What is Addiction?

When I was young, I thought I was invincible. To me, there is something about headstrong youth that makes you feel immune to the potential harms of life. As I grew older, my overbearing ego and feelings of invulnerability slowly gave rise to a holier-than-thou attitude. I would frequently wonder how it could be that people appeared so outwardly flawed. I thought that it was due to a lack of discipline and that any misfortune was their own fault. With this personal philosophy came a sense that I could tackle anything and, through my own discipline and focus, come out unscathed from any adventure. This attitude often arose when I read newspaper articles detailing the recent drug busts in my small town. Mugshots of those arrested showed clear signs of drug abuse that had consumed these individuals’ lives. My young self simply did not understand how someone could allow themselves to fall into addiction. I thought that maybe they were somehow inferior to those who had more discipline, like me. 

It took many years of maturing for me to realize that addiction can affect any one of us. The hard truth is that life is difficult at times. A lot of us are not financially secure, work overwhelmingly long hours, or simply can’t cope with how demanding the world is. We all have outlets for these stressors, a place where we can have a little respite from the harsh realities that can wear on our minds and lives. Some of us retreat to music, exercise, or time spent with a loved one. However, sometimes the outlet can be more malignant. The most harrowing escapes can leave you both mentally and physically addicted. Opiates, alcohol, and amphetamines can promise a reprieve from stress and pain, and sometimes those drugs suggest that you don’t ever have to feel that way again– as long as you keep taking it. In my view, this is addiction. 

I have personally observed this addiction in my family. I watched my second cousin abandon his son, wife, and lucrative career to pursue business idea after business idea. He picked up an addiction to methamphetamine because his life did not excite him as much as he had wanted it to. I have another cousin currently battling addiction. While she desperately wants to be a mother to her son, the promises made by meth pull her back into isolation and neglect for him. My mother, who watched her father die of COPD from a lifetime of smoking tobacco, chose not to quit smoking while pregnant with me and continues to smoke. These circumstances reinforce themselves, too, by creating additional stress. Addiction can make you feel that a life without the drug is not worth living, and that it may be better to overdose and die than be sober. 

I remember being a child, just old enough to accept the propaganda that smoking was bad for you, yet not truly internalizing why it was that cigarettes could harm one’s health. I distinctly recall telling my mom to quit smoking, to which she replied “once you give up candy bars I’ll quit” because she knew I had an insatiable sweet tooth. I knew that she was trying to illustrate her addiction to me more than she was trying to bargain, and this stuck with me. I gained some personal insight into how these vices grip us. A decade and some years later I would take her up on her offer, as my childhood sweet tooth receded after a few harsh lessons learned at the dentist. But that day I once again learned something about addiction– it sticks with you for life. My mother still smokes, and likely will until she dies. 

I wish I could say that I was comfortable helping those I love battle through their struggle with addiction. I wish I knew what to say or do that would give them a better escape than their drug of choice. While I know that not even the most experienced therapist or rehabilitation clinic could do this one hundred percent of the time, I aspire to be competent and comfortable in supporting individuals in my life who live with addiction. I also want to be an experienced and knowledgeable clinician, so that when I have my own practice, I can give my patients respect and compassion as well as reaffirm their inherent dignity through my words and actions. I used to think I was invincible. The truth is, none of us are, and that is okay.

About the Creator:

Brandon Bacalzo is an M2 at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. He earned his bachelors from the University of Wisconsin Madison and is a Wisconsin native. In his free time, Brandon enjoys a wide variety of experiences such as appreciating music, hiking, reflecting on the human condition, and making memes.

About IHRC:

The Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition works to create health equity in Iowa communities through advocacy, education, and drug user health services. They are committed to building power among people impacted by the war on drugs, including people who use drugs and communities of color; committed to acceptance of stigmatized and minoritized peoples and people who use drugs; and committed to dismantling systems of race, class, and gender-based privilege.

Learn more at: https://www.iowaharmreductioncoalition.org

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