How It All Begins

One bang of heroin and you’re a self-destroying monster –a zombie with an insatiable bloodlust. You are beyond control. From there on it’s bad breath, decaying skin and teeth, organ destruction, and all your relationships laid to utter ruin.

Not quite.

It won’t even happen after two or three times or even a week. Some might argue that a kind of psychological addiction can begin after only a few consecutive days of use. Even then, there’ll likely be no withdrawal symptoms to speak of. Many users claim that it took a month for them to develop the physical addiction. For some it takes longer, some not nearly so long. One of the most insidious qualities of drug addiction, particularly with opiates like heroin, is that you can use for a period of time and not be addicted at all. Some claim that they could use and wake up the next day without having any residual effects at all, no hangover and no feelings of withdrawal.

Then one day it hits you, suddenly. You feel sick. Like you have a bad case of the flu. You ache, you get hot and cold sweats, you have abdominal cramps, a runny nose and teary eyes. Wait a little longer and then the full body horror comes – nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. But then you use again and the sickness goes away.

This is often the point where people switch to the needle. This is often where dope rises in your life, when it becomes the most important thing in your life. This is where willpower goes full zombie. You live to serve the hunger.

This is also more or less the process with alcohol, cocaine, benzos, and other drugs. Addiction sneaks up from the shadows and all the while you thought you were in control.

How did that happen?

It was your brain.

The Making of the Zombie Brain

First, to be clear: Dependence and addiction are not the same thing. We know that people suffering from pain, like cancer patients, can take opioids for years and not develop a condition of drug abuse, drug craving, or drug-seeking behavior. Yet they are dependent on their medication. Unlike addicts, they did not develop the compulsive behavior of addiction: They did not crave more drugs whatever the negative consequences. On the contrary, their quality of life was restored, or at least improved, despite their dependence. Caffeine is another example. Although a heavy coffee drinker may feel a consequence if they miss their caffeine for a day or two, it does not mean they are addicted. Instead, the body is more in a state of surprise – it did not get what it expected. As with those that took the pain medications described above, their physical symptoms were not indicative of psychological dependence. The main difference? For the opioid user, one that is dependent can actually experience improved function in their use of the drug; the one who is addicted does not.

As for how the addict’s brain becomes zombified, physiologically it has to do with brain nerve clusters and natural brain dope, in particular endorphins and dopamine. These are brain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body by carrying signals between nerve cells or neurons. They tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. Dopamine and endorphins make you feel good and reduce pain. They also alleviate anxiety and depression. Chemically, endorphins are like opiates. So when you use an opiate drug, the nerve cells get excited, far more excited than they would get under natural circumstances. Opiate drugs release 2 to 10 times more dopamine than the brain would naturally on its own, and they do it faster and more consistently. This overload of brain chemicals also effects motivation and memory, which creates the physiological imperative for addiction.

To compensate for these unnaturally high surges in feel good chemicals the brain responds by producing less natural transmitters. This is what causes the pains of withdrawal. The person will feel flat, depressed, nervous, anxious, stressed and unable to enjoy the things that used to bring them pleasure and joy. Responses to stress get more intense, especially if there is a pre-existing mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or an antisocial or borderline personality.

The Brain Disease

Addiction is a choice. But, very importantly, it is also a disease that can overpower the sufferer into making choices that are self-destructive. It makes the mind self-centered and wholly focused on not feeling the sickness of withdrawal. The disease of addiction has little in common with other diseases. It is a disease not as an illness on its own but in the way that it changes behavior. If the victim doesn’t acknowledge it and deal with it, it will get worse. Unlike other diseases, addiction has a strong emotional component – emotions trigger drug use. The irony is that psychological pain, often a component in why people abuse substances, is a warning. Its function is to tell us that something is wrong. Numbing away that pain with substances only perpetuates the pain and takes the user ever further away from getting better.

Where It All Ends

So, addiction does effect the will. The need to avoid the pain, both the inner psychic pain and the more concrete physical pain of withdrawal, becomes the primary impulse. Of course, the irony is to overcome addiction requires willpower. Twelve-step programs will argue that addicts cannot will themselves into sobriety, that they must surrender to the idea that their addiction is bigger than they are. But the reality is no addict can beat back addiction unless they are determined to do so.

An addict must believe that they are not helpless and can change their situation. Faith in their ability to overcome requires a transformation and manipulation of old thinking patterns. Some may argue that this is not willpower but responsibility. Changes will need to be made – the addict must cut ties with drug-abusing friends, rid themselves of their stashes of drugs, and make commitments to themselves and loved ones. And, they will need to find support – through group meetings, treatment, friends and family, wherever it can be found.

The Opening of the Addict

The addict will also need to be open. The must accept that sobriety will happen, however it may happen. In fact, according to research, being open can be more effective than being willful. Being open allows a person to accept and look for change whereas acting on a predetermined outcome limits possibilities. No approach to lasting sobriety, whatever it is, can work unless the addict is open to the possibility that it can work. To not take up the substance again is entirely the choice of the person recovering. This requires a will to be open to sobriety rather than a will to feel bad if things don’t work out. This is the Leap of Faith.

And that is the difference. Whether we call this will or not is open to debate, but this fact remains: The addict must decide from themselves: Is my life worth saving or not?

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.

The Zombie Brain: Do Drugs Destroy Willpower?