“Why can’t they just stop drinking?” It’s a reasonable question. It’s one that perplexes anyone who is not addicted. A family member can watch as one’s health deteriorates, family and friends turn away, money is lost and legal problems arise. Why can’t someone just stop drinking?
We often help non-addicts understand addiction, and why the logical mind does not control the addicted mind. Think about the feeling of being hungry. Can you think yourself un-hungry?
When you’re hungry and you try to think about it logically, the result is that you feel more hunger. The desire for drugs exists in the very same part of the brain that triggers the desire for food. Deep in our brain is the limbic system, or the “brain reward system.” When we are thirsty or hungry, water or food are a reward to the limbic system. Eating food and drinking water makes us feel good and so we do it again and again, ensuring survival.
Can you think yourself un-hungry?
Drugs and alcohol hit the limbic system pretty hard. Drugs and alcohol can be quite enjoyable and the reward system kicks in. The same part of our brain that triggers hunger for food, triggers a similar hunger for alcohol and drugs. Whereas food and water will keep you alive, drugs and alcohol eventually begin to break your body down.
We can trigger the feelings of addiction in you right now. Think of an amazing ice cream sundae…with whipped cream…and a cherry… on a hot summer day…. Now stop thinking about it…. More than likely, you’re still thinking about it, sometimes this trigger gets so strong we HAVE to have ice-cream. Maybe even memories were even triggered from childhood eating ice cream sundaes with grandparents. The reward center of your brain wants that sundae!
Addiction isn’t controlled by the brain’s logic center
The logical part of our brain is the cerebral cortex. Logic and judgement are in a totally different part of our brain. The logical part of the brain doesn’t control the automatic responses of the limbic system (think about fight or flight, sexual attraction and anger).
Our brain becomes hungry for substances, drugs hit the pleasure center with perfect accuracy, they never miss. An ice-cream sundae may not be that good, it may not return as much reward as the anticipation, but drugs always hit the mark. Thinking logically about this hunger doesn’t reduce the desire.
“Why can’t they just STOP?” It takes time and hard work
This is why the path for a recovering addicted is never a one day process. While thoughts can prevent you from acting on a desire, they don’t stop you from having the desire, and eventually you feel unable not to give into the desire. Recovery involves rewiring this desire. It takes time.
I put forth this analogy not to simplify addiction, but to help people that can’t imagine addiction understand it a bit. Understanding that addiction is deeply rooted in part of the brain that we have no control over helped me to understand my addiction.
About Adam Banks
Adam Banks is a certified interventionist and the owner of Adam Banks Recovery. After receiving an MBA from the University of Chicago, Adam built a company that was later acquired by United Health Care. His discipline and attention to detail comes from his former career as an airline pilot, holding an ATP, the FAA’s highest license.
Today, Adam is dedicated to helping others achieve long-term sobriety. His work has guided executives, pilots, and physicians on paths to recovery. Adam brings families together through a loving and inclusive approach.
Adam has authored four books on addiction. His recent work, Navigating Recovery Ground School: 12 Lessons to Help Families Navigate Recovery, educates families on the entire intervention process. He also offers a free video course for families considering an intervention for a loved one.
Adam is available for alcohol and drug intervention services in New York, Long Island, the Hamptons as well as nationally and internationally.