The connection between alcoholism and drug abuse
Phil Gordon is a Scottish man in his 40s, who wears a big smile on his torn face. Although, for most of his life, that smile only appeared while Gordon was intoxicated. "We all do stupid things when we're drunk," Gordon says. "Some get into fights, some go skinny dipping. I did drugs."
Gordon is one of many people who has fallen down the slippery slope of substance abuse.
"In Scotland, alcohol is a cultural thing," he says. "The pub is like your living room."
Gordon says he did not realize that his drinking had gone too far because everyone else around him drank just as much and as often. It was not a big deal to start a Tuesday with a shot of whiskey, as a pick-me-up after a rough night at the pub.
But why do some people, like Gordon, cross that line when using becomes abusing?
David Shirinyan is a psychology professor at Santa Monica College, with expertise in biological psychology.
"There are many causes of addiction," he says in an email. "To say that one thing or another triggers addiction is not quite correct. There is a moderate to strong genetic component to addiction. Some people's brains are set up in a way that makes them much more susceptible to addiction."
Even though there are no chemical connections between most substances, many users find themselves being more prone to start abusing other drugs, if already abusing one.
"Addicts tend to be addicted to more than one thing," Shirinyan says. "There is the addictive personality which refers to a type of person, with a particular genetic and neural configuration, that is prone to addictive patterns." There are no exact numbers of how many people with multiple addictions there are, but it is a growing group.
According to drug-addiction-help.org, a website for drug treatment resources, multiple drug addictions in the U.S. have increased by 20 percent over the past decade, and the usage of five or more different substances has grown by 70 percent.
The reason for the growth may be attributed to the effects various substances have on each other.
Alcohol and cocaine is one example. Alcohol can be used to prolong the high and offset the mood swings, anxiety and depression that comes with usage of cocaine, according to to the website.
"It was not the alcohol itself that got me into coke," says Gordon. "But like I said, being drunk makes you do stupid things, and that's how I got addicted to cocaine. If I already abused alcohol and cocaine on a daily basis, what harm could come from giving heroin a try?"
The effects that various substances can have on the brain can trigger certain reactions.
"You have to acknowledge that the brain systems that are involved in pleasure and reward are not there to create drug addicts. These systems are there to keep animals doing things that are beneficial to themselves and to their species," says Shirinyan. "This is critical to our survival."
What often happens when a person finds himself in an addiction is that the joy the substance or activity once gave slowly fades away.
According to Shirinyan, the brain undergoes several major transformations during substance abuse, and the chemical state of the brain becomes unbalanced. The brain tries to compensate for this by taking steps to return to balance. The receptors in the brain are reduced, and this is what causes tolerance. The more you abuse the substance, the more tolerant you become. More tolerance also means a tougher detox, and the tougher the detox, the more likely it is to fall back to abusing.
"This is a major problem, because if a person is able to quit the drug, these receptors do not come back for a long time," Shirinyan says. "In some cases, the brain cannot fully recover. During this recovery phase, the brain is under-active because of the reduced number of receptors. This results in dysphoria, a feeling of depression, agitation, fear and displeasure."
So, even if a person seeks help for the addiction and no matter how long he or she may have stayed away from it, there will always remain traces in the brain that will never go away.
"Addiction can never be completely cured," says Shirinyan. "It's very similar to having any other chronic disease. You can be in remission for a long time but you always have to keep vigilant for a return of the disease. In the case of addiction, relapse is always possible."
The foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous is to treat alcoholism. However, anyone may attend an open meeting, alcoholic or not, according to the AA website.
Only those with a drinking problem may attend closed meetings, but there are no rules against attending a regular meeting for help with any other addictions.
Shirinyan says that multiple addictions are very common for abusers.
"Many addicts are poly-drug abusers and many have behavioral addictions as well, like gambling and sex," he says.
For people abusing alcohol, AA sometimes replaces their addictions. Following the 12-step program and attending the meetings becomes their new fix.
This experience is what happened to Gordon.
One day he realized that his lifestyle, sooner rather than later, would kill him, and thanks to AA he has now been sober for nine years.
"Thank God I only used heroin on occasion," Gordon says. "It is, by far, the best drug I've ever tried, and had I continued, I wouldn't have been alive today. After all, being alive is always better than any drug."