Life is Full of Choices, Addiction Ain’t One

Some choices are small and seemingly inconsequential. Some are huge and have a dramatic impact on your life. We all have made good one and bad ones throughout our lifetime. Hopefully more good than bad or at least, we have learned from the bad ones and moved forward making a positive out of a negative.

For a large portion of my professional career I spent a great deal of time chasing those who, I believed, had made a whole lot of bad choices. Frankly, many of them had. Many of the people that I chased after and arrested as a narcotics enforcement detective were drug dealers who had made a choice to capitalize off the vulnerability of others. They profited from someone else’s addiction, but, those aren’t the people I am talking about. That is a whole other story.

I am talking about the drug addicts. The people who we often and easily look down upon in our society. The people who we self-righteously regard as weak or lesser or criminal because it makes us feel better about ourselves and our perceived status in society.

The reality is that we all have it in us. Addiction that is. As sure as you have a brain in your head, you are susceptible to addiction. Why, you might ask? Simply put, your brain is chemically engineered to be naturally at risk of addiction. Our brains require a delicate dance of chemicals in order to keep us “balanced”. The chemicals most impacted by substances are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine motivates us to do what is necessary to meet our needs and once our needs are met, serotonin makes us feel satisfied and contributes to a feeling of happiness. and well-being thus queling the motivation of dopamine. In other words dopamine tells your brain what it wants and serotonin tells your brain that you have received it and are now happy.  

Low levels of serotonin causes the brain to be unbalanced and the unchecked dopamine levels create an increase in cravings for what the brain wants.

What causes serotonin levels to be low? Stress and trauma, especially chronic inescapable stress, are the main contributors to decreased serotonin in the brain. Low serotonin leads to depression and anxiety. Naturally, people then become vulnerable to any substitute that will help make them feel better. This can be alcohol, drugs or even activities such as sex, gambling, or overeating.   

To complicate this dance, substances such as drugs and alcohol cause an abnormally large surges in dopamine levels that activate a pleasure response, Increased frequency of substance use can actually exhaust the brain, thus causing it to produce less and less dopamine and relying on the addition of an artificial substance to make a person feel good. Thus creating a dependency on an artificial substance in order to function.

This month we welcomed ChildSafe to our monthly program called TEAM Time. During our conversation with their staff, I learned about childhood trauma and its correlation to substance abuse. The impact of trauma such as abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse on a child’s life, left untreated, can cause chronic, long term, and inescapable stress. This type of stress can result in low levels of serotonin in the brain and thus the cycle begins.

I think back to the hundreds, if not thousands “drug addicts” that I crossed paths with in my law enforcement career. I reflect on their individual stories. Stories riddled with histories of abuse in one form or another. I also think about the number of individuals in my profession and in any number of high stress professions who become dependant on a substances. Suddenly my perspective and bias shifts. I now fully understand that addiction is not a choice. No one chooses to become chemically dependant on a substance or activity. Today, I look at substance abuse prevention with a much broader scope. That is why TEAM is committed to tightening the prevention net through collaboration and partnerships with human service organizations. Together, we can prevent behavioral health challenges and impact community health in Northern Colorado.

Gordon CoombesComment