Varying Levels of Addiction: Why Some Addicts Recover Faster Than Others

We are all familiar with the revolving door rehab scenario because the media frequently covers it. A famous person checks into rehab, then the news is that he is out and ready to work again. Next thing you know, that same glamorous face is checking back into rehab, and you wonder if he’ll ever truly recover from his addiction.

There are others who claim to have skipped rehab and gone cold turkey, as if it were no big thing. They suffered through some sweats and tremors, but they never looked back. Those people can usually tell you the date and time of their last high. They don’t go to meetings or counseling sessions, and they never even think of relapsing.

You have to wonder how it is possible for some people to recover from addiction quickly and easily, while others struggle with it for years. There are variables in the quality of the rehab program and the level of commitment on behalf of the client. However, most of the variables in recovery have to do with the nature of addiction itself.

How do some people recover from addiction quickly, while others struggle for years?

Misunderstanding Addiction

In our society, people talk about addiction, rehab, recovery and relapse indiscriminately. Everyone seems to know something about addiction, but most people don’t know the facts. Instead, they have misconceptions:

Myth 1: Addiction is about the substance, not the person

Some believe addiction is attached to the substance of abuse. They believe that the substance causes the addiction, instead of the person having an addictive predisposition.

The fairly common experience of drinking alcohol dispels this idea rather easily. Alcohol is considered an addictive substance, yet some people can drink it and not develop an addiction. Others are hooked after just one beer.

Alcohol is an addictive substance. Yet some go for years drinking without becoming an addict, while others are addicted after just 1 beer.

Myth 2: Addiction is a moral weakness or character flaw

Drug addiction is still considered by some a personality issue or a character flaw. There is a stigma attached to drug abuse in our society that suggests addiction happens to poor people or those with little or no education.

Case studies reveal that addiction does not have demographic boundaries. For example, college students experience higher addiction rates than their non-college peers — 42.6 percent of college students get drunk at least once a month compared to 34.1% of their non-college peers. Movie stars and others in the public eye who make millions of dollars are often caught by the media checking into rehab.

42.6% of college students get drunk once per month. 34.1% of non-college students get drunk once per month.

Myth 3: If you’re able to hold down a job, you’re not addicted

Some people believe that if you get up and go to work each morning — no matter how much alcohol you drank or drugs you used the night before — you couldn’t possibly be addicted. There is some erroneous urban legend floating around that if you maintain reasonable responsibilities in your life, you are not an addict.

The truth is you can be addicted and still maintain your responsibilities. What you are sacrificing is your quality of life and your relationships with your loved ones. As your addiction grows, you may eventually not be able to keep up with the demands of your work.

What Does It Mean to Be Addicted?

To understand why some people seem to recover from addiction easily, and others struggle with it for years, you need a clearer picture of what addiction is. Addiction is a complicated concept that today’s doctors and scientists don’t know everything about. Several different hypotheses have been suggested over the years to define addiction.

What we do know about addiction is it’s a disease affecting the reward center of the brain. Considered both a mental illness and a chronic disease, it causes a hard-to-resist urge to use a harmful substance or engage in a dangerous, risky activity. The habit turns compulsive and can interfere with one’s ability to meet his or her responsibilities.

Understanding Addiction: What Happens in the Brain

Addiction is primarily in your brain, which is why it still remains a bit of a mystery. Brain science is continuing to develop theories and test hypotheses about exactly how the brain works. Your brain is responsible for every thought and every action you take, so it makes sense that it is a highly complex organ. Saying that addiction is in your brain, therefore, does not narrow down the search too much because everything originates in your brain.

The key to your brain and central nervous system’s control of everything is chemistry. Your brain uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to send messages around your body. Everything you see, for instance, is communicated from your eyes to your brain by neurotransmitters. Your brain further interprets the data it receives from your senses to form thoughts and conclusions, which is why when you see a ledge, you understand the potential consequences of falling from it.

Neurotransmitters are produced in your brain and elsewhere throughout the central nervous system. They travel around your brain and are collected by receptor cells. This part of brain functioning alone is highly complex. There are several different types of receptors, and each one can only accept certain neurotransmitters. They fit together like a lock and key.

While medical science has named the thousands of different neurotransmitters, it is not clear exactly which ones are involved in each type of thought or message. There are thousands of combinations to decipher to better understand all the nuances of brain chemistry.

What we do know are the basics:

  • Drugs travel through your bloodstream to your brain.
  • These drugs either mimic the neurotransmitters your brain uses to send messages or block them.

Drugs mimic neurotransmitters or block them.

  • By interfering with your brain’s natural messaging system, the drugs take control.
  • In the pleasure centers of your brain, the drugs release massive amounts of feel-good chemicals.
  • You experience some type of euphoric state or pleasurable feelings.
  • The effect of the drugs wears off, and there are no more feel-good chemicals.

Your brain is able to function with this big infusion of extra chemicals because it is adaptable. Every system in the human body seeks balance. When it senses an imbalance, it adjusts to create a new normal.

Your brain, for example, is suddenly flooded with those feel-good chemicals, so it stops making its own chemicals to adjust the balance. Over time, it even stops receiving or responding to all those feel-good chemicals, which is why your need a larger dose to experience the pleasurable effects.

No drugs — either the ones made by pharmaceutical companies or produced in the underground market — have just one effect on the brain. Every drug you take has side effects. While the drugs are flooding your brain with feel-good chemicals, they are also interfering with other functions.

Opioid pain relievers, for example, block the receptors in your brain so they cannot receive the neurotransmitters that are carrying the pain messages from your extremities. In the process of blocking the pain, they also block messages about respiratory function. If you get too much of an opioid pain reliever in your system, it will stop your breathing.

Too much opioid in your system will stop your breathing.

How Your Body Is Affected

While drugs are in your brain flooding the pleasure centers with feel-good chemicals, they are also interfering with physical functioning that your brain controls. Hallucinogenic drugs, for example, might cause you to see things that are not really there or hear phantom voices. The drugs are intercepting messages from your senses and sending erroneous signals.

It is not just the physical functioning you are aware of that is controlled by your brain. All of your involuntary functions such as respiration, heart-rate and body temperature are controlled from there as well. When the drugs get into your brain and start messing around, they cause changes in many of these systems, as well.

Luckily, your brain is adaptable and makes changes to accommodate these erroneous signals created by the drugs. Your whole body, in fact, adjusts to the presence of the drugs in your system and tries to keep all of your vital signs within normal ranges.

With some drugs in particular, there is an important physical component to addiction. When the drugs wear off and the euphoria fades, your body also has a physical reaction. These reactions can range from nausea to irregular heartbeat, and some are more dangerous than others. These physical reactions are your brain trying to re-adjust to the new environment created when the drug is no longer controlling the chemical messages.

These physical reactions are called withdrawal symptoms because they occur when the drug is leaving your system. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Pain
  • Irregular hearbeat
  • Respiratory depression
  • Fever
  • Chills

Physical addiction is real, but there is still some question about which substances can cause a physical addiction. The lines between being physically and emotionally addicted are not really clear.

The line between physical and emotional addiction is unclear.

Are You Predisposed to Developing an Addiction?

There are no demographic boundaries around addiction. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, short or tall, rich or poor. There is no socioeconomic group that is immune to addiction. The single biggest factor for drug use and addiction is access.

There are, however, some people who are more likely to become addicted to substances than others. People who are predisposed to addiction include:

  • Adolescents
  • People who associate with drinkers or drug users
  • Intravenous drug users and those who smoke
  • People exposed to drug use at an early age
  • Childhood trauma victims and witnesses
  • Depressed people or those with anxiety disorders
  • Those under repeated or prolonged stress
  • People with a family history of addiction

Certain personality traits predispose you to addiction.

Addiction Risk Factors

The risk factors for addiction can be divided into three categories: genetics, age and lifestyle.

  • Genetics: It is a proven fact that addiction can run in families. This points to the genetic structure of individuals as the key. Unfortunately, genetics are about as complicated as brain chemistry. There is not one gene that influences addiction but rather a combination of genes. It is very difficult, then, to pinpoint a person’s predisposition to addiction through genetic testing. Addiction genetics is not as simple as saying you will become addicted if you have the gene, and you won’t if you don’t.
  • Age: The human brain continues to grow and develop throughout your lifetime, but there are some critical stages in the beginning. The earlier the brain is exposed to drugs, the more likely it is to develop an addiction. The reason for this is that drugs interfere with brain chemistry. While it is growing and changing, that chemistry can be irreparably altered by the infusion of these foreign substances. Teenagers who are still undergoing the last major developmental stage are particularly vulnerable.

The earlier your brain is exposed to drugs the more likely you are to develop an addiction.

  • Lifestyle: The way you live can be an indicator of potential addiction. Lifestyle risk factors include living where drugs are readily available and an openness about them in daily discussions. Living in a stressful environment, either because of poverty or abuse, can contribute to addiction, while having good role models and a positive outlook for the future can reduce the likelihood of developing an addiction.

Several studies performed over many decades have shown that people with certain backgrounds or experiences have a higher rate of addiction than others. This list is only a guideline, though, because everyone with these traits does not become addicted. There is only a correlation between these characteristics and addiction. The exact cause of addiction is not fully understood.

A better question than who suffers from addiction might be how addicted are you? Almost everyone has at least one risk factor, even if it is short-lived, for addiction. Many people turn to substances for relief at some point, but the habit does not become long term. Some people are better able to suppress their cravings for those relief substances over time.

Why People Turn to Substances — And Continue Using Them

There are many reasons that people turn to drugs. Addicts often continue using drugs because they:

Want to Prevent Withdrawal Symptoms

Addiction can exist on a physical or emotional level, and many times both. Certain substances are more likely to create a physical addiction, but for exact reasons that are still beyond the understanding of medical science. If those substances are used and then stopped, there will be physical symptoms indicating that the body had adjusted to their presence.

When someone is physically addicted to a substance, one of the driving forces behind continued use of that substance is to avoid withdrawal symptoms. The discomfort of withdrawal — or even the threat of that pain — motivates the user to continue the habit of using. Most smokers will tell you they get a headache if they go too long between cigarettes.

Threat of pain motivates a user to continue using.

Are Trying to Numb Emotional Pain

Smokers can also attest to the emotional draw of smoking. Many will tell you they just like it. This part of addiction is less tangible and harder to understand scientifically. It is generally defined as an emotional need. Users are convinced they need the drugs to function normally, feel right and even survive.

Some emotional addictions started as a result of trauma. The drug use was a way of escaping emotional pain and continues for the same reason. The euphoric feeling the user gets from the drugs masques the emotional pain he is suppressing. He gets addicted to the high and forgets about his troubles.

Have Formed a Habit

On some level, drug abuse becomes a habit. It is a behavior that is repeated, and the user no longer thinks about it. Similar to brushing your teeth every morning, someone who is addicted to a substance usually takes it at the same time every day. He has developed a habit of using drugs in the same place and with the same people.

As anyone who has ever tried to stop biting their fingernails can tell you, habits are hard to break. Behavioral scientists have studied habits for decades and continue to learn more about the conditioning of human behavior. To change a habit, the brain has to be re-conditioned to think and respond differently.

After changing a habit, there is always the chance of relapse. Some habits become so ingrained that when the brain doesn’t know what else to do, it falls back on the old habit. Stress can often trigger a relapse of addictive behavior. The habit is broken and replaced with a new behavior, but when faced with a stressful situation, the brain automatically goes back to the old habit for comfort.

Why Are Some People More Addicted to Drugs Than Others?

Would you consider the person who takes an opioid pain reliever after surgery an addict? He takes the drug to relieve his physical pain, and it makes him feel good. While he is healing from surgery, he might be addicted to opioids. When the prescription is empty, and his body has healed, he no longer needs the drug.

Others in that same situation may have additional risk factors that predispose them to drug addiction. When they finish their course, they may not be able to stop using. They may not have the level of support they need to heal from surgery and stop using the painkillers.

With these varying levels of addiction, it is easier to understand why addiction recovery is not the same for everyone. When we apply the broad definition of addiction to a wide range of people, we are not taking all of these variables into consideration. Everyone’s addiction is unique, and everyone’s journey to recovery will be as well.

Everyone's addiction is unique and everyone's journey to recovery is too.

Your unique addiction picture — how addicted you become — is made up of many variables, such as your:

  • Predispositions or risk factors
  • Substance of choice
  • Length of use
  • Genetic makeup
  • Personal health history

Your Unique Path to Recovery

Everyone comes to addiction recovery with only one thing in common: a desire to change. The complexity of addiction and the uniqueness of each of their stories make it clear that their paths to recovery will all take different routes.

Looking at any recovery story from the outside is like looking at an iceberg: You only see the part that is above the water. You have no idea what is below the surface. This is why comparing your recovery experience to anyone else’s is futile. You have no way of knowing how much work someone has put into his recovery or how many obstacles he needed to overcome to get this far.

People tend to be competitive, and we also like to apply labels. We want to know that we are doing better than others in the same situation. We want to achieve better, more, faster. We also tend to label others based on their achievements or failures. We think a fast recovery from addiction must be a sign of good character and a strong work ethic, while a slow recovery or relapse must mean there is a character flaw or insurmountable genetics.

These views of addiction recovery are far too simplistic to be accurate. There is no way to accurately compare one person’s recovery experience to another’s and determine the winner. Everyone who is working on recovering from addiction is a winner. In the case of addiction recovery, your commitment to change is the most important factor.

Get Started on Your Unique Journey to Recovery

Like addiction, recovery is an intensely personal journey. It takes as long as it takes. The length of time to complete your program is unimportant compared to the effort you make. Recovery is not a destination — it is a journey.

If you are ready to begin your journey out of addiction and into a healthy, happy, substance-free lifestyle, contact 12 Keys today. Our expertise and compassion can guide you to a lasting recovery. No matter how long it takes, we’ll be here with you.

The Addiction Blog