A Recovering Addict Reflects on the Disease of Addiction

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David GreenspanOver the seven years I’ve been sober, I’ve never been shy about the fact I’m a person in long-term recovery. There’s a line in some 12-step literature that goes something like “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”

One thing I have been reticent about sharing, however, are my personal thoughts on the disease of addiction. I’ve been of the mindset that doctors, scientists and addiction professionals could classify addiction better than little old me.

Then I got to thinking. Those of us who have been there and survived, faced addiction head-on and emerged victorious on the other side have a unique perspective on the disease model.

Keep in mind that the following is in no way a medical or scientific view of addiction. Those are areas I have no experience with. What I do know is how drug abuse can impact an adolescent’s mental, physical and emotional life, as well as their interpersonal relationships.

I know alcoholism and addiction do unexpected things to our brains. Twelve-step fellowships describe a “mental obsession” with drinking and drugging that drowns out all other thoughts. Once this obsession is triggered, the addict can’t stop thinking about mind-altering chemicals until those chemicals are in their blood.

I’ve experienced something similar to that. As a drug-abusing teenager, I wasn’t able to shake the idea of getting high from my head. I can’t count the number of times I’d skip school or extracurricular activities to drink or drug after simply having a thought that a beer would be nice.

Alcoholics and addicts seem, to me anyway, to process alcohol and drugs differently than normal individuals. I know that when I was younger, I was physically able to consume more alcohol than people who were years older than myself.

This is probably a byproduct of tolerance. Tolerance means that, upon repeatedly using a substance, an individual needs more of that substance to feel the same effects. That was certainly true for me and the teenagers I’d use with.

When I say emotional, I’m talking not only about how addiction affects one’s emotions, but also how it affects the ethereal and hard-to-describe portions of their life.

Emotionally, drugs and alcohol were less of a problem and more of a solution. What I mean is that chemicals allowed me to remove negative emotions. Fear? A joint will take care of that. Anxiety? A drink will calm my nerves. Anger? Some pills will mellow me out.

Obviously, there’s a huge flaw with this type of thinking. Not only does it stunt emotional development and promote emotional dependence upon drugs, but it’s downright silly. The idea that the answer to complex feelings can be found a) without working on myself and b) through an outside substance? A child can tell you that makes no sense.

As for the spiritual aspect, drugs and alcohol may have allowed me to combat anxiety and fear, but they also left me alone. I wasn’t connected to anything outside myself. I lacked moral principles or religious values. I also lacked that connection to other people, which brings us to interpersonal relationships.

To say drugs and alcohol destroy adolescents’ relationships is an understatement. Think about it — during a period of already intense rebellion, drugs and booze introduce yet another layer of instability.

Again, speaking from personal experience, I was concerned with how I’d get high and, afterwards, how I’d get high again. I wasn’t concerned with creating lasting friendships with my peers. I wasn’t concerned with attempting to understand, or at least empathize with, my parents.

Addiction will do that to you. It’ll take the areas of youths’ lives that seem so crucial and amazing (mental and emotional growth, a physical awakening, making friends of their own) and make them not care about them one bit. I’m thankful that’s no longer the case today.

David Greenspan is a writer and media specialist at Lighthouse Recovery Institute. He’s been sober since 2008 and finds no greater joy than helping the still-struggling addict or alcoholic.