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Understanding Addiction: Why is it So Powerful?

People addicted to drugs know that their actions are destroying their families, their relationships, their careers, and their lives — so why is it so hard to just quit?

There’s a universal truth when it comes to addiction: it does not discriminate. Kris McFadden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge, says addiction can grab hold and destroy the lives of anyone. A person’s upbringing, race, gender, age, financial status, marital status, career path — nearly any identifier — does not exclude a person from the epidemic of drug addiction, including Christianity.  

According to national Teen Challenge statics, 25 percent of their students come from incarceration or homelessness and another 25 percent are professional blue or white collar individuals. 

“The remaining 50 percent are average folks who work hard, raise kids, pay the bills, and live next door,” states Joe Batluck, senior director of Teen Challenge International, USA, an AG U.S. Missions ministry. “Over 25 percent of our students could also identify with this statement: ‘I was raised in a solid Christian home. My parents did everything right. I attended Sunday School, youth group, and everything else, but I made some terrible choices.’”

Society has also made it very difficult for those with a growing addiction to get help. McFadden says that it’s common to hear the phrase “drug addicts” as a classifier, but he warns that phrase de-humanizes people, at least subconsciously placing them in a category of “less-than-human” or “undesirables.” 

“There’s a far different mental image and emotional response produced when you call someone ‘a drug addict’ as compared to referring to a person as ‘someone who has an addiction to drugs,’” McFadden says. 

Yet to those never trapped in the “hurt locker” of addiction, addiction is difficult to understand. Why would a father drink his earnings away each week and leave a family, that he claims he loves, destitute? Why would a child raised in a loving home steal things from his or her parents to buy drugs? And how could a person shoot heroin or do meth or snort cocaine until they looked like a living corpse, knowing that they’re killing themselves? What are they thinking? 

Thinking . . . that’s the key.

Too many see those ensnared in drug addiction as weak or poor excuses for human beings who have earned the “right” to be despised and discounted and probably better off dead. 

Batluck observes that the Church, which (rightly so) invests great sums of money and time in missions, often turns a blind eye to the chemical addiction issue, apparently believing those in their pews or the people they’re trying to reach with the gospel in their communities, are isolated from the drug epidemic. 

“There are no classes, in most churches, on addiction or how it impacts the family or how to break the cycle of addiction,” Batluck says. He urges church and lay leaders to learn about addiction and then, in addition to ministering to those in the church, reach out into the courts, prisons, schools, and workplaces to become part of the solution. 

But Joel Jakubowski, the chief clinical officer with the Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge, reveals that breaking out of the death spiral of addiction is far more difficult and complicated than many people imagine. 

In addition to some drug addictions being considered potentially lethal if a person goes “cold turkey,” addiction to some drugs “rewire” the brain.   

To understand the rewiring process, it’s important to understand that in many instances, it’s not the drug that contains the “high,” but it is what the drug causes the brain to do. 

“Drugs such as heroin and opiates causes the brain to release an excessive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine into a person’s system,” Jakubowski says. “It’s the pleasure center of the brain.” 

Normally, varying amounts of dopamine are released by the brain when a person experiences something pleasurable, such as eating a good meal, seeing a friend, going on a date, giving or receiving kindness, romance, etc. But heroin and opiates cause the brain to release far greater quantities of dopamine, which cause all other pleasurable experiences to pale in comparison.

But to continue experiencing that same level of intense pleasure, more and more drugs are required to stimulate the brain to release the dopamine, and the brain begins to experience dopamine depletion. 

That’s why warning signs of addiction include dropping out of activities the person once enjoyed, lack of interest in food, lack of interest in relationships, and lack of concern for others. Due to the depletion of dopamine and what it takes for the brain now to release dopamine, these activities no longer have any impact on the brain “pleasure center.” They are no longer enjoyable. 

At this point, drugs are now in control of a person’s life, but perhaps not in the way one expects. 

Jakubowski says that the part of the brain impacted by drugs such as opiates and alcohol is not the optional part where decisions like “what color socks do I wear today” are made. Instead, the habitual use of opiates or alcohol impacts the survival/self-preservation part of the brain. 

“It’s somewhat comparable to when you get hungry,” Jakubowski explains. “You can ignore it for a time, but after a while your thoughts are consumed by getting something to eat . . . your brain is telling you that your body is craving food, and the more time that goes by, the less picky you are about what you eat . . . the survival part of your brain is telling you in a growing voice, ‘You have to eat something, now!’” 

What’s more, if a person happens to temporarily forget his or her hunger, such as through being distracted, the moment someone mentions or alludes to food, the hunger returns. But now, the brain knows that it has been even longer since eating and the survival message “must eat” grows stronger, while the boundary concerning what a person is willing to do to get food grows fainter. 

“That’s a simplistic way to explain drug addiction,” Jakubowski says. “Just like the brain knows the body needs food to survive, drugs ‘rewire’ the brain so a person believes that to survive, he or she must have drugs.” 

Yet, many people who are addicted to drugs, when their brains aren’t triggering a survival signal, are otherwise upright and morally solid. In that is their dilemma. 

“A person starts using drugs to feel good, but they continue using so they don’t feel bad,” Jakubowski says. “When I was addicted to drugs, I never felt worse in my life — there was no pleasure in it. The moral part of myself hates the stealing, the lying. The farther out of my value system I get, the more I hate myself, and the more I want to get high to bury that hate, which leads to more drugs and hating myself even more . . . it comes to a point where you want to die.” 

Recently, heroin deaths have seen a sharp increase as people, in search of a more potent heroin, whether for pleasure or escape, have begun to use heroin laced (sometimes unknowingly) with Carfentanil. Known as an elephant tranquilizer, it’s 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is extremely deadly. 

This is the life a person who is addicted to drugs faces: emotional bankruptcy, spiritual oppression, and neurological impairment that is lethal without intervention. 

“Just stopping” isn’t that easy. As Jakubowski references, a person’s body assimilates to the added chemicals (drugs) and they become a part of how the body functions. The message the brain sends about survival is not always wrong in the case of alcohol and benzodiazepine (benzo) drugs — a person could die if not properly weaned off the drugs where the body can stabilize and return to natural functioning. 

“Even then,” Jakubowski says, “withdrawal feels like your bones are exploding inside of you and like every vital function of your body has the flu, but times 100 as your body expels through every orifice — it’s an agonizing process.” 

According to Jakubowski, every 18.5 minutes, another person is lost to drug-related death or overdose in the United States. There are an estimated 23.2 million addicted individuals in the U.S. and only 10.5 percent make it into the process of rehab. 

“It’s an epidemic,” McFadden says. “From 2000-2014, more than 500,000 lives were lost due to drug addiction.” And recently, the CDC released a study that suggests that opioid-related deaths are underreported  as some are identified as “unexplained deaths” rather than drug-related. 

For people from the outside looking in, drug addiction appears to be a choice; for those on the inside looking out, it’s an inescapable death spiral — unless God is brought into the equation. 

Teen Challenge is known as the leading Christ-centered expert on chemical addiction. Batluck believes, if impacting their community is a church’s goal, it needs a working relationship with their closest Teen Challenge center.

“They understand the church world and the world of addiction,” he says. “They also specialize in street evangelism and discipleship.” 

“Only Jesus can remove the compulsion to use,” Jakubowski says, citing personal and observational experience. “Where drugs used to be the god of their lives, the desire to serve and worship Christ fills that void; the lies of the devil are replaced with Scripture and the truth of God’s Word.” 

McFadden agrees, but adds that for every person suffering from addiction, there are many more who are also deeply impacted and need care and counseling. 

“Addiction is not an individual issue, but a family affliction,” he says. “Too often Christians stigmatize addiction to the point that individuals and families are afraid to ask for help — that needs to change.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.