I’m going to try and write this as coherently as possible. We still have one more week left of Mental Health Month, and this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (given my brain doesn’t melt from out of my ears) we will be covering the last stretch of diagnoses we could fit in this month: Somatic disorders, eating disorders, and depressive disorders. If you have a story you’d like to share about any of the labels we’ve covered this month, contact me here or on my social media handles (below).
This evening we’ll be covering Substance-related and addictive disorders, with “substance related” excluding any of the typically prescribed psychotropic medications. That seems like a given, but it shouldn’t be; a lot of psychotropic meds can induce mania, depression, panic, and psychosis. This often gets labeled as proof of a disorder, but in the future when we dive more deeply into what kind of industry this is (and how helpful it can be in many circumstances), we’ll talk about how that’s bullshit.
To be frank.
But for now, we’ll talk about what they want to talk about, and that is the illegal substances no agency can make money from.
What we’re talking about here is the big ten: Alcohol, Caffeine, Cannabis, Hallucinogens, Inhalants, Opioids, Sedatives, Stimulants, Tobacco, and unknown.
What Is a Substance Use Disorder?
In order to be classified under this section, an individual has to continue using their choice substance even while recognizing (or not) significant substance-related problems. This is like the alcoholic whose doctor says their liver is fatty and swollen (a sign of cirrhosis) and despite the eventual fatal outcome, the alcoholic continues to drink. This could be because of many reasons. It could be the person is psychologically dependent on the mood alteration provided by the alcohol. Drinking may be the only way to feel “normal” by then. Physically, the person may be dependent on the resulting biochemical reactions of heavy drinking; stopping alcohol suddenly is the same death sentence as cirrhosis of the liver, but quicker. The body becomes so dependent on the substance that the removal of the substance puts the body (the brain mostly) in shock. This is called withdrawal.
It’s the same thing you experience if you stop your medication suddenly: your brain, having gotten used to whatever receptors that medication was binding to, suddenly has a stark depletion in that neurotransmitter and this can cause irregular electrical activity, mood changes, physical changes like heat flashes, cold sweats, muscle aches, etc. Your brain is constantly seeking homeostasis and there are two ways this gets disrupted: ingesting a substance and stopping a substances after long-term use. For those of us who stop, say, antipsychotics, the psychosis that presents itself is not necessarily what would happen if you were substance free. It’s not your “illness coming back”, its the disruption in homeostasis exacerbating your experiences.
Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous withdrawals and, if I’m still up to date on all my medical understanding of this, the only one in which you have a high chance of dying. I believe it surpasses benzo withdrawal risk. Those in severe Alcohol withdrawal will typically experience Grand Mal Seizures alongside all of the other mental and physical experiences.
How Do These Substances Interact With Our Body?
Benzodiazepines are some of the quickest addictive substances prescribed. Even if you don’t feel psychological dependent on them, you may realize quite suddenly that your body has become very accustomed to them. Some people have stated that even when taking two of their PRN Benzo medication per week for four weeks, their body went through physical withdrawal. The problem with that is benzos also work on GABA receptors, like alcohol. This is why Benzos are often a first choice in easing alcohol withdrawal.
It’s kind of like when they learned Morphine was addictive and synthesized heroin to use as a replacement. That backfired. We just don’t learn.
You can read about that in short-form here. There’s a much more in-depth, dependable review on the history of this on PubMed, I’ve just yet to find it again.
Stimulants, like cocaine, are not addictive as quickly but people still lose their lives to them. They target chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all that handle feelings of pleasure, confidence, and energy.
Opiates target Endorphins, which inhibit both GABA and Dopamine. This stimulates the receptors to increase the amount of dopamine that’s released because there’s not enough in the synapses. This is the same chemical that releases when you exercise.
I’m not up to date on Inhalants, but I’m going to go ahead and say breathing in condensed chemicals probably tears a few cells up in the process.
Hallucinogens, including Acid, are some of the safest drugs, if you want to think of them like that. They still affect the body; some raise blood pressure or cause a racing heart, but their addictive properties are non-existent. These are being studied currently to treat depression, PTSD, and anxiety which means at some point they’ll be monetized, synthesized and eventually ruined. Many have had profound experiences though, and worked through trauma while micro-dosing LSD or being a risktaker and experimenting with one of the most powerful hallucinogens, Ayahuasca. These substances have a rich history in religious ceremony.
Tobacco and Caffeine are very much legal. Tobacco, once used in abundance as a smoking agent, is now full of carcinogens and heavy nicotine doses which trap the user in one of the hardest addiction cycles to break. Caffeine perpetuates anxiety, raises blood pressure, and is also great on cold mornings with a cigarette. So, pick your poison.
Aren’t These All Plants?
The majority of them, yes.
No, that does not make them safe.
Yes, many are not safe in part due to what people put in them.
No, I don’t suggest traveling to South America just to chew on a coca leaf.
Yes, if I didn’t have such bad anxiety, I’d probably be one of those people to travel to South American just to chew on a coca leaf.
Why Can’t People Just Stop?
Some people can, and do.
This is not a problem of disease. It is, however, a problem of weakened and exhausted self-control. This sounds as if it is blaming the user, but it is not.
There was a study I just learned about in a previous course where they tested individuals self-control and whether it could be exhausted. They set a task in front of a set group of people, one by one, and told them one specific instruction: do not eat the cookies, but feel free to have some of the radishes. They set the same task in front of another set group of people, one by one, and told them one specific instruction: have anything you want on the plate.
Those who had to exercise their self-control (by not eating the cookies) had less patience when it came to do the second task, which were some puzzles on paper. Those who did not have to exercise any self-control maintained their base awareness.
This is one of many tasks that shows it may not be indulgence that starts or continues an addiction, but rather a consistent breakdown of self-control; once someone uses a substance, they have went against the cultural norm to NOT use that substance. The physicality of the drug doesn’t make the second time easier, the reduction in self-control does.
There are many ways to continue to test this and could revolutionize how addiction is treated and looked at. It’s not the fault of the person. It’s not a defect in will-power or a weakness. It’s simply exhausting your bandwidth of self-control, which we could all easily do. That’s why addiction has no preference for creed or color.
Some may be genetically predisposed to a shorter self-control bandwidth, not addiction. This is my hypothesis. It’s not disproven, and it probably won’t be any time soon, not by me at least. But having grown up with generations of severe alcoholics behind me, one of which died at 56 because of it, I know what it’s like to feel like your genes might be defective. The truth is, at least between fathers and sons, sons of alcoholics are no more likely to become alcoholics than the average man.
I’m a woman, so I’m not sure of our statistics.
When I was prescribed Percocet for my back injury, the first pill did nothing. So I took two. And had no idea how hard it would hit me. I remember sitting in my research course and the room feeling light as air. My body felt warm and nice and I felt kind, friendly, approachable. I felt social, something I never feel. Then I spent forty minutes trying to keep my eyes awake and my notes were just scribbles. By the end of the class, I’d written nothing worthwhile, and my back still hurt.
But coming out of that I realized how people could get so attached to the feeling. It’s a level of happiness one couldn’t attain naturally, and evolution probably derived that limit for a reason. We’d have no sense, no awareness, no anxiety, no fear. We wouldn’t survive as a species.
I also noticed my need to take more. I told myself no.
I told myself no for two months.
And then I rewarded my self-control with a lack of self-control and two months later my stomach was tore up, I felt I couldn’t make it through the day without at least a half of pill, and I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my own natural state of being–the state without the high.
I went into this experimenting; if I focused on my self-control, designated days to take one pill, two pills, a half a pill, one and a half pills, could I sustain myself without becoming attached? And I did for one month until I exhausted that bandwidth; the more times I told myself “no” and then “okay, just take half”, the more likely I was to say “well, half isn’t going to do it, take one and a half.”
So, another way to evaluate this hypothesis would be to ask: is someone more likely to become addicted if they exercise self-control or no self-control? We couldn’t run those trials ethically, but there may be a way to design an experiment without ruining people’s bodies.
I was not addicted. But I felt the pull.
This can happen to anyone, for any reason, at any time, and it’s not a sign of internal weakness or brokenness or some other negative connotation that gets thrown alongside these experiences. We are creatures who often want to alter our moods. We want our anxiety to stop, our depression to ease up, our happiness to never end. We’re a culture ripe for the course of addiction. Think twice before your blame someone for their experiences.
Do Rehabs Really Do Anything?
I’ve never been. They didn’t work for my dad. But they work for many. Some people embrace the programs, like 12 Steps, and swear by it. Others find a different path. Some find no path and succumb to the substance. I’ve only been to an Alanon meeting for myself with a previous therapist and it felt too programed. I’ve went to AA and NA meetings and the cult aspect of it gave me panic attacks. But for those who felt truly touched by the program, there were many success stories and as long as people are living the life of health that they want to be living, I’m not going to knock that.
What About Relapse?
What about it? I hear many people learn new things from their relapses. Don’t get me wrong, these slips can and do kill people. But to regress and then progress and regress again only provides a new insight to the self and a different perspective on life. Relapse is slowly being seen as a natural progression of addiction rather than an added failure of the person.
If we take away the aspect of death (not to minimize it, but for the purpose of this thought experiment) we can think of it as experiencing another depression episode or psychotic episode. We learn more about how we need to care for ourselves. We may have a new respect for friends and family who come through for us. We can look back and see where we slipped up in self-care or evaluate an incident that lead to our regression.
We all fall back into things we don’t mean to. And when we learn to stop attacking ourselves for mistakes we make, we may just give ourselves a chance to heal.
I will be back with Somatic disorders on Thursday. Although, keep your eye out for a post on something a little more personal. I feel the need to express feelings through words. Thank you for reading.
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