Addiction is disease that takes control of its victims

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‘Addicts take pains to obtain prescription drugs," as reported in the Dec. 4 edition of the U-B, for one simple reason: they need the drugs to function normally.

The stories reveal the desperation. A woman beats herself up in an attempt to get prescription drugs. A man sustains third-degree burns to his hand trying to put out a fire that destroyed his bottle of prescription drugs. A woman repeatedly slams her hand in a car door to get a prescription for painkillers.

What would drive people to do such things? Addiction. When a person becomes addicted to alcohol or other drugs, the organ that is most directly and profoundly affected is the brain.

If you have diabetes, your brain works - you know you're sick and need help.

If you have heart disease, breast cancer or asthma, your brain is your ally - you know that without medical assistance, your life is in danger.

But if you "have" addiction, your brain is sick, poisoned by drugs. A toxic brain makes bad decisions. People with sick, poisoned brains do stupid things. They lie, steal, cheat, manipulate, deny they have a problem and refuse to get help because their brain has one overriding need - drugs.

To understand addiction, we have to turn many of our assumptions upside down. Most sick people want to get well. People with addictions also want to get well - but the very substance that is making them sick makes them feel better. The poison is the antidote.

Drugs are the addicted person's medicine - they ease, for a little while, the physical and emotional pain of addiction.

Over time, as the disease of addiction progresses, the only cure for the sickness is drugs. Experts call this a physiological imperative, for addicted people experience an overwhelming need to use drugs to ease the physical agony of withdrawal and relieve the anxiety, depression and despair.

Anxiety, depression, despair, fear, guilt, shame - these, too, find their source in the drug-addicted brain. An addicted brain is diseased - not just physically sick but mentally ill as well.

A sick brain will feel sick, act sick, make sick and twisted decisions, and worst of all, the sick brain - because it is sick - cannot fully understand that these actions and decisions are damaging.

Why? Because an addicted brain needs the drugs to function and, in the end, nothing is more important than feeding the addiction.

It makes sense, doesn't it? For the brain is the place where thoughts and feelings are sorted out, where decisions are made, choices are sorted out and consequences understood.

Years ago I was talking with a group of young people, ages 14-18, in the Juvenile Justice Detention Center. We were discussing the reasons why people use drugs.

Miranda, 16, a heroin addict, listened somewhat impatiently to the other kids who said they use because drugs are "fun," they're bored and have nothing else to do, drugs relieve their stress and anxiety, and so on.

"I don't use drugs to get high," Miranda said with a desperate weariness in her voice that belied her age. "Maybe once upon a time. But now I use drugs to get out of bed in the morning. I use drugs to feel normal. They work for a while and really, that's all that matters. For a little while, at least, I can feel normal."

This isn't a new story. Many years ago a friend in long-term recovery from alcoholism told me a story he had heard about a Civil War soldier. The soldier was trying to explain his overpowering need for alcohol, which took precedence over every other human need or desire including his basic instinct for survival.

"If a bottle was waiting for me on the other side of the field, and a cannon was shooting at me all along the way," the solider explained, "I wouldn't hesitate one second to walk through the line of fire to get to the bottle."

Addiction to alcohol and other drugs changes all the rules of conduct, order, discipline, morality and survival. Addiction calls the shots because addiction is centered in the brain, the organ that determines how we feel, think, behave and relate to others.

And I have to tell you - hearing the stories, reading the statistics, witnessing the anguish - sometimes, it seems to me, we're all in the line of fire.

Kathy Ketcham is the author of 14 books, nine specifically on the subject of addiction and recovery. She is the co-founder and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community at 515 West Poplar Street, www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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