I received a rather nasty comment last week to a post that I wrote a long time ago. The comment bothered me because it was apparent that the person knew me personally – either now or at some point in the past – and obviously held me in low enough regard to make a hurtful comment while staying under the cover of anonymity.
It wasn’t the comment that upset me so much; it was more in finding out that someone that knows me personally doesn’t like me. Don’t get me wrong on that; it has nothing to do with ego or a need to be “loved by everyone”. I’m not quite that shallow. It’s just that I’m honestly puzzled about who I might have offended. I just don’t know. And that bothers me.
But while I may not be able to do anything about the commenter, I would like to address their comment, or at least the subject of it – addiction – because it might help those of you who have never experienced addiction if you understand what’s going on with people who have.
I’ll get straight to the point: I am a drug addict.
While my drug of choice – nicotine – is legal and may seem mild compared to others, I don’t try to sugarcoat what I am. I’m not a “smoker”, I don’t suffer from a “bad habit”; I am an addict. It’s that simple.
I started smoking when I was 13, which puts me at 30 years and counting. And I’m not a casual smoker either; I smoke like I mean it. Two packs a day. Every day.
I can’t stop.
I don’t say this because I want your sympathy or pity; I am very aware of the fact that I could stop if I really wanted to. But that’s the thing; I don’t really want to, and I just want you to understand why.
Because that’s the question, right? Why wouldn’t I want to stop? Why would any halfway intelligent person smoke when they know how bad it is for them?
Believe me, I know every single reason there is to stop smoking, and I would wager that, by experience, I can name a few more reasons that you aren’t even aware of.
So why don’t I just stop then? Simple answer: Fear.
When most people think about addiction – and I mean those who are not addicts themselves – they think about the physical withdrawals to the drug, whether it’s nicotine, alcohol, meth, or whatever. Regarding cigarettes, you see the patches and the gums and all of the other things that are supposed to ease withdrawal. And they do work, by the way. So what’s the big deal with quitting then?
That’s what I want to explain, because I’ve had the opportunity to give that question a great deal of thought while “standing on the front lines”, so to speak.
The problem is that there are two parts to addiction. The first is the physical addiction.
When you start putting a drug into your body, it throws your body’s balance out of whack, and being the smart machine that it is, the body automatically makes adjustments to compensate for it.
When you continue to put that drug into your body, your body continues to adjust to it, and after awhile, this new condition – drug & compensation – becomes the new “normal”. Your body starts to expect that this drug is going to continue, and if it stops, it throws everything out of whack again.
Your body realizes that something is “wrong” and tells you to fix it. With a craving.
A craving is a lot like hunger. Non-addicts understand hunger. Your body wants food and you get hungry. If you get something to eat, the hunger goes away. For a little while. At some point you get hungry again, you eat again, the hunger goes away again. Same thing with a drug.
And, like hunger, if you don’t eat something, the hunger doesn’t go away; it starts to get stronger. Where at first it might have been mildly annoying, after awhile it starts becoming imperative. You really need something to eat. Same thing with a drug.
At some point, if you continue to resist your hunger by not eating, your body starts having a physical reaction – fatigue, stomach cramps, shaking, faintness, shortness of temper, loss of concentration, etc. Your body is, in effect, going through withdrawals. It wants food, and you’re not giving it any. Same thing with a drug.
And here’s the thing: All you have to do to make that physical discomfort go away is to eat something. That’s it. Same thing with a drug.
The difference between hunger and drug addiction is that if you don’t address your hunger, your body eventually will start to self destruct. With addiction, the body will only go so far, and then it will start to rebound. Your body has to have food; it doesn’t have to have the drug.
For an addict, if you can make it through that incredibly uncomfortable period of days (or weeks), your body will eventually fix itself. It will balance itself out back to the old “normal”, just like it was before the drug use started.
It’s this physical reaction that all of the patches, gums, and other drugs are aimed at relieving. They help the addict get through that withdrawal period by easing the physical symptoms until such time that the body is no longer craving the drug.
Sounds simple. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable period of time, even with the patches & gums, but it’s not forever; you know it will eventually end. You just have to hang in there until it does.
But the physical addiction is only half of the story, and I would suggest – at least for me – the lesser half. I can handle pain. I’ve been uncomfortable before. For me, the real battle is overcoming the mental addiction.
How do I explain what I mean by mental addiction?
Think of it this way: imagine yourself going through everything that you do in a normal day. Eating breakfast, driving your car, working or going to school, getting groceries, spending some time with friends and family – whatever it is that you normally do during your day.
Imagine yourself doing all of those things just like you normally do, with one exception: You are completely naked. No clothes at all. Everyone else is dressed; you’re not.
Don’t take this lightly; try to really imagine that you are doing it, or that you will have to do it. How would it make you feel? Would it be uncomfortable for you? Could you honestly do it at all?
It’s important to understand that going through your day naked would have no physical effect on you whatsoever. It wouldn’t hurt. There would be absolutely no pain at all.
But could you do it? Of course, you could do it, but would you? Even if it was in your best interests to do so? It's all about "willpower", right?
That’s kind of what the mental addiction to a drug feels like. It's not exactly the same, but that's as close as I can describe it. Like clothing, you don't really need it, but it has become so much a part of your life that you cannot imagine living your life without it.
And it’s incredibly powerful too, far more powerful than the physical addiction (at least for me). It’s so powerful, in fact, that just by seriously thinking about quitting, my body will start exhibiting physical withdrawal symptoms, even if I’m smoking while I’m thinking about it. That’s some serious mojo.
Now ask yourself, if you had your choice of either going through your day feeling as physically bad as you’ve ever felt, or going through your day naked, which would you choose? My guess is that you’d probably take the physical discomfort over nakedness. I would too.
But what if you had to do both? Not only would you have to feel physically terrible, but you’d also be completely naked at the same time. And not just for one day either; you have to do this for weeks. And you know from talking to other recovering addicts that the desire never really ever goes away entirely. You’ll always be in some state of undress for the rest of your life.
Would you go through that if you didn’t have to? What if you could just . . . postpone it for awhile? Would you do that instead? Be honest. Just for a little while? Because you can, you know.
And suddenly 30 years have gone by.
Please know that I’m not making excuses for myself. I know what I need to do. I have that conversation with myself every day. I know I’m pushing my luck, and I know that my luck will only go so far. Maybe it’s already passed the point of no return. I don’t know.
But I didn’t write this for sympathy. I wrote it because maybe it will help those of you who aren't addicts to have some understanding of what’s really going on with someone who is. And maybe it might also help someone else to never make the mistake I did.
Not all knowledge is worth gaining. On the topic of addiction at least, I often wonder what it must feel like to be blissfully ignorant.