Reflection: Jennifer Kaucher

Begin to pay attention to how many times addiction, drugs and alcohol come up in conversation with friends and family, and you may be surprised. I was, when I started my job at the Council on Chemical Abuse over two years ago. My way of talking about addiction has changed; let me tell you why.

We have all joked (or at least I have) at one point or another about being addicted to something, whether it is our favorite food or our smartphones. What I have learned is the difference between joking and the reality of addiction. Addiction consumes a person, and the genuine suffering that happens is undeniable.

Addiction has always been a part of the human condition. We have seen the devastation it is capable of, but now, more than ever, it is affecting our daily lives. With the current opioid crisis in our country, almost daily we hear about it on the news, in the latest sitcoms, in newspaper articles, during a presidential debate, or around the dinner table.

It may be clearer to see signs and symptoms in an individual addicted to heroin because of the physical characteristics that come with use. But what about the person addicted to playing video games, being on the Internet, spending money, eating, gambling, work or sex? Are those any less of an addiction, or any less serious, because they don’t involve a “drug”? I think not.

As defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” By definition, addiction does not apply to just drugs and alcohol, but anything that affects individuals to the point where they cannot function without that substance or behavior.

An individual who is addicted to heroin and an individual addicted to gambling can have equally serious conse­quences because of their “drug of choice.” An individual addicted to gambling, shopping or pornography may not show physical signs, but those obsessive behaviors can still lead to isolation, unemployment, homelessness and arrest, much like an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Now, addicts cannot overdose on gam­bling at a casino, or watching pornography, like they can overdose while using heroin or alcohol, but the effects while engaging in drug use or a behavior are similar. What is happening in the brains of those who have behavioral addictions, such as gambling, gaming, shopping, (compulsively) eating, etc., is the same as in the brain of someone getting high off of a drug.

The limbic system, or what we call the pleasure center of the brain, reacts when we are doing something we find enjoyable. Addiction “hijacks” the brain, and the drug or the behavior is equated with survival. An individual addicted to a behavior like gambling or gaming is thinking about engaging in that behavior more than his or her own basic needs. Before eating, sleeping, showering and connecting with loved ones, their addiction comes first.

We should not dismiss the addicted individual, and think it is not “as bad” to be addicted to a behavior as to a drug. For someone addicted to gambling, the shame, guilt and relational consequences can be very real. As with drugs and alcohol, the addiction reaches a point where the addict no longer really enjoys the behavior, yet there is an uncontrollable, repeated urge to continue the behavior despite negative consequences.

Addiction does not discriminate against any person. Whether it is gambling or heroin, when the brain reaches the point of addiction, the individual’s life will be taken over. The good news is that there is hope! Addiction is a treatable disease, and there is help available for those caught in the trap. Recovery is possible from all addictions!