In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. The motivation? Not the ghettos with their drug dealers, nor the hippies invading Woodstock, the embrace of Rock 'n Roll, free love and getting high. No, it was the rampant addiction among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam that had him concerned. He told Congress this addiction was "public enemy number one," and so the war on drugs began. Years later, First Lady Nancy Reagan rebranded the campaign as "Just Say No."
Forty years ago seems like a lifetime, doesn't it? Back then the perception was that treatment was all about the strength to say "no," and that those who could not shake their addiction simply did not have the willpower; they were weak.
Today we know that genetics, brain chemistry and upbringing all play a role in addiction, and it’s commonly accepted as a disease of the brain among professionals. So, does this mean that willpower no longer plays a role in the recovery from alcohol and drug abuse?
Here are four things you need to know about addiction:
1) Genetics Play a Role: This where it all begins. Researchers look for "addiction genes," which means they're looking for gene similarities between parent and offspring when addiction strikes. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics warn that children of addicted parents are the highest at-risk group to become an addict, themselves.
Children are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction if their parent is an addict. Interestingly, the chances for the son of an addict becoming an addict is four times greater than a daughter. Also, children of alcoholics are more likely to marry alcoholics than the general population thus leading to an even greater likelihood of alcoholic children -- a vicious cycle indeed.
The Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center stated, "... our data suggests there may be a cognitive difference in people with addictions. Their brains may not fully process the long-term consequences of their choices. They may compute information less efficiently." The study continues, "The genetic findings raise the hopeful possibility that treatments aimed at raising dopamine levels could be effective treatments for some individuals with addictive disorders."
2) Biology Also Plays a Role: If genetics play a big role in addiction, it's reasonable to assume that brain chemistry does, as well. The addict has a craving for alcohol or drugs that may trump the love of their children, spouse and work. It rules their world, and often the need is too intense to easily resist.
Dr. Peter Kalivas, a Charleston researcher, has actually pinpointed changes in the brains of cocaine-addicted rats. Cocaine increases dopamine (a pleasure/reward chemical in the brain) which causes changes in brain DNA. Thus doing cocaine actually changes brain function and this causes cravings.
Dr. Kalivas' research is now testing how to reverse that change in order to make treatment more efficient and effective.
3) Motivation Is Key: Health Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal, will soon be publishing a study sponsored by the Society for the Study of Motivation, which reports brain scans can actually predict if a person has the propensity to be motivated to overcome their addiction.
There are two aspects of motivation: recognizing you have a problem and wanting to correct it.
Every journey begins with that first step. In every recovery program, the first step is always the same -- admitting you have a problem. If you don’t think you problem, how can you possibly fix it?
Once you realize you have a problem then what? If you remain on the same path, you may lose your spouse, your family, job, friends, perhaps freedom itself -- whatever it is you value most, is at risk. This is the motivation that many need to finally make the decision that it’s time to get sober. And if this study is as promising as it appears then we can be able to scientifically determine who has motivation and who doesn’t. The next step is to figure out why and then see what can be done to increase it.
4) Taking Personal Responsibility Is Still Very Important: Everyone should be responsible for their actions, and the addict is no different.
Take the diabetic, for example. This is a medical illness which may be treated with medication. The diabetics that manage their illness the best also take charge -- they exercise, eat properly, test their blood sugar levels and get the proper amount of sleep. Those that are proactive with their health will have a longer, healthier life as opposed to those that say, "Poor me, I’m a diabetic and there's nothing I can do except take my insulin."
The same personal responsibility applies to the addict: Attending meetings, consulting with sponsors, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, attending 12 step programs and the desire to stay sober are all conscious decisions that must be made in order to remain clean. The addict must also choose friends wisely, and get rid of the enablers and the users. To get/stay sober is a 24/7 job and the addict must be responsible for his life and lifestyle.
We live in a world where many do not want to take responsibility for their life, health or happiness. It's so much easier to say, “Woe is me, I’m an addict, it’s not my fault that I can’t stop. I have a disease!” However, instead of the victim saying, "poor little me," the responsible person says, "Yes, I have a disease, but I'm in charge of me and will do my part to overcome it."
So, in 2011, while we understand that addiction is genetic and biologic, yet we cannot fall prey completely to the, “There’s nothing I can do, it’s a disease,” way of thinking. As much as many would try to tell you otherwise , motivation and willpower are still important. Just ask anyone who has cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis or any other severe medical illness, the will to persevere and overcome is everything.
Dr. Dale Archer is a psychiatrist and Distinguished Fellow of The American Psychiatric Association. He specializes in analyzing and understanding human behavior across a wide variety of fields and is a frequent guest on FoxNews.com's "The Strategy Room." For more, visit his website: Dr.DaleArcher.com.