From DebbieBrayerBlog.[excerpt] In the wake of the tragic loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a great artist, partner, father, brother, and son, I offer the following facts about the neurological disease of addiction.
The overwhelming majority of adults in the western world have passed through experimental stages in their lives where they have dabbled with some kind of brain altering addictive substance, i.e., cigarettes, alcohol, prescriptionpain killers, ADHD medication, anti-anxiety medication, and yes, even marijuana (save the ‘it’s not addictive” arguments for later, please). And the overwhelming majority of these adults will emerge from their experiments unscathed, believing that their free will and good choices are what saved them from becoming addicted.
The problem with this thinking is that it is factually incorrect. In other words, they are all wrong.
What saved them (you) from becoming addicted is that their brains did not respond in the same way that an addict’s brain does. They were born with a resistance to addiction. Their free will and good choices had nothing to do with it.
It is time for all of us who got through unscathed to stop patting ourselves on the back for our genetic good luck, and it is time to stop judging those who were not born with the same good genes as defective.
About Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a relapsing drug addict, you may have had the thoughts, “He knew better.” or “Shame on him for throwing his life away.”
Let’s look at these ideas through the lens of how the brain actually works. Yes, he “knew better.” He ‘knew better’ in the frontal lobes of his brain, where we all execute our better judgment and can make calculations of our behaviors and circumstances based on risk and reward.
Here’s the problem, the activity of our frontal lobes can be shut down by the other parts of our brain when there is significant stress in our body. This comes from what is called the “fight, flight, freeze, or faint” mechanism.
This mechanism in the brain is hard-wired into each of us for survival purposes. It is the part of the brain that puts someone into shock when they have been injured and/or traumatized. It is also the part of the brain that can allow a person to lift a car by themselves if their loved one or someone they care about is in danger.
The brain does not analyze the type of stress it is experiencing, that is, this ‘fight or flight mechanism’ is binary. It functions on a “yes” or “no” basis. ”Yes,” there is enough stress to activate the mechanism or “no,” there is not enough stress to activate the mechanism. Human beings have no control over when this mechanism is activated.
This is how PTSD works. Seemingly innocuous sights, sounds, smells or sensations trigger this brain mechanism even when there is no actual threat to the person. The stress in the body is not even consciously recognizable to the person with PTSD. The brain reacts to the trigger and the person is put into the experience of being threatened without choice or control because the frontal lobes cannot get their signals through. When this mechanism is activated free will and choice become impossible. This is true for each and every human being on the planet, whether we like it or not.
The brain of an addict, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this case, experiences withdrawal symptoms as stress. And since it operates on a binary system, it does not sort out “good” stress (I’m so sick because I’m kicking heroin-good for me!) from “bad” stress (I’m so sick because I’m kicking heroin I’d better call a doctor). The brain only knows if the stress is present or not and how much stress is present.
When withdrawal symptoms, i.e., physical distress, anxiety caused by emotional stress, etc. reach a certain point in the brain, the brain automatically cuts off the access to the frontal lobes (in a manner of speaking) and begins to direct the body rebalance the stress, to find equilibrium, so that the brain can return to “normal” functioning.
“Normal” functioning to the brain of an addict is defined as having the addictive substance in the body. So while any relapsing addict “knows better,” the addict literally cannot access the part of his brain where his/her better judgment is stored. The addict loses his choice and free will and is at the mercy of his brain which is in extreme stress and working to regain it’s equilibrium, at any cost, i.e., get more of the addictive substance.
The idea of losing choice, of relinquishing free will, is unthinkable to most of us, especially those of us fortunate enough to live in the U.S. where we have so many choices in so many areas of our lives. Also, human consciousness defends heavily against the possibility of ‘no choice’ which is paradoxical considering we each carry a brain mechanism that removes choice, but I digress.
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