On a very simple level, chemical dependency occurs when we introduce a substance to our body enough times that we become dependent on it. If we introduce an addictive substance—for example, heroin—into our body consistently and in a short period of time, our bodies may become dependent on it to the point that it can’t function normally without it.
The brain is a very fluid and adaptive organ. It’s constantly changing based on its environment. Consider learning, for instance. If we learn a new language then never speak it or write it for a long period of time, we forget it. Why? Because our brain acknowledges that the neural pathways it was using to remember the language are not needed and could be used more efficiently on other tasks.
It works the same way with chemical dependency. Our brains have certain functions and processes it executes on a daily basis. When we introduce a substance such as heroin, that substance performs some of the brain’s functions for it. As a result, the brain eventually stops performing those functions itself. At that point, the brain needs the substance to function properly—and that’s when a chemical dependence has been created.
Let’s use a parable to illustrate this point. Let’s say you own a factory that produces shirts. You create 5,000 shirts per day to fill orders from customers. You hire 5 employees specifically to package and label the orders. They each package 1,000 shirts per day. Once the orders are packaged, the postal service takes them from the factory and delivers them to your customers.
One day the postal service shows up and tells you that they will package 1,000 shirts free of cost to you. They do that again the next day. And the next. And the next. After a month, you realize that you’re now paying 5 employees to do the work of only 4 employees—because now you’re only responsible for packaging 4,000 shirts since the postal service is packaging the other 1,000 for free. Because of this, you lay off 1 of your packaging employees because you don’t need him anymore.
Then one day the postal service shows up and tells you that they will package 2,000 shirts free of cost to you. They do that again the next day. And the next. And the next. After a month, you realize that you’re now paying 4 employees to do the work of only 3 employees—because now you’re only responsible for packaging 3,000 shirts since the postal service is packaging the other 2,000 for free. Because of this, you lay off another one of your packaging employees because you don’t need him anymore.
This process continues until one day the postal service shows up and offers to package all 5,000 shirts free of cost to you. They do that again the next day. And the next. And the next. After a month, you realize that you’re now paying a packaging employee to do nothing because now you’re not responsible for packaging any shirts since the postal service is packaging all 5,000 for free. Because of this, you lay off your final packaging employee because you don’t need him anymore.
But then one day the postal service shows up and breaks the news that they can no longer package your shirts for free. What happens? Your plant goes into crisis. You have 5,000 shirt orders that need to be packaged and no employees to do the work. You call the five employees you laid off and desperately beg them to return. Two refuse because they don’t want to work for you again. Two of the others already found new jobs and can’t return as a result. You can only get one employee to come back. That means you’ll only be able to package 1,000 shirt orders that day, and the other 4,000 will have to sit around your factory. You might lose customers and even have to stop taking new orders because you aren’t able to fill them for the time being. Within the next few weeks you hire 4 new employees to fill the vacant jobs and after spending time training them you’re eventually able to package 5,000 shirts per day once again.
This is how the brain reacts in situations of chemical dependency. If you introduce substances that do the work for it, it stops doing the work itself. That’s why when you abruptly quit an addiction, your body goes into severe withdrawal that might lead to seizures or even death—your brain isn’t ready to suddenly do the work it once normally did. It needs time to get back to its pre-substance functioning.When we look at chemical dependence in this way, we see it for what it truly is and take away its power. There’s a Buddhist proverb that states that when an individual is injured, they experience pain twice: the first pain is the actual pain from the injury, and the second pain is the pain of recognizing they’re injured. The same can be said of addiction in that when we have an addiction, we experience pain twice: the first pain is the actual pain from the addiction, and the second pain is the pain of knowing we’re addicted to something. Knowing how chemical dependence works takes away that second pain.
By: Zach Good
In this video I provide a simple overview of chemical dependence and explain why our bodies become addicted to substances.
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