So to start out, I have a bit of a confession to make.
When I began working here at the Rescue Mission seven years ago, I didn’t really know that much about addiction. Now for most jobs that would not be a big deal, but I was working as a counselor in the New Life Program, a one year drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I had not even taken the addiction class in my master’s program. And while I grew up in a part of the country were alcoholism was very prevalent, I did not know much more than the public face of it. You need essay king wich help you to get a good mark!
So, soon after moving into my new office with my newly printed master’s degree on the wall, I set out to understand addiction. I was going to teach myself all about this problem so I could help those trying to escape its clutches. My search led me to places I had not imagined, and it greatly changed the way I see people who are struggling with addiction and how I believed we should be working for a solution. I would love to share the main points of my education here with you.
Addiction and the Human Brain
The first part of my search leads me straight to the brain. I understood a little about brain chemistry, but I needed to know more. I set out to read and listen to all I could from those who study the brain, how it works, and how it gets broken. I quickly came to understand that there are two major parts of the brain involved in addiction.
The first part is called the pre-frontal cortex. This is the section of the brain that lives just behind our foreheads. It is front and center. We lead with it in almost everything we do. It is the part of our brain that is in charge of a lot of our every day functioning. It tells us what to do next, keeps track of our schedule, and gathers all the input we receive every moment of every day. It is kind of like a really great executive assistant. It is keeping track, in control, organized and always ready with a bottle of water or a breath mint. Its main job is to keep tabs on and control all the other functions that go on inside our skull.
The second part of our brain involved in addiction is called the limbic system. This is a part of our brain that lives deep down inside. If our prefrontal cortex is a great executive assistant, our limbic system is a frat boy on an endless spring break. It is where all our “wants” live. Our want for just one more piece of chocolate cake, our want to be fat and happy, our want to just enjoy a comfortable life for one more moment. See, the limbic system interprets comfort and enjoyment as survival. It believes that “if I feel good, I cannot be under attack. Therefore I will live a little longer. So that is its goal, to feel as good as it can for as long as it can.
The Limbic System vs the Pre-Frontal Cortex
Usually these two parts of the brain work together rather well. The limbic-frat boy brain sees cake, wants cake and starts screaming “CAKE!”. The pre-frontal cortex then takes over and rationally looks at the situation. It says, “Sure that cake would taste good. It would give me some good short term sugar energy, but I already ate breakfast. Lunch is coming, and I really don’t need that piece of cake. I guess I will pass.” Then it calms down the limbic brain by sending some “settle down” chemicals, and the limbic system begrudgingly agrees and gives up its desire for cake.
In some cases, however, the limbic system has grown so strong and powerful it starts a rebellion. It looks at the message that the prefrontal cortex is sending and rejects it out of hand. It decides that it is taking over and we are going to get that cake no matter what. It literally rejects the control chemicals from the pre-frontal cortex and begins to run the show.
This reversal allows it to do whatever it wants, and as we have seen, its wants are not good for the long-term health of the owner. This coup led by the limbic system changes the brain from a healthy organ to a problem. The brain no longer functions the way it was intended to.
Understanding Addictive Behaviors
As I read and understood this information, so much more began to make sense to me. When the brain is hijacked in this manner the wrong part is running the show. That is why addicts behave in ways that stun the rest of us. We don’t understand the things they do and the extents they go to for their drug of choice. We are astonished and baffled at the relationships they will sacrifice to get what they want. But when we understand that the rational part of their brain has taken a back seat and is no longer physically in control, we start to make some sense of the strange behavior. Things are not working the way they should be internally, and the results are terrible.
So, if this is just a medical problem – chemicals going the wrong direction in the brain – can’t we just reboot and get things working normally again? Is there no pill, surgery or therapy that will put the rational part of the brain back in control? And where in this definition are the other parts of addiction? What about the depression and the anger? Where is the anxiety and the spiritual desperation? I recognized all these characteristics in the men involved in our program, but the medical definition did not touch on these aspects of addiction.
I came to see that there was more to the definition of addiction that I had yet to learn. I will tell you about my next discovery soon.
If you’d like to be a part of the team that makes this change possible for our homeless neighbors, please contact the Springs Rescue Mission Volunteer Coordinator and register for our next volunteer orientation.