Understanding Addiction

Addiction effects everyone, but most of us don’t really understand it. Here’s what some of the top thinkers in the field have to say.

I’ve been learning more about addiction lately. I’ve written on the topic before. It’s something that endlessly fascinates me for three reasons: 1) I’ve wrestled with it personally 2) it provides a wide window into human nature and development 3) it’s a growing problem that effects everyone.

First came Chasing the Scream, a brilliant book which explains why the war on drugs isn’t working, why people get addicted, and how we can make progress on both fronts. It broke some of my old paradigms and I hope to revisit it after the ideas have had some time to marinate.

Then I watched Amy, which was sad and illuminating and inspiring all at the same time. She had so much more to offer the world. I’ll never forget her line after winning a Grammy: “It’s so boring without drugs.”

Next I began listening to a couple podcasts featuring former addicts sharing their stories of recovery. It was a nice change of pace from my usual listening lineup and got me thinking about my own journey.

Then I read The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease. I’ve included my notes below. Anything not in quotations is either a paraphrase of the author’s thinking or my own synthesis.

Big picture:

  • Addiction is a complicated mix of a bunch of factors, not an incurable disease you can only manage at best. It’s formed by unhealed emotional childhood wounds, deep insecurities, the social environment you’re in, your genetic disposition, your personality, your degree of connection or isolation, your choice of coping strategies, broken belief systems about self and others, pride/sin, and changes in the brain (neuroplasticity).
  • Anything you do often enough can become a habit, making it that much easier to repeat. Addictions are just advanced habits formed through thinking, feeling, and acting. “That’s how Natalie developed a serious habit. It’s not that she was forced to act on cue – but it became harder and harder to resist the temptation.”
  • “Addiction results from the motivated repetition of the same thoughts and behaviors until they become habitual.”
  • “Addiction simply describes the repeated pursuit of highly attractive goals when other goals lose their appeal, plus the brain changes that condense this cycle of thought and behavior into a well-learned habit.”
  • “So, what exactly is addiction? It’s a habit that grows and self-perpetuates relatively quickly, when we repeatedly pursue the same highly attractive goal. Or, in a phrase, motivated repetition that gives rise to deep learning. Addictive patterns grow more quickly and become more deeply entrenched than other, less compelling habits because of the intensity of the attraction that motivates us to repeat them, especially when they leave us gasping for more and other goals have lost their appeal.”
  • Love and addiction have many parallels. Many addicts describe their addiction as falling in love with the substance or activity. There are similar things going on in the brain. It’s an irrational, all-consuming, bonding experience.
  • Addiction is not a reasoned path as much as it is an emotional path. 
  • Without question, some things are more addictive than others and are designed to be so or are just naturally more rewarding and better at creating mental hooks. But as the Rat Park and Vietnam heroin studies show, that’s just one part of a much larger story. Addiction is less about the drug or behavior and more about the user. The worse your life is, the more likely you are to get hooked. The better your life is, the less likely.
  • All addictions provide a false and temporary solution to real and long-term problems.
  • There’s a reason why addicts choose the specific things they do; different drugs, experiences, and behaviors provide different “fixes”.
  • Addiction begins with enjoying the substance or behavior but ends with being consumed with the compulsion more than the thing itself. It becomes more about the ritual than the reward. Craving increases while pleasure decreases (sensitization).



Social/emotional factors:

  • Many choose addictive substances and behaviors because they haven’t found a better alternative for coping with life.
  • The less connected someone is with God, others, and themselves, the more they will try to bond with addictive things.
  • The more stressed out and emotionally disturbed someone is, the more vulnerable to addiction they are. The more whole and healthy and relationally connected to others they are, the less vulnerable to addiction they are.
  • “Addictions always satisfy emotional needs. Sometimes they are generic human needs, like the need for stress reduction, comfort, pleasure, self-promotion, and the need to feel connected with something or someone outside ourselves. Since we all have those needs, any of us can become addicts. But addiction is most likely to arise from more specific needs, nestled in personalities with specific wounds, the result of hurtful or disorienting conditions in childhood or adolescence. Young people are helpless to control their conflictual or chaotic environment and the negative emotional constellations, like anxiety and depression, that result from them. In fact, the task of controlling these negative states can be impossibly difficult. Drugs and other addictive practices offer a potent antidote to what it is they are feeling, to banish their sense of helplessness and escape the pit of depression, at least for a while. That’s why an addiction so often follows psychological, social or physical adversity in the early years of life. The self-medication model of addiction highlights this connection, and it fits well with my emphasis on learning and development.”
  • The higher your ACE score (adverse childhood experiences… including things like “physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, alcoholism in the immediate family, and chronic parental depression”) the more likely you are to be end up an “alcoholic, drug user, food addict, or smoker among other things.”


Spiritual factors:

  • All addicts are arrogant in the sense that they believe they can control the addiction vs. it controlling them.
  • For the addict, the addiction becomes it’s own morality. Right and wrong become relative.
  • As a Christian, I would add that addiction can be a form of idolatry; trying to get life (joy, meaning, comfort, etc.) from something other than God.



  • Our brains are not us – we are the ones with cravings, feelings, and choices. The effects of addiction can be seen in the brain, but the source of addiction is bigger than the brain.
  • Of course addiction changes the brain; the brain is always changing.
  • There are specific things happening in the brain to create the kind of rationalizations that are used to justify addiction.
  • “Addicts are excessively now-oriented.” It’s this compulsion to get the thing again and again, no matter the cost. It’s all about immediate gratification. If you can get it, you do. If you can’t, you think about when and how you can. There is no real thought of the consequences, the future, or the rewards of delayed gratification in general.  
  • The deeper into an addiction someone is, the more the addiction has control, like a person with OCD who can’t stop a behavior. Addictive choices change the brain by creating the conditions for the addiction to thrive.
  • Ego fatigue/ego depletion is the technical name for self-control depletion. It’s what happens when you white knuckle it through life for as long as possible while ignoring your desires and your emotions. It inevitably results in a crash. The only way to maintain self control over the long haul is to deal with the difficult emotions and learn how to reframe your story.

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Consequences of addiction:

  • “A nasty side effect of addictive drugs is that the addiction itself becomes a source of stress – often the major source of stress – especially when tolerance is going up, your bank balance is going down, and withdrawal symptoms set in.”
  • “By now, heroin was both the cause of that anxiety and it’s only relief.”
  • When someone chooses an addiction, it severely limits their desire to make goals and achieve them because more and more of their focus goes to the addictive behavior. It begins to have this all-consuming gravitational pull on them so that all they are thinking about is how to get the next fix. Their life revolves around the addiction. The fix becomes their focus.
  • Any double life, any lack of integrity (wholeness), creates a huge vitality vacuum. Addicts are dead inside.
  • Addiction becomes a personal hell that steals your life away.
  • Getting stuck in addiction is like getting stuck in an endless now – there is little thought of the past or the future, little hope beyond the next fix. “The addicts life is lived in the tomb of the present, dead because it has lost its connection with the story from which it came.”


Moving past addiction:

  • “Recovery” implies getting well, back to a place of health. But most addicts never were well to begin with. So instead their journey out of addiction is more like the next step in their personal development. They are going forward, not backward.
  • “Natalie had to find herself before she could find self-control. She needed the time to reflect, to meditate, to remember and mourn her wounded childhood.”
  • You have to have a picture of yourself and your future that is more compelling than the escape. Most addicts have a picture of themselves that is negative.
  • “In Johnny’s view, what most helped him stay sober was the work he did himself: The work of discovering himself, acknowledging the source of these anxieties, reinterpreting, even reinventing himself. And, maybe just a little, learning to be kind to himself. It was cognitive work and emotional work; it took effort and determination. What alcoholics need, he believes, is to become aware of their personal baggage. ‘They need to know why they drink, and what triggers them to drink. Otherwise, treatment is useless.’”
  • The gray matter that is lost on addiction can come back STRONGER in recovery.
  • There has to be a larger story you’re a part of and living into – something worth engaging with – or else why not just check out? “Humans need to be able to see their own lives progressing, moving, from a meaningful path to a viable future. They need to see themselves as going somewhere, as characters in a narrative, as making sense.”
  • “Desire has the power to propel us through life, to get us from now to later. The trick to overcoming addiction is thus the realignment of desire, so that it switches from the goal of immediate relief to the goal of long-term fulfillment.” Recovery is about finding something better to live for than the checked-out now. There must be a “yes” that is more compelling than the “no”.

I followed up The Biology of Desire with Unbroken Brain. I didn’t agree with everything, but there were some good points. I have a few notes below and some summary scans here.

  • Sensitization vs. tolerance: Sensitization (random rewards) makes you more addicted, but tolerance (systematic rewards) makes you less addicted.
  • “Addiction disproportionately kicks people who are already down.”
  • The popular notion that addicts need to hit “rock bottom” is problematic for several reasons: 1)  Incarceration, forced rehab, and harsh punishment doesn’t stop addiction; it tends to fuel it. Attempts to blame and shame someone to the bottom usually backfire. What addicts need most is kindness and support, not more judgment. 2) The people who get paid the big bucks to accelerate an addict’s drop to the so-called bottom often abuse this power. 3) Well-intentioned tough love and interventions can drive addicts deeper into self-destructive patterns and even death.

At this point, when I encounter someone with an air of superiority, judgment, and stigma about addiction (certainly not you, right?), I’m thinking three things:

  1. Take the log out of your own eye (see Matthew 7:1-5). Almost everyone is addicted to something – maybe your vice is feeling morally superior to others, or smoking, or drinking. Maybe it’s gambling or gaming or eating or shopping or porn or perhaps it’s prescription drugs. All of these can become addictive yet all of them are legal – how convenient for you.
  2. Odds are, if you were in their shoes and had their pain, you would probably be doing the same thing or something worse.
  3. Educator yourself out of your ignorance about why people get addicted and how to best help them. Just because you watched a show or knew a guy doesn’t make you an expert.

Was this helpful? Please let me know or share it with others.

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