Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Science of Cross Addiction

Matte glass cork next to cilindrical tube
 (Photo credit: Horia Varlan)
Consider this story: A man who is a heavy marijuana smoker knows he needs to stop because of court ordered probation for which he will take drug tests. This individual abruptly stops smoking marijuana and, instead, starts drinking a couple or more beers after work during the week to “unwind” after a hard day. After he takes his drug tests and has completed his probationary period, he abruptly returns to smoking marijuana.
This story demonstrates how cross addiction works in a general way, though the chemicals may vary greatly from person to person. It is relatively easy to gain a similar level of relief from different chemicals. As with our story, the man felt he needed to relax from a hard day but could not smoke marijuana, so he turned to beer, a more socially acceptable and legal alternative.
In the throes of addiction, it is easy to move from one compulsive behavior to another. Some people manage to stay clean for a period while indulging in compulsive sexual behaviors or turning to gambling to get their fix and satiate the gnawing hunger that comes with drug and alcohol cravings. Even with the less addicted, where the gnawing hunger isn’t quite as powerful, substances are quite frequently substituted when the choice chemical is not available.
Cross addiction is exemplified when a drug addicted individual uses another chemical such as alcohol, or another substance beside the drug to which they are primarily addicted. This is why we often encounter many drug addicts who insist that they are solely drug addicts and don’t have a problem with alcohol. Upon relapse, the individual discovers that he is also alcoholic.
A Psychology Today article offers that cross addiction stems from the mental component rather than the physical addiction.
This statement must be true; otherwise, treating addiction would simply be withdrawing an individual from the addictive behavior or chemical. There is much more to addiction treatment because of this strong mental component. It’s largely about retraining the brain. Scientists believe the chemically addicted receive a kind of chemical reinforcement for their behaviors when drinking or using, often relieving stress or helping individuals to cope in other ways. The reinforcement comes in, not only by providing relief from the stress, but also on the chemical level through a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine produces the good feelings in our everyday life that we experience after eating, having sex, exercising, or even accomplishing a task. One physician, writing for recoverytoday.net, cites these reward centers in the brain are the same structures that provide us with survival instincts. These neurotransmitters cause the drive to replace drugs of abuse with other substances or behaviors. This goes far in explaining the ease at which a “true alcoholic” can become similarly addicted to prescription drugs or sex.

When in recovery, the addict learns methods designed to re-teach the brain; this can be a taxing and sometimes painful process which requires a lot of redirection. It is quite similar to training a full grown dog not to urinate on the carpet when he has been doing so all of his existence. In the addicted brain, the person has been coping with stress, pressure, and other uncomfortable emotions for a very long time with drugs and alcohol. Now, the brain must look for new ways of coping. In early sobriety, it takes a lot of diligence and effort to resist the urges to cope as one has become accustomed. This is why cross addiction is prevalent in those trying to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. The instinct of turning to something that is not specifically the drug of abuse can be powerful and sometimes overwhelming for the addict. The urge/idea may be as seemingly benign as indulging in excessive exercise or sex, as devastating as drinking beer instead of smoking marijuana.


When it comes down to it, addiction is addiction. Some addictions are much more destructive than others. Even so, there is a solution. Recovery is not easy. Yet, even after slipping into various addictions, one may always have more chances if he still takes breath.  Recovery is a process, sobriety is earned.


-JBS


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