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The Reality of Addiction: Brain Changes

By: Taylor Strnad

As a child, it was hard to understand why my mother drank so much. I always thought, “Why won’t she just stop?” As I got older I realized that it wasn’t that simple.

Addiction starts differently for everyone. You don’t become addicted to something overnight. For my mom, the risk factors that led to addiction were the stressors of her job, an unhealthy marriage, the COVID-19 pandemic and her only daughter away at school. It was too much for her to cope with at once, so she turned to alcohol. Although she drank excessively on weekends and at special events, it never initially affected her day-to-day life. Though, right before my eyes, it turned into something much bigger. She was missing work, lying about everything, and even manipulating our family and friends. 

It was truly heartbreaking watching it unfold and feeling like there was nothing I could do. Once someone is addicted to alcohol, or another substance, their brain changes both physically and psychologically, according to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

There are several factors that can contribute to addiction, including psychological and hereditary links. When someone feels hopeless, angry, or even scared, they might turn to a substance or behavior to cope with those emotions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), genetics account for half of a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. 

Everyday, I consciously think about breaking the pattern of addiction. I’ve witnessed firsthand what addiction does to someone and their loved ones, and I refuse to inherit it. To this day, I’m terrified that what happened to my mom could happen to me. So, I actively choose to break the cycle. Addiction, however, is not determined solely by genetics, but also one’s environment. 

Early traumatic experiences, like physical or sexual abuse, may increase risk of substance use disorders “because of attempts to self-medicate or to dampen mood symptoms associated with a dysregulated biological stress response,” according to, Lamya Khoury, doctor of family medicine. Other environmental factors include lack of parental guidance, easy access to substances and stress.

At the center of addiction you’ll meet our friend dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. When one experiences pleasure, dopamine is released in the brain, reinforcing drug addiction. When addicted to a substance, the user chases the “high” they felt while previously using, according to NIDA. The high can include feeling euphoric, pain relief and even calmness.

The high of an addiction, however, doesn’t last forever. One of the toughest moments in watching my mother struggle was the physical and emotional pain it caused her. Everytime she drank, she would cry over how painful it was. Physically and emotionally, she was in pain. She was guilty because she continued to drink; she knew she shouldn’t be doing it but couldn’t stop doing it. Commonly, addiction begins as something that was once fun, but stops being enjoyable as the addiction worsens. However, despite the lack of enjoyment, the addict will continue because they are physically and psychologically dependent on it. 

Addiction doesn’t have to last forever. While it is extremely difficult to battle, it is possible to overcome. 

Recovering from an addiction requires breaking the pattern of use. Recovery is not a straight line. Often it’s a lot of bumps and uphill battles, according to Michael J. Rounds, an addiction recovery specialist for the Branchville Correctional Facility in southern Indiana. Relapse — when one stops using a substance for a period of time but goes back to the substance — occurs frequently throughout recovery. 

When my mom faced the worst of her addiction, I lived five hours away in Indianapolis. I’ll never forget the day she called me from a hotel room, severely intoxicated. She said she could no longer do it anymore and that she was so sorry for everything she’s done. She wished she could stop but said she couldn’t. 

At that moment, I remember begging her to stay on the phone and continue talking to me. I told her she was loved and that she mattered to so many people. After the line went dead, I dialled 9-1-1 as fast as possible and got in my car to drive five hours home to Cleveland. Those five hours were a blur. It was the worst day of my 21 years of living. 

My mom was OK, but she could have died had she not been taken to the hospital. I thought that moment had to be rock bottom, and that it was all uphill from here. The sad part is, it wasn’t. She continued to drink as soon as she left the hospital.

An addict can face the absolute worst and still continue to use.

I can now proudly say that my mother has been sober for six months. Though, the road there was far from easy. It was mentally and physically exhausting for her. When she stopped drinking, she experienced headaches, sweating, shaking, anxiety and even a seizure. Before the stretch of sobriety, she had been in and out of rehabilitation, treatment and detox facilities for a whole year. 

My mom works each day to break the patterns of addiction. She’s surrounded herself with healthy people, goes to therapy to cope with stress, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and lives in a group home with others who are also in recovery. 

Addiction is not a clear or easy path, and for those that have to watch from the outside, it is incredibly difficult to understand. The best thing you can do as a bystander is educate yourself and offer support.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357. 

For more information on addiction, visit: 

NIDA – https://www.drugabuse.gov/

SAMHSA – https://www.samhsa.gov/

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