How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

In her memoir We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life, Laura McKowen recalls a cellphone conversation with her friend Holly the day after Laura almost attended a party where she knew she would relapse. Laura had reached out in desperation to Holly via text as her train neared her intended destination, torn between her craving to drink and her desire to avert certain disaster.

“Babe, your brain was hijacked.”[i] That’s how Holly summed up Laura’s experience the previous day. Holly explained what happens to the brain of an addict. The flood of dopamine that accompanies drug or alcohol usage short-circuits the brain’s prewired reward system. The hippocampus creates a record of this pleasure shortcut for future reference. The amygdala signals to the brain that less dopamine should be produced. Consequently, over time more and more of one’s drug of choice is required to achieve the desired pleasurable effect. Simply put, addiction hijacks normal brain circuitry.

The Apostle Paul was not addressing addiction when he wrote to the Christians in Rome in the first century, but Paul’s words certainly have a modern application: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Time and time again, clients at The Next Door lament the sequence of events that led them to seek out treatment for addiction (or led a court to force them to get treatment). No little girl grows up wanting to be an addict. Our clients don’t understand how it got so bad so quickly. They wrestle with self-worth: Am I a bad person because I kept drinking, kept using drugs, regardless of the consequences?

As our clients learn about brain chemistry during treatment at The Next Door, they discover how their brains have been hijacked by alcohol and drug usage. They come to understand the powerful internal forces that have kept them in bondage to addiction. They come to understand the good news that their brains can be rewired over time. They come to understand that they are worthy of love and respect. They come to understand that they can chart a new path of lifetime recovery, one that will require self-discipline, sober support, and spiritual grounding.

Fr. Richard Rohr, author of Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, believes that all human beings are addicts. Rohr writes: “Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality.”[ii]

Rohr prompts those who are not addicted to a substance to consider the ways their brains have been hijacked by “stinking thinking” – a commonly used term in Alcoholics Anonymous. When do you fail to do what you intend to do? When do you do what you hate? How can you break the cycle? Just like those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, we can’t make a change until we admit that we have a problem.

Creator God, creating still, create in us clean hearts, renewed spirits, and restored minds. Amen.

 

[i] McKowen, Laura, We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life (Novato: Callifornia, New World Library, 2020): 44.

[ii] Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2011): xxiii.

Published on July 9, 2020
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