Understanding the Irrationality of Addiction

Perhaps the hardest part of understanding addiction is its fundamental irrationality. What family and friends of addicts see in their afflicted loved one is a person who refuses to face reality. Addicts are in denial about their drug problems and view even the slightest suggestion otherwise as an attack. (For more on this subject click on Science of Denial.) They not only continue using, but whether they admit it or not, intensified use — taking more drugs more frequently. They ignore ever-worsening consequences, up to and including flirting with death.

That’s how I reacted when I was drinking. I dismissed every attempt by friends and family to urge me to get help. And after I got sober, denial and irrationality is what I saw in my cohorts who relapsed.

Neuroscientists say there’s a biological basis for addicts’ irrationality. (Because the brain systems affected by drugs — the emotional centers of the Limbic “reward” sytstem — pre-date the evolution of human rationality, it may be more accurate to describe addict thinking and behavior as pre-rational rather than irrational.) To addicts, these emotional motivations feel closer to instinct than anything else. They’re automatic and often unconscious. (For mor on how addicts feel, click here on The Addict Experience.)

As long as an addict continues his drug use, the emotional appeal of drugs outweighs the rational dangers associated with continued use. Why? Because emotional and intellectual brain systems, which normally contend with equal strength in a system of checks-and-balances, become pathologically unbalanced from drug abuse. The addict brain boosts the strength of the emotional brain circuits that find drug rewarding to such an extent they overpower the rational systems that warn of consequences; short-term emotional needs outweigh longer-term rational cost-benefit analysis. The normally balanced tug-of-war between the brain systems involved is stacked heavily in favor of the emotional need for drugs.

Thus, appeals to all the sensible, reasonable and rational justifications for quitting drug use will rarely be enough to motivate an addict into treatment. Usually, that requires an emotional breakthrough. That’s what a bottom is. It’s an emotional confrontation that pierces the dense fog of denial and forces an addict to surrender and seek help. But surrender to what?

AA says that one surrenders to powerlessness, that willpower is useless as a defense to addiction. In other words, one surrenders to the irrationality of drug abuse. Particularly in early sobriety, before the brain’s balance is restored, the most important battles will continue to be joined in emotional systems rather than rational ones. With continued sobriety over time, the toxic emotional memory of the benefits of drug use subside and others can look forward to dealing with a much more rational loved one.

Families and friends of alcoholics and addicts have to surrender to the irrationality of addiction too. It’s not something that’s natural for people who prize rationality — most of us. Nor is it easy to do. It has to be learned.

So if advice to families and friends of addicts can be boiled down to one bumper-sticker slogan, it’s: “GO TO AL-ANON, Nar-Anon or Co-Anon!”

The primary reason to go is that its members are the most qualified people to learn from: they have experience dealing with the everyday irrationality of addiction. Al-Anon members can teach you how to do that because they’ve done it themselves. They don’t do it as charity work but because helping others helps them.

A second reason to go to Al-Anon is that you have no better option.

For the next article in the For Addicts’ Loved Ones series click here.

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One Response to “ Understanding the Irrationality of Addiction ”

  1. Addiction, in all aspects, is dangerous. Live life to the fullest. Accept who you are and be optimistic. Denial and depression will just leave you nothing but mess.

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