If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one spiral into addiction, you can probably relate to the following statement: addicts are insufferable.

From vitriolic rants blaming others to eliciting money/sympathy/housing through sentences that begin with “I know you don’t understand” or “You have no idea what it’s like….”, addicts are some of the most selfish and disagreeable people on the planet. The worst part is that they often happen to be the people we love the most.

When dealing with an addict it’s important to keep in mind the physiological process causing the addiction and the toxic behaviour that goes hand in hand with this disease. It’s also vital to remember that this process needs to happen if a true addict is ever going to accept help.

I’m a firm believer that though circumstances lead us to seek escape in addictive substances, the disease of addiction manifests inside the brain.

In a “normal” brain dopamine is supposed to run fluidly between our neurons. The job of this multi-dimensional neurotransmitter is to deliver vital messages regarding pleasure, reward, impulse, movement, emotion, satiation and satisfaction. But addictive substances do something unusual. They cause our bodies to produce abnormal amounts of dopamine which flood the part of our brains that register pleasure and reward, the limbic system. If this tsunami is repeated often enough, our brains cease to naturally produce normal levels of dopamine. Only the addictive substance can come close to releasing the required amount needed by the limbic system to register satisfaction. Over time the limbic system also builds up immunity to dopamine. Greater amounts of the substance are needed to produce enough dopamine for it to register satisfaction. Consequently, the imbalance in neurotransmitter production triggers a host of other deficiencies in other key areas of the brain.

As a result, addicts start ignoring the physical warning signs that their bodies are in peril. By now they have lost the capacity for empathy and scarier still, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. The addict has one goal- getting the substance and achieving that initial pleasure or satiation they felt when first taking the substance, regardless of consequences.

In situations like this, there are only three options you can offer an addict- jails, institutions or death.

We always hope that the addict(s) in our lives will choose to go to recovery, professional rehabilitation centres which offer guided detox programs and counselling. But ultimately, unless you are dealing with a minor, this decision is out of your hands.

In popular culture, there is a lot of talk about “interventions” as a way of accelerating the process of recovery. In my experience working with addicts, this has a 50% success rate, but it is definitely an avenue worth trying. For more information on how to approach interventions safely and effectively as well as a complete Canadian based resource list for addicts and families of addicts, click here