The human brain is the most complex organ of the body.
This three-pound mass of grey and white matter controls all body functions including heart rate, emotions, learning, and memory. Understanding the brain and how it works is crucial to our understanding of drug addiction, because addiction is a disease of the brain. More technically, addiction has been defined as a ‘chronic and relapsing brain disease that is characterised by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.’
No single factor determines whether a person will become an addict. Generally, predisposing factors may be biological, social, environmental or physiological. Addiction threatens the fabrics of society and has far-reaching medical, social and economic implications.
The major incentive behind addiction is reward. In neuroscience, reward is used to describe experiences that bear repeating. In the addict, the pathway responsible for essential behaviour such as sleeping, eating, and sex is commandeered. Whereas the addict’s primary motivation is to feel pleasure, continuous use of drugs or substances alters the reward pathway by shifting its sensitivities to the substance (or compulsive behaviour) instead of the neurotransmitters (the brains chemical messengers). As a result, the brain begins to depend on outside chemicals for reward; this is known as dependence.
Most abused drugs directly or indirectly target the brain reward system by flooding the reward circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated at normal levels, the system rewards our natural behaviours. Conversely, over stimulating the system with drugs produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforce the behaviour of drug use, causing the user to repeat it.
An interesting quality of the body is its ability to adapt and to regulate itself. Scientists and system therapist call this homeostasis. This explains why a psychoactive substance or drug, when introduced into the body for the first time, changes the brain’s chemistry, resulting in feelings of intoxication or euphoria. Eventually, the brain returns to normal and the user becomes sober. If this pattern is repeated over and over again, the state of normal is altered so that more and more of the substance is needed to have the same effect as experienced during the first time of use. This is what scientists call tolerance. Over time, a pattern is formed and the activity increases, leading to escalation and deterioration.
Addicts are trapped in a vicious circle of drug acquisition and the consistent reward derived from using. Consequently, they maintain a limited consciousness of the destructive and alienating cycles of addiction.
In most cases, addicts simply do not know how else to live. They become afraid of giving up that one thing that has helped them cope with life for years (referred to as a maladaptive personality). Some feel they can quit whenever they want to. Others are afraid of opening up, because they will be judged and condemned; this fear of rejection and stigmatisation leads them to deny their problems, thereby entrenching addiction. This feeling is further exacerbated by the perception that addiction is a moral failure and not a disease.
Armed with denial, hunted by shame and guilt, the addict devises ways to keep the disease underground and succeeds in doing so for some time until the signs become evident. Overt signs in the workplace, school, church, family etc. are indicative of an advanced addiction since these are the last places the addict would want to show their degeneration.
In most churches or denominations (and social settings) addiction is considered a sin, a moral failure or a lack of willpower. From this standpoint, the addict is considered a sinner, social failure, and/or deviant. Unfortunately, this negative perception continues to shape our response to the menace of addiction today.
Understanding addiction as a disease and not a moral failure can greatly enhance our ability to deal with this menace with more empathy and less stigmatisation, thus increasing our chances for achieving more effective outcomes. Addicts have a profound need for nurture, love, and acceptance; at the same time, they are driven by pride, fear, a need to be in control, and unwillingness to completely surrender or get help. An effective intervention programme must be holistic. It must be designed to help the struggling addict deal with denial, admit their powerlessness, and come to terms with the reality that their lives have become unmanageable. It must also help the addict begin a genuine exploration into self, cultivate and maintain a programme of well-being and maintain a long-term goal of sobriety. Where needed, a medical detoxification should be provided.
From a biblical standpoint, Apostle Paul’s words in the book of Romans 7:21-25 embodies the sad reality of those struggling with addiction. His self-description as ‘wretched’ also depicts the shame and guilt that dominates the addict’s self-perception. In this same scripture, Paul points out the solution to his woes in the person of Christ. As a Christian development worker and one who has worked with addicts for over a decade, I share this sentiment as well.
A Christian approach to addiction recovery must be
holistic, incorporating all truths on addiction, because all truth is God’s
truth. Most importantly, it must be designed to create and foster a community
of grace and healing; adopting best practices in the treatment of addiction
while looking to the hope of the gospel for the power to change the behaviour
of addicted persons, to heal the wounds of their victims and to provide
reconciliation with the body of Christ.
 NIDA. (2014, July 1). Drugs, Brains, and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction on 2018, June