexual partner or a baby. Once that happens, it can cause serious trouble.
In line with the idea that development matters, research also shows that half of all addictions — with the exception of tobacco — end by age 30, and the majority of people with alcohol and drug addictions overcome it, mostly without treatment.
I stopped taking drugs when I was 23. I always thought that I had quit because I finally realized that my addiction was harming me.
But it’s equally possible that I kicked then because I had become biologically capable of doing so.
During adolescence, the engine that drives desire and motivation grows stronger. But unfortunately, only in the mid-to-late 20s are we able to exert more control. This is why adolescence is the highest risk period for developing addiction — and simple maturation may be what helped me get better.
At the time, nearly all treatment was based on 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, which help only a minority of addicted people
We treat no other medical condition with such moralizing — people with other learning disorders aren’t pushed to apologize for their past behavior, nor are those affected by schizophrenia or depression.
Once we understand that addiction is neither a sin nor a progressive disease, just different brain wiring, we can stop persisting in policies that don’t work, and start teaching recovery.
Indeed, if the compulsive drive that sustains addiction is directed into healthier channels, this type of wiring can be a benefit, not just a disability.
After all, persisting despite rejection didn’t only lead to addiction for me — it has also been indispensable to my survival as a writer.
The ability to persevere is an asset:
People with addiction just need to learn how to redirect it.
Good point, Maia!
This view is new to me and it makes perfect sense. Addiction is a problematic impulse to destructively indulge, and instead of focusing on the “destructive indulging” it focuses on the source, the problematic impulse.
Instead of struggling to deny this powerful force, this approach deflects that energy into more productive pursuits.
This sounds like a good idea to me. When trying to stop bad habits, I’ve found it much easier to start a new contrasting habit rather than simply abstaining from the old one.
Author: Maia Szalavitz is the author of “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.”