Why Drug Addiction Is A Lifelong Fight Against The Brain

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Addiction is hardwiring the brains of addicts for a lifetime of substance abuse, and experts fear an uneducated society in the grips of the opioid epidemic is leaving everyone susceptible.

“There’s a thing called ‘euphoric recall,’ and that’s when you have these visions and memories of your drug or drinking use that bring nostalgia and good feelings,” James B., a recovering addict of more than 13 years, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “So no matter the amount of clean time one gets you are always at risk.”

The U.S. suffered the deadliest year on record for fatal drug overdoses, which claimed 52,404 lives in 2015, and that figure is expected to rise in the years ahead. Medical professionals and experts in the recovery community are desperately trying to inform the public of the true nature of addiction, treatment and prevention. They argue misconceptions regarding addiction and the time needed to fully recover are undermining efforts to kick the habit and compounding the crisis.

One key to understanding the phenomenon and combating it in society is understanding how addiction rewires the brain and suppresses rational thought. Euphoric recall, according to recovering addicts, is always a threat, even if the person is clean for decades.

“Today I don’t struggle with urges, but once or twice a year I’ll have a thought pop into my head of some memory that gets triggered subconsciously,” James, co-author of “The Craving Brain” with Dr. Anderson Spickard, told TheDCNF. “So when this happens, unless you have what I call a ‘tool kit’ for how to handle it, you’re susceptible, because all of a sudden you have this land mine come off in your head.”

James notes that anything can trigger these “euphoric recalls” and most of the time it’s not clear what is behind it. He says in these moments, every former addict is at risk of going back to abuse because the association between happiness and the triggered memory is so powerful.

“This is why people with substantial amounts of clean time are susceptible to relapse,” James said. “If you don’t have your tool kit in place and trouble comes, when these thoughts come, drinking or using may become an option in your mind.”

The idea that addiction is a disease is only just entering the mainstream conscious of the U.S., which some medical professionals fear is creating roadblocks to education and recovery. Dr. Eric Nestler, an expert on neuroscience, initially had his ideas rejected in the medical community when he first attempted to research how “repeated activation of the opioid receptor” literally changes an addict’s brain. He argues that people still hesitate labeling addiction a disease, because it initially involves a voluntary choice to take a substance.

In his opinion, people need to learn to separate the disease that takes hold of the brain and the voluntary decision the user first makes to take a substance.

“I became hooked very quickly on alcohol and then later used drugs,” James told TheDCNF. “At the time I didn’t know that my brain was slowly becoming wired to need the drugs and alcohol the way my body needed food and sleep. I fell into the trap of addiction and the cycle continued for over a decade until I had really hit rock bottom. Friends and family had left in the wake of my selfishness as my disease of addiction just ran rampant.”

Nestler notes addiction creates conditions in the brain that “attack free will” and corrupt the rationality of decision making. While general drug abuse continues to wreak havoc in society, experts say opioids are making the need to educate the public all the more dire. Of the 52,404 lives claimed by drug overdoses in 2015, 63 percent involved opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

James says he will stay involved with addiction recovery his entire life, but stresses the real key is preventing people from becoming future addicts.

“It overwhelmingly is destroying the fabric of our society,” James said. “Prevention is really my passion because once it’s a full fledged addiction, not only is it one of the hardest things in the world to fix, you’re going to have to deal with it for the rest of your life. You can’t get rid of the bad wiring and you can’t get rid of the euphoric recall.”

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