Health Column: Understanding the forces of addiction

September is addiction month and the power of change and changing the force of addiction is important. When someone is asked to give up the substance to which they’re addicted — whether it’s food, shopping, alcohol, drugs or nicotine — they undergo an enormous pressure to evoke change in their lives.

Imagine being in a pool and someone jokingly forces your head beneath the water. The joke goes on too long and you begin to struggle for air. But the person continues to hold you under and now you’re fighting to breathe with all your strength. Suddenly that person releases you and you gasp in air, wonderful oxygen, and you feel complete and safe again. The fight you put up was a response to a change in your access to oxygen. You fought against what seemed a threat to your life.

Now imagine what an addict might feel when treatment withdraws the substance of choice. The addict feels the same type of struggle to survive. The nerve receptors in the brain scream for opiates or alcohol or the adrenaline rush of an out-of-control compulsion. The fight is just as intense as yours to breathe.

Irrational as it might seem, the addict’s struggle is to survive — and he or she needs that addictive object. To the addict, it seems that life will cease without it. Reason is not prevalent here. Addiction is prevalent and it’s a powerful force that resists change. As you felt relief to breathe again after being released from under the water and life seemed balanced, so does the addict when high. This is the balance of life for addicts, being medicated with alcohol or drugs or soothed by shopping, smoking or another compulsion.

As a professional counselor, when addicts talk to me, the conversations frequently revolve around change. Change is the force that motivates us in all directions. We’re always changing; no breath is the same, and no day a copy of the last. As humans, we grow and evolve positively or negatively each day.

Our task in treating recovery is to assist addicts through the painful process of accepting these changes in their lives — to help them find a balance in sober, stable conditions and view their previously addicted self as abnormal.
We are asking the addict to let go of a perfect friend — addiction — and turn alone to find peace and contentment in a world that feels entirely new. This change is astronomical.

It’s no wonder addicted people slip and fall back into their old lifestyles. Non-addicts may find it difficult to understand how they could leave behind family, responsibilities, employment and loved ones. Remember, addiction is not rational.  It’s run by a different standard. Reckless as addiction may be, and hopeful as recovery is, respect must be paid to the challenge of change. Hopefully, as we recognize this challenge, our patience and tolerance will increase.

Jack Hoffmann is a licensed and certified social worker who is director of behavioral health providers and clinical relations at Eastern Long Island Hospital.