Addicted to Everything: The Science Behind Addiction

Have you ever heard of an “addictive personality”? I used to think that this phrase described me to a T. Once I start something, anything, my brain zeroes in on it and I’m completely obsessed.

For example, when I start a project, I must finish it in one sitting. If I don’t finish it right away, my brain will not shut up about it until I do. My friends in college used to think I was insane, because instead of working on long essays in small chunks over a few weeks, I would sit in the library for 7 hours and do it all at once: the research, the notes, the drafting, the editing and the submission.

Then, at age 24 I was diagnosed with ADD. “Ooooh okay, THAT’S my problem!” Yes, this was something I needed to get under control, but even after being medicated and subsequently more able to put down a project and pick it back up later, I was still noticing a cycle of complete obsession over everything.

At age 25, I came to terms with a very destructive mental obsession over alcohol. I realized that I was doing that thing I always do, where I love something so much that I’m unable to stop. Only this time, it was wreaking havoc on every part of my life, not just my mental health. So I got sober. Everything started to feel better. “Okay, so ADD and alcoholism are my problems. Now that those are fixed, I should be fixed!”

Nope.

Actually, now that I’m no longer mentally obsessed with being drunk all the time, I have this space in my brain that needs to be filled with something else. After I got sober, I noticed that my “addictive personality” has moved to the forefront of my being and turned up to 11. It’s not an “addictive personality” that I’m dealing with. I’m just an addict.

But why am I an addict?

The downside of being a sober alcoholic and working on myself is the fact that I now can see everything I dislike about myself that I used to be able to completely ignore. After a 3-month crossword puzzle binge (seriously, it was a binge; I completed at least 6 puzzles a day) I got frustrated with my tendency to obsess over simple things. I wanted to know why I am the way I am, so I decided to do some research.

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer for why I’m like this. There are actually several different factors that make a person more susceptible to being an addict. A sobriety program that I belong to taught me that we, addicts, are born this way. I like to believe this to be true, so I specifically looked for some scientific data to back that up. Here’s what I found:

-Genetics

Epigenetics play a big part in what makes someone an addict.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “children of addicts are 45% to 79% more likely” (NIAAA) to struggle with addiction compared to those with non-addicted parents. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that although this correlation may be due to environmental factors, such as exposure to adults abusing drugs and/or alcohol, epigenetics play a big role as well. Epigentics basically means DNA being changed because of environmental needs, or by the choices people make in life. For the sake of my argument, I’m focusing only on the latter reason for DNA to change. Researchers explain how epigenetics contribute to the making of an addict with this example: “…when a person, [for example,] uses cocaine, it can mark the DNA, increasing the production of proteins common in addiction” (NIDA). This marked DNA is then passed on to that person’s offspring, and voila, a new addict is born.

So, one reason I’m addicted to everything is because my father is also addicted to everything.

Cool…but what is it about addicts that makes us the way we are in the first place?

-Wiring-

CT Scans show less dopamine receptors in the brains of addicts versus those who are not addicted.

The brain is an incredible organ. Apparently, as an addict, it’s scientifically proven that my brain is wired differently than others’. I was born with a gene that makes me prone to addiction, but that doesn’t mean I was doomed to be an alcoholic. What activated it was when I put alcohol into my body for the first time.

When a person who is prone to addiction puts a drug into their body, the part of the brain that I’ll call the “pleasure center” goes haywire. The pleasure center of our brains is where dopamine is released, or in other words, one of the “happy hormones.” When we do positive things, our brain releases dopamine. This reaction exists to reward us for doing good things, like passing a final exam or helping your neighbors fix their sink. However, drugs make an addict’s “pleasure center” confused, because it releases way more dopamine than it normally would, giving us the biggest high ever…until it doesn’t. This is why addicts need more and more and more of everything, because nothing ever releases that BIG dopamine jolt like drugs do. Eventually, drugs become the main source of your “happy hormone” as your tolerance builds. The National Institute of Health explains, “these brain adaptations often lead to…becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food, sex, or social activities” (NIH). This explains why even if addicts are sober, they find themselves doing other things in excess.

Okay, this all makes sense! But why did I have to be one of the addicts that chose to start using in the first place?

-Mental Health-

People with mental health disorders are more likely to use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

Remember, the studies I referenced above did not say that children of addicts were 100% more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol; it stated that we are up to 79% more likely to do so. I just happened to be one of the “lucky” ones.

In my program, I’ve heard people describe someone they knew as “an alcoholic who never took the first drink.” We know that addicts are genetically predisposed to addiction. We also know that when an addict tries a drug, it kickstarts that addictive motor in their brains. But why feel the need to try drugs in the first place? This is where mental health plays its part.

Sometimes, people who battle mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, “attempt to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol in an effort to numb the symptoms associated with their condition” (Lifeworks Rehab Surrey). So basically, if you’re born with that addiction switch in your brain, but you don’t suffer from mental health disorders, you won’t feel the need to ever flip that switch in the first place. However, you might still find yourself with an “addictive personality” because everything you do that releases your “happy hormone” pushes that switch just a little bit more toward the on-position each time you do it.

_______________________________________________________

I am capable of becoming addicted, obsessed, with anything and everything. My first year of sobriety was spent being absolutely addicted to Kraft Deluxe mac n cheese. I ate it almost everyday. This is not an exaggeration. My food jags extended to a few other things too. I went about 6 months or more eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Crunch Berries everyday. Then it was cookies and cream Pop-tarts. Then it was Oreos. Now it’s sparkling water and Diet Coke.

My phases of addiction do not only extend to food and drink, however. I’m also easily addicted to activities. Remember my crossword puzzle binge? Once I find joy in an activity, I constantly think about it and cannot stop doing it. “It’s normal to want to do things you enjoy all the time!” Yes, but there comes a point where it’s no longer a hobby and has become an obsession. There is a problem with anything you get addicted to, even if they are seen as harmless leisure activities. Leisure activities aren’t just for relaxation to an addict; they are an escape from what we see as our harsh reality. They are what send us into that desired dopamine high.

I’m still trying to figure out how to find balance in my life as an addict. It helps, though, knowing why I am the way that I am. I hope that any readers who struggle with addiction or who know other addicts can find some clarity in the fact that science proves we are not crazy. We are not careless. We are not ungrateful. We are not lazy.

We are addicts.

Works Cited:

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/
  2. NIDA. 2019, August 5. Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction on 2021, February 12
  3. NIH. 2018, June 6. Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction on 2021, February 12
  4. Why Are Some People More Prone to Addiction? | Lifeworks Rehab Surrey. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.lifeworkscommunity.com/blog/why-are-some-people-more-prone-to-addiction

Published by

Zoë Cardinal

Core Values: Positivity, Dedication, Education & Growth A language nerd with a passion for learning, I aspire to live each day to its ultimate good. I'm consistently in search of ways to become a better person and world citizen, by being of service to others and practicing self-care. I'm currently a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, NYC. Before moving to the city, I studied French, Sociology and Linguistics. I'm blessed to have spent a year in the south of France and a year in Ireland during my studies. I'm sober. I'm queer. I believe I'm on this earth to learn as much as possible and inspire others to do the same!

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