Often times, addiction is viewed as a disease, which people often take to mean that the addict is helpless. It may not be so much that the addict is helpless, but that they are stuck in a situation where choosing addiction is the right choice. This may not apply to all cases of addiction, but it probably applies to a great many cases. This is an exploration of why people might continue using addictive drugs despite negative consequences of use.
Note: The cover image is from the installation known as Robolights!
Drugs can be used in a lot of different ways and even be addictive in different ways. You can build a life that is dependent on something that isn’t innate to your psychology. If you build such a life, to stop the drug you must essentially destroy your life and do something else potentially. Then your choice can become to maintain the addiction or live a ruined life.
This is most obvious in the case of stimulants and opioids which could be seen as performance enhancers in some ways. These drugs can often provide an actual utility to one’s life. Stimulants give motivation to do tasks that don’t provide enough motivation to produce action. The risk of using stimulants is that you could build a life in which you have a responsibility to constantly engage in such tasks and your ability to have motivation to do these tasks depends on the use of the drug. Opioids allow one to embrace induced suffering and conflicts beyond one’s ordinary capacity. The risk of using opioids is in building a life in which you frequently embrace conflicts that you would not normally be able to handle. Your ability to maintain your life becomes dependent on the consumption of the drug.
The darker side of the performance enhancement provided by these drugs comes when you are increasingly able to cope with the social side effects that occur because of the drug use. As you could imagine, this opens the doors to total ethical derangement. One could use drugs to numb the pain of hurting other people while on drugs. Though, I actually suspect that people’s values are not totally offline in most cases of drug use or maybe even addiction. We often see unempathetic and inconsiderate behaviors from those who use drugs heavily, but we also see nonusers having a deficit of empathy for users that isn’t dependent on the ingestion of any drug, but is closer in mechanism to political polarization. The stigma associated with drug use may produce such polarization and may even drive antisocial behaviors of users and nonusers towards each other. Not to mention, to become a user often means being already outcast from society or else committing yourself to acquire social hate due to the ever-present stigma. Some users may fall into the behavioral memes associated with addicts due to confirmation biases and stereotypes. Just believing in the meme that addiction makes one disregard their values might make users justify misbehavior by blaming the drug for their actions.
This idea that it isn’t only some arbitrary compulsion that must be maintained, but also one’s actual lifestyle is one common theme that is important for understanding addiction. No one really talks about it, but the addict might actually lose their job if they were to stop using drugs. The choice to go sober could ruin their lives. In this case, the choice to continue using the drug may actually be the best choice that the addict can make. Life without the drug could become too difficult, particularly if that life was created while on the drug. Even when one’s drug use has negative effects, stopping could be even more problematic. For those of you who are using coffee to perform at your job on a daily basis, you might actually understand the difficulty of suddenly ceasing use.
Even if one’s life wasn’t built while on drugs, the existence of tolerance to the drug can lead one into seemingly inescapable situations. In the midst of addiction, one reaches a point where the effects of the drug are normalized, where one’s baseline state creeps back in as one becomes used to the effects. While taking the drug might initially provide utility, later on, the drug provides only a maintenance of baseline functioning. At this point, the cessation of the drug is like an antidrug. The effects and the associated utility are also reversed. Stopping the drug is a performance diminisher. This essentially means that addictive drugs that provide utility in daily life provide a window of opportunity for which an individual could successfully use the drug as a performance enhancer. It might even be possible to become responsibly addicted to drugs if one has a dedicated time span to allow themselves to quit without repercussions. Whether or not this is practical is debatable and would likely have to be studied in detail.
Due to stigma, someone who uses a drug and becomes an addict cannot go to their boss and explain the situation and ask for time off to recover. The same goes for personal responsibilities set by the individual’s social network or school or family and so on. Addiction could be far more solvable if we actually addressed this problem. Stigma is one of the factors maintaining people’s addictions. If you express this stigma, you are also promoting the existence of addiction. Though, as I’ve said in the past (Tribalism of the Addict), the stigma might act as a preventative strategy to keep people away from ever trying drugs.
The situation gets more complex when one is using drugs for problems other than school or work, such as trauma. Unfortunately, traumas are often pretty individualized experiences which means that it will be harder for outsiders to understand or empathize with. In these cases, a person might even just use drugs and lie in bed (there are also reason besides trauma that someone would do this). There are numerous problems that drugs could help people deal with that are barely even describable. One might be afraid to go in public and use the drug to go outside. The same individual might use the drug to cope with the guilt of staying inside to avoid going in public and taking care of responsibilities. This is only one example and the list of other examples would be endless.
In order to fix these problems, we should create situations for which continued use of the drug is actually the wrong choice to make, particularly from the users’ perspective. This would primarily involve giving an individual space to quit, which is kind of what rehabilitation does. Another problem here is that the drug use may have been inspired by the utility the drug provides in situations that the addict faces regularly. In this case, those specific issues would have to be dealt with. So for example, in the example of being afraid of going out in public, the person would need to learn to enter public without the drug. In that case, rehabilitation is clearly not a solution.
I’ve faced much of these patterns myself when I took stimulants for ADHD. For those of you that don’t know, I was diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin during second grade. Stimulants remained in my life in various forms (Concerta, Adderall, Vyvanse) until I was about 24 years old. I even still use coffee now. There were periods where I was too afraid to stop using stimulants even though the side effects were problematic. Even on them, I was tired, unfocused, not to mention paranoid and mentally disorganized at times. When I would skip doses, I would become very anhedonic and unable to complete simple tasks such as showering or brushing my teeth. Undoubtedly, I felt locked in. If I stopped, I started to fail in my courses, which put a lot of pressure on continuing use. The “compulsive” use was not so much compulsive, but rather I had to use the drug or suffer potentially life-ruining effects.
Luckily, I have since learned to perform well in university without the use of stimulants (except coffee) and now my grades are even better than when I used stimulants. Though, it is important to note that this narrative I’ve just presented is a grand oversimplification and there were many other variables at play with my performance in school.
Hopefully this was useful in understanding addiction and why it isn’t merely a chemical compulsion. Many people have a lot at stake when it comes to stopping drugs. I’ve recently started offering Psychology Coaching if you are interested in having 1 hour sessions to discuss, understand, and attempt to solve the issues you face.
. . .
If you found this enjoyable, consider joining the Patreon! I’ve been posting detailed experience reports with my adventures using prescription ketamine. Also. someone sent me an EEG device to collect data on ketamine-induced brainwave changes which I’ve started posting there too. I also post secret mini podcasts. You can find the publicly available podcasts here by the way!
Special thanks to the 15 patrons: Morgan Hough, Buttercup, Libby Rosebaugh, Dan Elton, Idan Solon, David Chang, Jack Wang, Richard Kemp, Alex W, Sarah Gehrke, Melissa Bradley, Morgan Catha, Niklas Kokkola, Riley Fitzpatrick, and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist! I’d also like to thank Alexey Guzey, Annie Vu, Chris Byrd, and Kettner Griswold for your kindness and for making these projects and the podcast possible through your donations.
If you’d like to support these projects like this, check out this page.
If you liked this, follow me on