By Priya Sharma
It is a common misconception that people can choose between their addiction and their loved ones. Unfortunately, the process of addiction is far more complex than that.
The human brain is wired with feel-good chemicals (dopamine) that regulate our behavior. For example, when we want to encourage a child to read more books, we can do so by giving them lots of positive attention every time we observe them doing so.
The child’s brain eventually starts associating reading books with happy feelings, and the behavior continues. Similar chemicals are felt when we help someone in need, win the lottery, eat some good food after a long day of work, etc. As we can see, these rewarding chemicals motivate us to eat, sleep, breathe, care for others, and most of all, they help us survive.
Alcohol and drugs ‘highjack’ this rewards pathway in our brain. Unlike natural behaviors, alcohol and drugs release a large amount of artificial dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, making us feel pleasure in a way we have never felt before. Who doesn’t like feeling happy? If our happiness is threatened and we become desperate for connection, we will cling on to anything that remotely resembles it.
The reason why drugs and alcohol are so addictive is that the chemicals they release are synthetic and therefore hard if not impossible to replicate through natural rewards. On top of that, repeated use of alcohol and drugs re-arranges the way our brain prioritizes needs, putting substance abuse at the very top and everything else (survival needs, care for loved ones, work, etc.) to the side.
Circling back to conditional love and addiction, this is why ultimatums don’t work. When we ask the individuals who are struggling with substance abuse to choose between us and the drugs, what we are doing is taking even more connection away from them. Now that we are aware of how the process works, what can we do to help the humans struggling in our lives? Well, the answer is simple. We can start by viewing addiction as a brain disease that can happen to anyone. This will also help us not take someone else’s addiction personally. When we ask someone to choose between us and their addiction, we are forcing them to conform to our standards of living.
Healthy love has many forms, but control and dictation do not fall under that category. Instead of asking the other person to change for you, learn about how your actions may be enabling their addiction. We only have control over our feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Dealing with someone who is struggling with addiction is exhausting so support yourself in these hard times and find out ways to gain more coping skills. Take care of yourself and let the struggling individual know that when they are ready for help, you will be there to support them through their journey.
Priya Sharma is an addictions counsellor currently working in Vanderhoof, B.C.