It’s often the simple questions from children that really stump us. For example, the other day my eleven-year-old son asked me ‘If smoking is bad for you why don’t people just stop?’ It’s those kinds of questions that can leave you utterly at a loss.
My stock answer to date has been to say it’s ‘addictive’, and to explain addiction like hunger, which seemed to be good enough for a ten-year-old to comprehend but clearly not when you reach 11.
The trouble is I’d forgotten how incredibly difficult it is for a non-addict to understand that various extremely strong factors at play in addiction that keep pulling us back to a particular drug, no matter how much part of us may want to stop.
This time I tried a slightly different tack. I said; “Imagine you have a choice, you can either live until you’re a hundred, or you can live until you’re 60. But if you live until you’re a hundred you’ll be unhappy all the time. You won’t be happy on your birthday, on holiday, at Christmas, on the last day of term, when you’re with your friends, never.
But if you live until you’re 60, you’ll live a normal life. You may not be happy all the time, but you’ll be happy on the good times at least. Which would you choose?”
The answer (for me at least) is a given. I’d take the 60 option. In case you were wondering the answer for an eleven-year-old was the same, no doubt is partly driven by the fact that the extreme age of 13 currently feels like an infinity away, let alone the inconceivable age of 60.
This is the problem with addiction. The same basic dynamic applies to all addictive substances. Imagine a simple set of weighing scales, the old-fashioned balance scales where you have two baskets hanging from a horizontal bar that is pivoted in the middle. When the two baskets are equally weighted, the bar is horizontal. If one basket is heavier than the other it starts to tip. Imagine that in one basket are the stimulants, and in the other are the depressants. When they are equally balanced, everything is in order. If you then take a dose of a drug you are in effect putting extra weight in one basket or another (depending on whether the drug you are taking is a depressant or stimulant) and so the scales become unbalanced.
The brain tries to counter this imbalance by putting weight in the other basket. The drug then wears off, meaning the scales then become unbalanced again, but this time the other way. This is the “withdrawal” phase.
Withdrawal doesn’t feel nice and the quickest way to remedy it is to take another dose of the drug. After all, the brain’s chemistry is unbalanced because it is geared up to work under the particular effects of a drug but that drug is absent. So when you are in the withdrawal phase you feel unpleasant, and when you take the drug you go back to feeling normal.
This becomes our experience of life generally. We don’t feel right unless we take the drug that we’re addicted to. The craving process then feeds into this. Craving is essentially when we desire something when we start fantasising about it and teasing ourselves with the thought of it. Essentially what this means is we’re not engaging in whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing, instead all our attention is taken up with an unpleasant internal tantrum. Imagine you’re out with friends, or sitting down at the end of a tough day at work to enjoy a film, or about to eat a nice meal or are on holiday. All of these things are inherently enjoyable, but only if we actually notice them! If we’re paying not one iota of attention to any of them but are instead agonising over whether we should take our drug of choice, then of course we won’t be able to appreciate and enjoy them.
These two factors mean that we cannot engage in and enjoy life without our drug of choice. Whenever we try to stop we feel miserable and can’t enjoy what we would ordinarily enjoy.
When we take the drug again we find we are actually able to engage and enjoy those things in life which are inherently enjoyable. So what do we do? We do the only logical thing in all the circumstances; we opt for the shorter sweeter life instead of the longer pleasureless life. We keep going back to the drug.
However, like many things with addiction the opposite is actually the case. Any drug addiction keeps interrupting the delicate chemical balance of our minds with the result that we feel less confident, less mentally resilient, and more likely to be derailed by the stresses and strains of everyday life had we never taken the drug in the first place. It’s a continual downward trend. Drugs also impact us physically in various ways but the majority of them erode our fitness and cause a very marked physical decline. Our mental state is very closely linked to our physical state. Think about having something difficult to do. Would you rather do it when you’re ill with flu or when you are feeling at your best physically? The more we decline physically the more problematic and unpleasant life becomes generally. Or to be more accurate life stays exactly the same; it is our experience of it that degrades.
It’s a constant downward trend. Every dose of the drug does give you a boost, but then it drags you down, and you are always dragged down more than the boost. You gain five points then lose 10, you gain five points then lose 10 on and on with every dose of the drug. The problem is of course that the drug does give us that boost so we are fooled into thinking that it’s helping us. This is also why it is incredibly obvious to anyone on the outside what the drug is doing to us but so difficult for us to see it ourselves.
So with addiction, although our experience gives us the belief that the choice is we can live to 100 and being miserable or live to 60 and be happy, in reality, the choice is very different. If we choose addiction we get to live to 60 but be miserable, if we choose freedom from the drug then we get to live to 100 and be happy.