Jonathan has tried to quit using drugs several times. Despite repeated attempts he has not been successful stopping on his own. He has also attempted to cut back on his use only to find that he is unable. Last year Jonathan served jail time for drug possession. More recently, he lost his job due to his drug use. His girlfriend told him she does not want anything to do with him when he is using. Most of Jonathan’s family has distanced themselves from him too. Jonathan desperately wants to quit using drugs, yet he can’t seem to despite these negative life consequences. Friends and family have asked Johnathan why he can’t just quit?

In the U.S. alone, there are roughly 100,000 people who die each year from drug overdose or other complications from addiction. Many of them are like Jonathan. If they could quit on their own, they would.

Does Jonathan suffer from a moral failure? Why can’t he just quit?

Jonathan is not ‘morally bad.’ The problem is that Jonathan has an addiction. There are many causes of addiction which will be addressed in upcoming posts. However, the condition of being addicted is considered a brain disorder characterized by continued use despite negative or detrimental life consequences. These consequences are things mentioned above along with other challenges like continued use despite health problems or financial issues. In more extreme cases homelessness or overdose can occur.

Signs of addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has identified eleven criteria for addiction, or what they call substance use disorder. I won’t go over them all, but you can read about them here. A few more not mentioned above are intense craving for the substance, needing more and more to achieve the same effect (tolerance), and withdrawal symptoms that can only be relieved by taking the substance. As you might imagine, the more symptoms a person reports the more severe the addiction.

Why is it hard to quit?

  1. Drugs hijack the reward circuit in the brain. This circuit is in the brain’s limbic system. You can read more about that here. However, because addiction alters the brain and alters impulse control and judgment, quitting can be hard without help.
  2. Since addiction is often a coping strategy for other life challenges, stopping on our own is difficult until better coping strategies are learned. A counselor or therapist can help with this.
  3. Physical withdrawal symptoms can also make quitting difficult which is why it is best to have medical support. There are also medications that help with withdrawal symptoms.
  4. Psychological withdrawal like anxiety, depression, insomnia, cravings, and mood changes can also make it hard to stay sober. As mentioned above, often addiction is a coping strategy for psychological problems.
  5. Finally, because of the stigma surrounding addiction and the belief by many that it is due to a moral failure, many people like Jonathan feel ashamed and have trouble talking to people about their addiction.

Not only that, but addiction often manifests due to underlying issues like trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other psychological challenges. Although substance use often begins with a choice or decision to use. It can progress to a disease due to the impact it has on the brain and other major organs. The disease of addiction can further complicate these latent emotional challenges.

If you struggle with addiction, you are not alone. Thousands of people struggle too. The good news is help is available, and thousands of people overcome addictions every day. Remember that addiction is a medical condition. It is not a moral failure. Getting treatment is the first step to recovery. It is not a road anyone should walk alone.