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Why Drug Addicts Will Always Choose Drugs Over Love

Drug Addicts Will Always Choose Drugs Over Love

If you’re living with someone struggling with substance abuse, you’re going through a hard time. Not only do you have to endure the trauma of watching your loved one deteriorate, you also have to face the trauma of watching someone who loved and cared about you messing that relationship up with a chemical addiction. Most of us are aware that addiction changes people. Knowing that and watching it happen are completely different things. However, the truth is that addiction does change someone’s ability to not only control themselves around substances but also to prioritize love and relationships over drugs.

If your loved one is addicted or suffering from a substance use disorder, they will almost always choose drugs or alcohol over their relationship.

The reasons for that are complicated, but often come down to the simple fact that drugs stimulate the same hormonal processes in the brain – but in significantly stronger ways. That’s tragic and traumatic for the 1 in 5 Americans who live with an addict, and it is something that you should get therapy and support for.

Understanding the Reward Circuit

Most people have a basic awareness that “love” is the chemical formulation of a mix of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. You might also be aware of the “reward circuit”, the brain circuitry that is responsible for making you feel pleasure and motivation. Here, the brain produces serotonin and dopamine as part of motivation and reward for things like eating, taking care of yourself, and exercise. If you can think back to how good a hug feels, that’s what the reward circuit feels like in action. You feel good when you engage in social activity, you feel good when you do nice things for your loved ones, you feel good when you spend time with your loved ones. And, that all comes down to the reward circuit.

When someone takes drugs, it often triggers that exact same reward circuit. Dopamine, serotonin, GABA, oxytocin, and opioids are central to different ways to feel good in response to stimuli. They’re also central to the reward or high that someone gets when they use drugs or alcohol. In fact, almost all drugs stimulate euphoria or a “high” by flooding the brain with one or more of those chemicals in high doses, replicating the effect of something like having a conversation with your loved one, but then turned up to the maximum amount of feeling.

Emotional Blunting and Drugs

One of the dangers of drugs and alcohol is that the brain adapts to the amount of a hormone or neurotransmitter in the system. If there’s too much serotonin, the brain adapts so that the serotonin has less effect and also starts producing less serotonin. This results in a two-fold problem:

  • Emotional Blunting – Emotional blunting or depersonalization happens when you overwhelm the senses with something and then don’t notice something lighter. For example, if you sit down and you eat a spoonful of salt and then immediately after swallowing, try eating a single potato chip. Will the potato chip taste salty? No. You’ve blunted your ability to taste salt for the moment. Drugs do that to how people experience positive emotions. You might not notice that something makes you feel good because the feeling of the drug is the same but so much stronger. Unfortunately, that can last for 3-24 months after your last dose.
  • Reduced Production – Another issue with drug abuse is that your brain adapts to the situation it is in. If you’re taking drugs to increase serotonin in the brain, the brain will limit actual serotonin production. This means that you’ll produce less serotonin in response to things that should make you feel good. As a result, doing something nice for your loved one might not actually make you feel good anymore. That will come back once your brain can recover and revert to normal but that can also take up to two years after starting recovery.

As a result, someone who is abusing drugs and alcohol might be less able to see love and affection or family as a good thing because they don’t feel it. They don’t choose not to feel it, they’ve just hurt themselves to the point where they are unable to feel emotions in a normal way. That’s why people with drug addictions are more able to lie, manipulate, say no to their loved ones, and otherwise behave in hurtful ways. They feel it less.

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Increases in Apathy

Long-term substance abuse increases apathy and how little people feel. That results in behavior that can be described as lazy, inconsiderate, uncaring, and unmotivated. It often means that the person isn’t feeling anything. They might be more motivated by a drug because it will make them feel something.

However, substances often take over the life of anyone who uses them frequently. They stop caring about their attitude, their performance, their behavior, their contribution. The only thing that makes them feel good is their substance, so why would they care about anything else? That tracks to actual physical changes in the brain and the longer you use, the more substance abuse becomes the primary focus of the brain, because it takes over the reward system.

a woman with depression feeling unmotivated sitting at home

Increases in Risk Seeking

Most substance use disorders impact your dopamine receptors in much the same way they do your serotonin receptors. Dopamine is often critical in motivation and wanting to do something. If you don’t feel motivated to do anything but substance abuse or you feel less motivation to do things, you have less motivation to do anything at all. For many people, that results in increases in risk taking and sensation seeking behavior as you desperately try to feel anything at all.

As a result, people who abuse drugs and alcohol are significantly more likely to chase quick and easy highs. Like getting drunk, going to a party, casual sex, speeding, gambling, etc. If your relationship isn’t a rollercoaster, your loved one won’t be getting that kind of high from you, and that can mean they show less interest in you.

Increased Stress

Substance abuse increases the amount of stress you feel. That includes physical stress because of over stretching your body and deprivation as well as mental and emotional stress. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition habits, financial stress, whatever problems were behind starting substance use to begin with, etc., will all increase the amount of stress you feel. Long-term drug and alcohol abuse will also completely dysregulate the stress system so that you can experience extreme stress in response to even minor inconveniences. The result will often be someone who has no way to handle a healthy relationship, no way to handle conflict, and no way to experience the reward of handling that conflict. That will mean it’s harder and harder for your loved one to prioritize you over the easy high and the actually getting to feel good.

Is There Help?

Living with someone with a substance abuse problem can seem like a lost cause. In many cases it can be. Your loved one will have to choose recovery on their own. They’ll have to find their own motivation to recover. You may be part of that motivation but it has to come from them. And, you can’t make choices for anyone, no matter how much you want to. Getting your loved one into treatment and therapy can help them to recover, but you can’t choose that for them, you can only be there for them and try to get them there. Professional treatment and therapy can help, they can be life-saving, and modern interventions can help your loved one to tackle not only the drug addiction but also the underlying problems that led to substance abuse in the first place. At the same time, they’ll move towards that at their own speed, they’ll recover in their own way, and fully recovering can take years. Chances are, you’re never getting the same person back out of treatment. However, your loved one can recover and they can heal so they can experience love, show affection, and choose their loved ones over a substance, it just takes time, motivation, and ongoing effort and help.

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Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken in place of medical advice. Before making any decisions regarding your health, please consult your doctor. The staff at Stairway Resource Center develops a custom treatment plan for each of our patients. Specific medical advice will be provided to our patients by our professional providers while in our care.