A person may start out taking drugs voluntarily, but as time passes and drug use continues, something happens that makes a person go from being a voluntary drug user to a compulsive drug user. Why? Because the continued use of drugs changes how your brain functions. It impairs your ability to think clearly, to feel OK without drugs, and to control your behaviors. These all contribute to the compulsive drug seeking and use that is addiction.
The first time people use drugs, it’s usually a conscious decision they’ve made. But once people become addicted, they are dealing with a brain disease. Each drug has its own individual way of changing how the brain functions. But in most cases, it doesn’t really matter which drug a person is addicted to; many of the effects it has on the brain are similar. The fact is that our brains are wired to make sure we will repeat activities, like eating, by associating those activities with pleasure or reward.
Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it. Because drugs of abuse stimulate the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way. So while the initial decision to take drugs is a choice for some, a physical need replaces that choice. This is what’s known as addiction.
Yes, although there is no cure for drug addiction yet. Addiction is a treatable, but often chronic disease. And just as with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, people learn to manage their condition, sometimes with the help of medications. People addicted to drugs can do the same. Drug addiction can be effectively treated with behavioral-based therapies in which people learn to change their behavior; and, for addiction to some drugs, such as tobacco, alcohol, heroin, or other opiate drugs, medications can help.
Treatment will vary for each person, depending on the type of drug(s) being abused and the individual’s specific circumstances. For many people with drug addictions, multiple courses of treatment may be needed to achieve success.