Addiction results from an attempt to self-regulate the way a person feels or experiences life by use of substances or behaviours. It is driven by an urge to feel something different to whatever is currently felt. It may be to soothe, comfort, relieve, calm, relax, stimulate, galvanise, energise, empower and so on. The fact that initially it is very effective in changing mood, perception and experience is what gives people the powerful incentive to repeat the experience.
Through repetition, the habitual behaviour that characterises addiction signals the beginning of a relationship with the substance or behaviour that becomes all consuming.
While the person starts out feeling in control of their choice to use substances or behaviours, as the relationship intensifies it becomes self-perpetuating. In effect the addiction is now in control. As it takes over, brain functions adapt accordingly, which partly helps to explain the difficulty of giving up.
However it started, there comes a point when an addicted person’s consumption continues simply because they are addicted. It is truly a vicious circle. Anxious to stave off the very uncomfortable feelings that arise from not consuming (or going into withdrawal), they feel compelled to continue. They engage in a desperate but futile struggle to get control over the addiction.
As addiction takes hold of body, mind and spirit, the harmful consequences to self and others like families multiply and intensify. Yet people find it increasingly difficult to face up to this and to stop. Even though it remains available to them, they seem to lose the ability to make that choice and to act on it.
One of the defining characteristics of addiction is that it continues despite mounting evidence of the harm suffered. This includes the very real risk of death. In fact it is in the nature of addiction for the sufferer to invest in the self-delusion that things are not as bad as they really are.
Despite all this, the real possibility of recovery remains. It is important to encourage addicted people to recognise that help is available and to support them in accessing that help.