Why do substances like drugs and alcohol work so well? Because as a broad class of consumables they have the ability to meet any need or desire. They are perfect in their chameleon-like ability to match, intensify, or alter one’s state of mind or being.

We can get mellow, relaxed, speedy, intense, spiritual (whatever that means!). We can hallucinate, laugh, lose touch with reality. We can (finally!) enjoy ourselves, let loose, and not worry: about responsibilities, relationships, jobs, money, family, fitting in, anything.

Whatever experience we seek to manufacture, however, there is a straightforward answer to the question of why substances are so effective. Neurologically, the rush of dopamine that accompanies substance use is a fuel that feeds the fire that can become addiction.

Positive Feedback for the Brain

Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that acts within the brain’s reward pathway. We cause its release with just about anything pleasurable: food, laughter, sex, you name it. Drugs and alcohol are uniquely effective because they create an intense spike of dopamine.

This dopamine jolt unfortunately is matched only by more of the same. Nothing else can duplicate the intensity of getting loaded. Nothing.

Even just the thought of getting high can lead to a dopamine spike. In studies of long-time heroin users, for example, it’s been found that dopamine levels actually are highest prior to use. That’s right, the brain’s reward system peaks before heroin even enters the body. Talk about a Pavlovian response!

Unfortunately, this response, compounded by increased tolerance, can contribute to overdoses as users ingest larger amounts of the substance to obtain the desired euphoric secondary effects. The brain may get its fix by simply anticipating a high, but addicts still need to experience a drug’s enveloping embrace to feel satisfied.

Tell Me More About the Fun

I laid out previously the identifiable progression of addiction. Part of that process, I noted, is the undeniable fact that early in one’s relationship with substances, use largely remains in the realm of fun.

For everyone who’s ever ingested drugs and alcohol the reasoning is straightforward, they are an effective means to reach an identifiable, if nebulous, end: happiness.  Thankfully, most people are lucky enough to remain in the fun stage without moving towards addiction.   

But again, drugs and alcohol are popular because they are so darn effective. We choose to use because it’s a blast.

Those of us who move towards harmful and then dependent use recognize early on that drugs and alcohol, in addition to their recreational facility, also are a highly effective coping strategy. They increase the intensity of pleasurable experiences, but over time they more importantly decrease the intensity of painful moments.

Focusing only on the negative aspects of substance use is a familiar “scared straight” strategy. Yet, it’s intellectually dishonest and just not that effective. For many adolescents, who developmentally are wired towards risk-taking and novelty, especially behavior that distinguishes them from their parents, this strategy actually can backfire.

Adults, when confronted only with the negative aspects of substance use reflexively will defend themselves against judgment. If you’re saying I’m wrong, and I don’t like being wrong, nobody likes being wrong!, then my best defensive option is to dig in and not let you win. In the old school, “I know better than you,” autocratic approach, the addict and the moralizer each hold one seemingly irreconcilable side of the ambiguous phenomenon of addiction.

What’s needed is for addicts to hold all parts of their substance use – the good, the bad, and the ugly – within themselves. Addicts need to work out for themselves every aspect of addiction and come to their own conclusions if they wish to change their behavior. (This is something that Motivational Interviewing does very well and one reason why I incorporate it into my practice.)

To only harp on the negative also is a subtle form of shaming that can contribute to an addict’s already refined ability to beat the crap out of her/himself. If someone yells at you, “Are you stupid? Don’t you realize this stuff will kill you?,” and you already are convinced that you’re stupid, well, this tactic merely serves as confirmation of one’s unconsciously ingrained and reality-defining concept of self: I’m a piece of shit.

Finger-wagging simply reinforces a desire to dig in and ups the ante for an addict to find some means of escape from feeling bad.

And there is no better escape than intoxication.

Substance use is a creative means to solving sometimes intractable, often debilitating, and always painful experiences. Substance use initially is not about relinquishing power. It is about feeling better. It is an immediate solution to real, albeit misunderstood, denied, or overwhelming problems.

At first, though, and about this we must be honest, it’s simply a hell of a good time!

Tending Towards Chaos

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol too quickly can become the answer to almost any question asked of them, especially if asked at a very young age. Fun might be the original intent, but the ultimate impact can be quite the opposite.

Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with altering or enhancing one’s reality, but the impact of sustained substance use plays itself out on a longer time frame than just one evening. If given the time and space to unfold, addiction leads to chaos. The process is subtle, however, especially for the addict whose brain simply wants its reward and whose goal is just to feel better, even if only for a moment.

In my next post, I will delve further into addiction by exploring the stage of addiction I’m calling, Fun With Problems. For now, I’ll leave you with Black Flag’s sardonic commentary on the salvific qualities of alcohol, “Six Pack.”