By Mary Cucarola – 6/1/2021
“You never really know how much you believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” ~C.S. Lewis
My son was a healthy young man until his substance use ravaged him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He played sports in school – basketball, baseball, and golf. He played competitive soccer until he was 14, and was an avid snowboarder. He had more friends than I could count and seemed happy and normal – until his junior year in high school and after.
How he went from these normal, healthy activities to hospital stays, detox clinics, treatment centers, and emergency room visits was incomprehensible to me. The only explanation that made any sense was that his was sick, seriously sick. He was not making a choice to drink and use any longer.
At some point, there came a defining moment when I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had two options – either to educate myself about addiction or continue to blame him and myself and hide it at all costs.
If I didn’t change my perspective, I would be stuck living my life in a state of dysfunction with guilt, shame, and unhappiness.
One of the first things I learned was how substance use affects brain chemistry. Addiction changes the brain on a physiological level and literally alters the way it works, rewiring its fundamental structure.
Drugs trigger the reward system part of the brain. When someone takes a drug, their brain releases extreme amounts of dopamine, way more than as a result of natural pleasurable behavior. The brain overreacts, reducing dopamine production, in an attempt to normalize the sudden, sky-high levels the drugs have created.
Dopamine surges teach the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other healthier activities. So, my son’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding activities was decreased by the reduction of dopamine in the reward circuit of his brain. His brain was accustomed to not having to produce dopamine naturally. Someone who abuses drugs will feel flat, without motivation, and unable to enjoy things without the drugs.
For me, this explained so many things about his behavior.
I also learned early use of drugs has harmful effects on the developing brain. Young people who use drugs are more likely to become addicted to them. The prefrontal cortex is still developing – the part of the brain that controls judgment and reasoning. Research has shown that the brain doesn’t reach its full growth and development until the mid-twenties. Ninety percent of those addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs starting using them before age 18.
Substance use disorder is a brain chemistry problem, not a moral problem. The things people do to avoid their cravings and withdrawal symptoms can be immoral, but it is their brain chemistry that is the driving force behind the bad behavior, not their true nature. The choice to use drugs exists in the beginning, but as substance use escalates and persists, it begins to rewire the brain.
As hard as it is to change beliefs, we can make the decision to learn the facts. Scientific facts tell us addiction is a brain disorder and a mental illness. Like other diseases, addiction is chronic, which means it is long-lasting and needs treatment and aftercare.
Narrowing the path in the direction of our addicted loved one’s recovery is all we can do, besides loving them completely.
No one can fix another person, but we can participate in our own healing by learning the facts.
Understanding the truth about addiction allows for compassion instead of judgment for our addicted loved ones and for ourselves. It relieves the guilt and shame and helps us to distrust the voice of dysfunction.
Mary Cucarola – 6/1/2021