There’s not much you can do to prepare yourself for the fear, anger and pain that accompanies learning your child has a drug or alcohol addiction. Substance abuse affects the whole family, and the best way to help your child get the help needed to recover is to thoroughly educate yourself.
The more you know about addiction, the better you can help your child come to terms with their addiction, find helpful resources, choose the right treatment program and become involved in your child’s treatment and aftercare in the most effective ways possible.
This 14-part series is designed to help provide you with the information you need to face this struggle and help your child and your family find the path to recovery.
Addiction’s a Progressive Disease
Addiction is a treatable, progressive disease that’s both chronic and relapsing, and it causes long-lasting changes in brain structure and function. If your child has an addiction, you probably want to learn everything you can about this disease and your child’s prognosis for recovery. This short guide examines each piece of the definition of addiction.
The medical and mental health communities largely agree that addiction is a disease, much like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Like other diseases, addiction is caused by environmental, behavioral, biological and genetic factors.
Also like other diseases, addiction causes changes in brain and body function, and it may cause other physical or mental health issues that require medical intervention. If left untreated, addiction will become increasingly severe, and it may cause disability or death.
Addiction Causes Long-Lasting Brain Changes
Drugs provide the brain with instant rewards by flooding it with dopamine and other neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and relaxation. When someone chronically abuses drugs, the brain adapts to these high levels of dopamine by producing less of it or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors, and it may also adjust the activity of other neurotransmitters, according to Harvard Medical School.
These changes make it difficult to feel pleasure without drugs, further motivating drug-seeking and using behaviors. They also lead to a buildup of tolerance, which means that it takes increasingly higher doses of a substance to get the same effects.
Meanwhile, chronic substance abuse also leads the reward, memory, motivation and learning centers of the brain to record the association between the drug and the pleasure it produces. These brain areas communicate in a way that creates a strong motivation to engage in the substance abuse. These are the same mechanisms designed to keep us alive and procreating—the all-consuming need for food, the powerful drive for sex.
From Abuse to Compulsion
Like eating and sex, the substance abuse becomes a compulsion, a necessity, even though the actual pleasure of using drugs has probably waned considerably. Still, the memory and pleasure centers of the brain hold on to the memories of pleasure and the environmental triggers that lead to seeking the pleasure, and the result is intense cravings. This conditioned response can be extraordinarily difficult to override.
“When Your Child Has an Addiction” Continues
In the next entry in this series, learn about what constitutes a lapse and a relapse and what treatment entails. Continued in “My Child Has an Addiction, Part 7: Addiction is Chronic but Treatable”.