Total Recovery: Balancing Head & Heart, Body & Soul in Recovery
 Author:   Jim Parker
Publisher:   Do It Now Foundation

 Publication Date:

  February 1999

 Catalog No:


..Chapter 3: Understanding Addiction

Knowing others is wisdom.
Knowing yourself is enlightenment.

--Lao Tsu

Before we go any further, we first need to review some basic notions about what addiction is -- and what it isn't.

That's necessary because research breakthroughs in recent years have revolutionized our understanding of how and why psychoactive drugs affect the brain, even shedding light on how the brain itself works to generate consciousness. And that has far-reaching implications for your trip through recovery.

'Addiction' vs. 'Dependence.' We also need to define some basic concepts and terms. For starters, we should point out that throughout this booklet we'll use the word addiction to describe all types of dependence.

We won't make a distinction between physical and psychological dependence, mainly because we think splitting hairs about "addiction" and "dependence" is basically beside the point.

Too often, people make too much of words, reading into them things that really aren't there -- or shouldn't be. The language of addictions is a case in point.

To many people, the term "physical dependence" means something a lot more serious and potentially life -- threatening than does "psychological dependence," a phrase that's often tossed around as if it describes something minor, or even imaginary.

The fact is that any addiction is a serious matter, as anyone who's gone through one knows.

Similarly, we're not going to waste time sorting through theories of addiction, for the simple reason that it doesn't matter much in the context of where we're going in this booklet -- and hopefully where you're going with your life.

Let's just say that you used chemicals for the reasons that you used chemicals and I used them for the reasons I used them.

We had a problem and chemicals covered it up. Then chemicals became the problem.

Endorphins: Turning the Key. There is an aspect of addiction science that we should spend a little time with, though. It involves recent research into a group of body chemicals known loosely as "endorphins." They may turn out to have everything to do with why some of us become addicts and some of us don't.

And even more importantly, endorphins may tell the some of us who do become addicts how we can reverse the process of addiction and accelerate the process of recovery.

Discovered by researchers John Hughes And Hans Kosterlitz in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1975, endorphins are molecules produced in the body that turn off and on internal systems that regulate pain and pleasure, especially during times of stress or injury.

The existence of such a system had only been guessed at previously. But as research expanded our understanding of other brain processes, it also began to provide insights into addictions, and investigators gradually began to suspect that the body had to contain receptor sites for specific drugs for the chemicals to exert any influence in the body at all. One researcher even predicted how the system would fit together: like locks and keys.

Hughes and Kosterlitz found the key -- at least the first one. What they discovered were short chains of amino acids, organic molecules sometimes referred to as "building blocks of life." They named the first one "enkephalin" from the Greek words for "in the head," where the substance was produced.

Later, more complex molecules were identified, including Beta-endorphin -- a contraction for endogenous (or internal) morphine -- and, in 1992, an internal cannabinoid (dubbed anandamide) that activates marijuana receptors in the brain.

Endorphin captured the most early attention, because of the variety and desirability of effects -- including just about everything from pain relief to relaxation -- it seemed involved in.

Today, evidence ties the chemicals (and a broader group of other internally-produced chemicals like them) to the foundations of consciousness itself. From pain to pleasure, appetite control to analgesia, these chemicals play a main part in many of the events that shape our lives -- or, at least, that form our perceptions and feelings about our lives.

Most interesting about that, from a recovery perspective, is the growing body of research that shows some of the ways in which we can directly influence endorphin levels through activities that stimulate their production -- that we all, in effect, "roll our own" endorphins (and produce our own Prozac®) by doing the things that make them happen.

And that brings us to the very interesting notion that we can change our feelings by changing our actions -- a situation that has important implications for anyone recovering from a chemical dependency problem.

Me, for example. And you.

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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health from Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.