Alcohol Awareness Week: What is an addict anyway?

If we're going to understand addiction — and therefore understand addicts — we need to understand dopamine, writes Frank S Matthews.
Image credit: Paul Bischoff/Flickr

You can’t talk about Alcohol Awareness Week without talking about alcoholism, and you can’t talk about alcoholism without talking about addiction.

But when you think of addiction, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

If asked to describe an addict – without the help of Google – what would you say?

If I was to call you an addict, would you take offence?

And lastly, those of you who said yes to the last question are probably not alone, but why do you think that is?

If it is because the first example you happened to think of was an alcoholic, junkie or drug user congratulations! You’re officially as smart as Google.

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Growing up in a big city like London inevitably meant a dictionary was never needed to discover what an addict was – it seemed to be common knowledge.

So when I Googled “addict definition” for the first time in my life the result was of course unsurprising. I think it’s also fair to say the result reflects the majority of answers given when asked to describe an addict. The examples used – “typically an illegal drug” and “a former heroin addict” somewhat prove that.

Pick any city or any town, anywhere in the world and I’m sure the residents can tell you who the addicts are or where you can find them.

Addicts (or at least the most stereotypical form of them) are pretty easy to spot and can be found almost everywhere – from the busiest high streets in the capital to the most deserted, forgotten seaside towns. Anybody who has ever been outside for half an hour will have seen someone they label an addict, or as defined by The Oxford Dictionary; abuser, user or junkie. 

You may have been familiar with addicts before you ever left the house. A family member who fit the description, or maybe you learnt from television, a soap opera perhaps. What always seems to come hand in hand with the label of ‘addict’ is the negative attachment. You might not have known or understood exactly what a junkie was yet, but the chances are you knew it wasn’t a good thing.

Of course, as you grow and mature hopefully you grow some understanding and empathy towards these addicts and maybe you even develop a desire to be more charitable towards them. But often, the act of charity is hindered by the assumption that donated money will only help feed this addiction. 

It is important to note how a word such as addict, with powerful negative undertones, can influence people’s behaviour towards one another. As you learn you come to understand that there is a whole world of different types and more importantly that there is no defined appearance of an addict – they come in all colours, shapes and sizes. In fact, addicts are everywhere you look, literally – your parents, your siblings, your boss, your doctor, your solicitor, and of course yourself.

The second point of interest taken from the Oxford definition opens up the criteria of an addict somewhat significantly.

INFORMAL : an enthusiastic devotee of a specified thing or activity.

This definition doesn’t have any negative connotation to it in the slightest. If you select a productive ‘activity’ such as exercising, or a healthy ‘thing’ such as fruit, the term addict then becomes a positive. This raises the question – what exactly is an addict?

Underneath the heading INFORMAL, the example used was of particular interest to me – “a self-confessed chocolate addict”. I have never taken heroin before so I can’t tell you what that’s like, but anybody that knows me can testify to my chocolate addiction.

A chocolate addiction sounds a lot more fun than a heroin addiction, right? So, what’s really the difference?

Once you have beaten the physical addiction and have reached the point where you no longer need heroin or alcohol to function, the mental battle that remains and the chemical waging war on your better sense of judgement is dopamine.

When my brother and I were kids, anytime we had a chance to get something from the corner shop, he would pick sugary sweets, strawberries, gobstoppers. I would choose chocolate every time. I liked chocolate cereals, chocolate biscuits, chocolate cakes and chocolate ice cream. We went to France and I fell in love with chocolate croissants and chocolate crepes. I practically raised myself on Nutella. Not that I wasn’t fed normal food but when I was left to my own devices, it would no doubt be a Nutella sandwich, Nutella on toast, Nutella in Ready Brek, Nutella on rich teas and, if all else failed, I would just get a spoon and it eat it out the jar.

As I grew older my addiction never left me. I buy Easter eggs to snack on (bars included) and if I go inside a shop – nine times out of ten I leave with something chocolate. Ask my better half – bring any type of selection box around me and I forget the word sharing. My whole family knows what time it is – you snooze, you lose. Even if I bought you a box of chocolates as a gift, soon enough I will be giving you a helping hand, whether you like it or not.

So now that you know the dark secrets of my chocolate addiction and the lengths I will go to feed it, would you call me an addict? Yes. Would you call it a serious problem that could ruin my life? Probably not. However, from my little story we can establish that, although the stigma attached with the root cause of an addiction may vary, the essence of addiction remains the same; a desire for more, more and more.

Enter Dopamine, the chemical described in the title of Dr Daniel Z. Lieberman’s book, ‘The Molecule of More’. Dopamine is an organic chemical produced by the body that functions as both a hormone and neurotransmitter; it plays several important roles in the brain and body.

Every single human being on the planet produces and uses dopamine and in fact, without dopamine human beings wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of becoming the most successful species to ever walk the planet Earth. Although commonly known for its association with pleasure, due to the chemical release and the satisfaction we feel, dopamine really plays a much bigger role in motivation and in driving you to repeat an action again and again.

In terms of human evolution dopamine simply cannot be over looked. A simple way to understand it is that dopamine always wants more. It is the driving factor behind any innovative technology that has helped humans dominate the planet. Dopamine was behind the invention of tools such as spears, fire and abstract thinking. It was dopamine behind the development of agriculture – arguably the most productive innovation in the history of any species to ever exist. To cut a long story short, if us humans didn’t have such high levels of dopamine we wouldn’t be where we are today.

It’s not just illegal drugs that people are addicted to. It’s everything from alcohol to sugar to Instagram

Dopamine is also known as the drug of creativity – sounds like a miracle worker so far, right? And to be fair, it really is. Dopamine allows us to form connections between things never previously connected and produce results that didn’t already exist. All of the greatest architects, artists, inventors, musicians and writers throughout history will have at least one thing in common – extremely high levels of dopamine. However, there is a flip side. The part of the brain responsible for all of these miracles – the reward centre – is the same part of the brain that materialises addiction.

That feeling of pleasure and the desire to feel it again varies from person to person and also differs depending on what substance/activity happens to be stimulating the dopamine. For example, most of us will agree that drinking a glass of water does little for you in terms of pleasure, especially when compared with the release you get from something intense like a sexual orgasm. But on a hot summer’s day when you’re dying of thirst, the satisfaction you feel from an ice-cold drink of water touching your throat is so much greater than what you would feel ordinarily.

In order to understand dopamine, we need to understand that there are many variables, including genetics, that determine the amounts of dopamine being released in our brains. The different substances we consume will produce different results, and therefore create different levels of pleasure and craving, but essentially all forms of addiction are fuelled by dopamine and that chemical release.

Once you have beaten the physical addiction and have reached the point where you no longer need heroin or alcohol to function, the mental battle that remains and the chemical waging war on your better sense of judgement is dopamine. This is the reason so many drinkers relapse. It is also the same reason totally cutting sugar from your diet can be just as difficult.

In 2020 we should all be well aware of the harm sugar causes; diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and mental health problems to name a few. Combined with the mass marketing of sugar towards children and the ridiculous amounts of hidden added sugars used to make cheap, artificial food products (which of course appeal to the poorest in society), does sugar not tick both the harmful product and vulnerable audience boxes? Does it not make the sugar industry unethical? Should it not be criminalised?

Alcohol tells a similar story. It may be more strictly controlled than sugar, (and less strictly than heroin) but it ruins lives all the same. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics says there were 7,551 deaths “related to alcohol-specific causes” in 2018, 146 shy of the all-time record — in 2017. That’s compared to 4,359 drug-related deaths in the same year.

Is it relevant that whatever you happen to be addicted to – heroin, alcohol, sugar, sex – the chemical process your brain goes through is the same? Is an addict not an addict regardless of the product, behaviour and social stigma attached?

If we take a drug addict for example, they always want more no matter the damage it might do. They tend not to worry about their personal health, their surrounding environment or the people they may harm – as long as they get their fix. Their addiction normally stems from pain or boredom and a need to escape reality – a desire for short term gratification that outweighs the fear of long-term consequences. If you take drugs out of the equation, does that description not accurately describe society in general? One fuelled by a never-ending lust for more, no matter the cost.

The primary goal for my new series Addicted to Dope, is to encourage us to take responsibility individually for our actions and to better our understanding of both addictions and dopamine. We need to understand the power of dopamine, the side effects, the good, the bad and how in modern day society it is widely abused. 

My own journey to understanding dopamine has led me to a higher level of self-consciousness and has given me the tools necessary to better myself. I now understand the source of my toxic cravings and although I am still guilty of indulging like everybody else, this knowledge ultimately has led me to become a healthier, more disciplined individual.

Because it’s not just illegal drugs that people are addicted to. It’s everything from alcohol to sugar to Instagram. And if we don’t understand that — and do something about it — we will always be slaves to the dopamine that runs through our veins.

This is an edited extract of the introduction to Addicted to Dope by Frank S Matthews.

Frank S Matthews is a self-published author and Addicted to Dope is available on Amazon now.