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Many people believe that, to be truly addicted to something, you have to be both psychologically and physically hooked. That is, you have to crave the drug and feel physically ill when you can’t get it.
But there’s a new book out, Unbroken Brain, that calls this theory into question, challenging the ingrained idea that there are two types of addiction. According to the book’s author, Maia Szalavitz, these two seemingly separate aspects of addiction aren’t so separate after all.
Our bodies and brains react differently to different types of drugs. In other words, depressants, like alcohol and heroin, affect us in a different way than do stimulants, like cocaine and meth. For example, we go through physical withdrawal (feeling nauseated and shaky), as well as psychological withdrawal (a strong desire to drink again) when we quit abusing alcohol.
With a stimulant like cocaine, however, we only experience a psychological – not physical – withdrawal when we suddenly stop using. Thus, our physical and psychological reactions to drugs aren’t universal across drug types and shouldn’t be used as an indicator as to whether we’re addicted or not.
Szalavitz also argues that, just because certain drugs don’t produce symptoms of physical withdrawal (vomiting, diarrhea, etc.), we shouldn’t consider them less addictive. They’re still producing dangerous changes in the brain, even if they’re not visible to the user. Thus, many long-term users who aren’t seeing physical effects don’t realize they’re addicted.
Szalavitz also goes against conventional wisdom in how she defines addiction. She believes it’s not a disease, like cancer, yet it’s not a moral failing either.
A former cocaine user herself, Szalavitz considers addiction to fall under a learning disorder – one that should be treated as such when facing treatment, prevention and policy. Like autistic traits, she believes addictive behaviors fall within a spectrum – and can be normal responses to extreme situations.
“Properly understood, the addicted brain isn’t broken – it’s simply undergone a different course of development,” she writes. “Like ADHD or autism, addiction is what you might call a wiring difference, not necessarily a destruction of tissues.”
It’s important to recognize, then, that each person who becomes addicted to drugs has learned addiction in their own way, and because of this, needs personalized treatment to succeed. After all, she argues, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Additional Reading: Just the Facts: Psychological vs Physical Addiction
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