Happiness After AddictionAnna Ciulla
The personal and societal impact of addiction is unparalleled. According to the National Survey on Drug Health and Use (NSDUH), approximately 22 million Americans aged 12 and older suffered from a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2014. Within that category, approximately 8 million Americans suffered from a mental health disorder and SUD simultaneously—a phenomenon known as co-occurring disorders. Substance abuse costs society billions of dollars annually through the criminal justice system, health care and insurance industry, and lost productivity in the workplace. The opiate crisis, specifically, has reached epidemic proportions and continues to leave a trail of death and destruction that is as economically overwhelming as socially devastating. In 2015, a staggering 30,000 Americans died as a result of opiate overdoses.
Those caught in addiction’s stubborn grip often wonder whether finding happiness during and after treatment is even possible. Many become desperate as they cling to hope in the face of what seems like impossible odds. The demoralizing, life-altering effects of substance abuse destroy the physical and psychological health of users, disrupt the family unit, and sabotage personal and professional happiness. However, despite these discouraging realities, happiness is not only possible after addiction— it is likely, provided certain steps are followed.
THE PATHOLOGY OF ADDICTION
A substantial body of evidence proves that addiction stems from isolation and unhappiness. Unresolved trauma, work-related stress, self-esteem issues, unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices, a spiritual void or lack of meaning in life, and relational dysfunction all play a role in its prevalence. The more miserable someone becomes, the more likely they are to seek solace through the escape mechanism of drugs and alcohol. In some cases, people feel that substance abuse is the only light at the end of the bleak, endless tunnel they call life.
Although addiction is unjustly stigmatized and socially maligned, many people struggling with addiction begin using with benign intent— a desire to feel safe, connected, and free from emotional and/ or physical pain. Once addicted, the affected individual may experience feelings of hopelessness and despair as they become unable to conceptualize life without the comfort of recreational drug use. This becomes a vicious cycle as greater quantities of drugs are taken with greater frequency in order to anesthetize the same underlying pain.
Substance abuse initially produces positive effects in many users, including euphoria, significantly lowered inhibitions, a feeling of social connection, and even fearlessness. However, these temporary, misleading feelings always fade and render the user desperate for more of whatever substance they are using. What frequently begins as a two or three beer habit or occasional pain pill, quickly spirals out of control and becomes a nightly six-pack or full-blown Oxycontin addiction.
Legal and illicit drugs unanimously alter brain chemistry. Regardless of whether someone is addicted to opiates, marijuana, cocaine, synthetic drugs, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or any combination thereof— all substances work through a neurochemical mechanism. For example, with opiate addiction, major neurotransmitters like dopamine, which are located in the brain and throughout the central nervous system (CNS), are manipulated. The artificial manipulation of these chemicals results in a heightened sense of pleasure and decreased sense of pain, but at a high cost. As surely as they produce euphoria, lower inhibitions, and numb pain, they result in a nasty backlash that creates even greater unhappiness and misery than before the substance was taken. Although alcohol is considered a CNS depressant, and cocaine a potent psychostimulant, they operate from within the same basic premises, altering the body’s natural chemical balance to achieve an artificial result.
FINDING FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS: A PROVEN METHOD
Beyond the disheartening myths surrounding addiction as a permanent scourge or hopeless battle, lies a hopeful reality attainable to anyone willing to put in the time and effort necessary to reclaim their lives. According to eminent addiction specialist, Stanton Peele, “people overcome addiction out of purpose-based motivation.” Although treatment models vary as widely as specific healing modalities, the basic motivating factor behind people seeking recovery is a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, a greater sense of fulfillment. Holocaust survivor and celebrated author Victor Frankl echoes the same sentiment when he reminds us, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” When it comes to the long and winding road of recovery, these positive attitudes are a key to improved outcomes and overcoming the inevitable challenges that present themselves along the way.
The following four steps can help dramatically increase your chances of success and ultimate happiness when struggling with addiction while developing a greater sense of purpose in the process:
- Pain management – Many people struggling with addiction—especially opiate addiction—first began using their drug of choice as a way to manage pain—to self-medicate. If you were prescribed opiates for pain-management and continue experiencing breakthrough pain despite your prescription, allow your doctor to review current medications you are taking, adjust dosages, or suggest alternative treatment methods that pose fewer long-term health risks. In some cases, natural holistic treatments are replacing the outdated model of automatic opiate prescription by medical professionals. Research proves that the dopamine release accompanying regular exercise and positive brain-based changes accompanying healthy dietary choices both play a significant role in allowing pain-afflicted individuals to gradually wean off medications and eventually stop using them altogether.
- Finding simple enjoyment – Although people often associate enjoyment with indulgent or luxurious experiences like gourmet meals or exotic vacations, enjoyment can and should be found in simpler, everyday activities (or things). Developing a hobby like running, walking or going to the gym, taking a trip to the ocean or nature, or occasionally rewarding yourself with ice cream after a job well done can all offer simple satisfaction and provide a heathier pleasure and reward system that replaces drug use. Social interactions and recreational time with family and friends also provide deeply meaningful and satisfactory outlets. Recovery is an extremely challenging journey that may prove too difficult without occasional enjoyment and relief.
- Setting and achieving goals – The process of actively setting and accomplishing goals can be incredibly empowering and motivating, regardless of whether the goals are considered small or large. The effectiveness of this practice can be increased by asking another person, whether a family, friend or sponsor to hold you accountable and help push you toward success. In competitive athletics, such teamwork and pairing is often a key ingredient and winning formula. The very same holds true for recovery from addiction. Although there is considerable power in individual effort and determination, it is exponentially increased by consciously including others in a focused, long-term practice.
- Working a 12-step recovery program—Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) boast a number of historically proven advantages. These programs, based upon faith in a higher power and rigorous self-honesty, address the spiritual, emotional, and physical roots of addiction through a guided, systematic process. This is extremely helpful for users suffering from the chaotic and disempowering effects of addiction in every area of their lives. As each step is faced and overcome, people struggling with addiction are increasingly empowered and able to share in the group camaraderie and intense, one-on-one sponsorship offered by the program. Not only are 12-step recovery programs highly structured and evidence-based, they are universally popular, featuring an incredible network of local, national and global support.
For more about addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:
- Addiction Recovery: How Long Does it Take?
- How Addiction Treatment and Recovery Can Improve the Quality of Life for You and Your Loves Ones
- How Mindfulness Can Prevent Relapse
- The Science Behind the Importance of Love and Connection to Recovery
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Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Sept, 2015.
Frontiers in Psychiatry. The Shame of Addiction. October, 2013
Journal of Nursing Regulation. Understanding the Disease of Addiction. July, 2010.