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So What’s the Big Deal About Addiction?

Answer: Secrets, with their undergrowth of embarrassment and shame.

Key points

  • While addiction to some drugs can be lethal, addiction to less harmful substances still creates a burden.
  • Compulsion and addiction are similar, but addiction comes from ingesting substances that hijack the brain.
  • The psychological burden of any addiction comes from keeping it secret, producing shame and loss of integrity.

Opiate addiction, alcohol addiction, and tobacco addiction—all of them can kill you. That’s a big deal. But what about caffeine or cannabis addiction? Neither of them kills many people. So what if you are addicted to your morning cup of coffee or rely on a bit of weed most evenings to chill? You still get up in the morning to go to work or school, pay your bills, and treat others kindly. What’s the big deal?

Let’s set aside those who operate from a framework of sin and morality. Religious groups that demonize all intoxicants based on some communal belief are not open to the scientific rationale guiding this post. When I think heroin is bad, I don’t mean morally wicked. I mean it can run your life into the ground and kill you.

The hijacking of the brain's reward system

I start from the idea that, while compulsion and addiction have considerable overlap in a Venn diagram—with much in common both objectively and subjectively—they are not the same thing. Addiction necessarily involves the incorporation of matter, molecules, or some substance that alters the structure and function of the body. More specifically, addiction involves direct or indirect modification of our brain’s reward system. All addictive substances cause an outpouring of dopamine into the reward center that is far enough above normal physiological levels to cause motivation to be lessened for anything that is a barrier to the intoxicating substance while increasing the motivation to incorporate the intoxicant again, whether by smoking, swallowing, snorting, skin-popping, injecting, or whatever.

Once intoxicants “hijack” your brain reward system, there is a driver inside that is not really you. The driver may be a harsh tyrant, a friendly boss, or just a nudge. In every case, it is not under your direct control. Once inside, it takes remarkably long to fade away. In many cases, it only goes underground, covered by a relatively thin layer of soil. Not really buried, but just hiding.

Loss of integrity and the burden of hiding secrets

Even in cases when addiction is only moderate, not threatening in the least to drop you off a cliff, it is extremely common for people to hide the condition. Alcoholics often sneak drinks, minimize how much they drink, or rationalize the drink in their hand. I knew an alcoholic who hid his vodka in an old antifreeze bottle in the trunk of his car. I knew a man who hid his cannabis smoking from his family by crawling under the front porch or going up to the attic frequently to straighten things up. Even President Obama hid his cigarette smoking from the public, just as men used to carry licorice Sen-Sen in their pockets to cover their smoky breath.

Carrying secrets about your addiction almost always means that a shadow of embarrassment and shame haunts you, consciously and unconsciously. You hide not only from others but yourself as well. You rationalize, "No harm, no foul." As long as the secret is kept, things are OK.

Meanwhile, you know you are harboring a secret life. You are living a lie. Getting away with it feels safer, but to do this, you are having to lie to yourself to be able to ignore how your lies are twisting through your inner world like bamboo roots that are almost impossible to dig out, like a wild vine poking through cracks in the fence erected between your unconscious and conscious mind. Sometimes they even poke out through the fence erected between your inner world and the outside where others can see them.

Most people want to exclude coffee from the addictions that breed secrets. But the reason people drink coffee is largely because of the boost in alertness caffeine brings. I have known people who are sheepish when they admit to drinking a whole pot of coffee each morning, and for a few years, I kept my friends from knowing how many Big Gulps of cola I drank. It seemed too embarrassing.

Secrets corrode something within us and between people. They corrode our integrity. For anyone interested in how caffeine changed the world, I enthusiastically recommend Michael Pollan's Caffeine, or any of his writings on the subject.

When I was a senior in college, I attended a conference and found that alcohol gently decreased my shyness during receptions. I mentioned this to one of a professor and he wisely asked what I would do with my shyness if alcohol were not available. He advised doing the psychological work necessary to move beyond social anxiety. I took him to heart, though I must admit I never abolished my shyness around strangers as completely as a glass of wine can. And yet, I feel more comfortable in my skin, even with some anxiety, because I know I have developed the skills to carry me through almost any encounter.

The big deal about addiction is the loss of integrity and the burden of hiding secrets to avoid embarrassment and shame. All this work takes a lot of psychic energy. Finding the willingness to “go it on your own," just who you are, produces the courage needed to live an authentic life. I think of maintaining integrity as an ongoing purification process. Addictions hinder progress in this purification.

To hear more of my thoughts specifically about cannabis, join my free webinar, "Shifting Cannabis Science From Botany to Neuroscience—From Bud to Brain."

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