What is Chemical Dependency, Anyway? A Closer Look

What is Chemical Dependency, Anyway? A Closer Look

Among lower income and homeless populations, easy access to drugs fuels the addiction crisis. For some, addiction to prescription pain relievers eventually leads to heroin use once the habit is no longer financially sustainable. Every day increasing numbers of addicts die from an overdose, but the chemical dependency epidemic cannot be blamed exclusively on easy access.

Alcohol abuse has often been seen as a separate, distinct problem from chemical dependency. While different chemicals do indeed affect the body uniquely, substance abuse of any kind – alcohol, narcotics or opiates – results from a psychosocial dynamic that is no respecter of substance. Because of this common framework, alcoholism cannot be segregated from other chemical addictions.

Drug and alcohol abuse typically stem from a person’s desire to cope with pain when healthy and adaptive coping skills are insufficient. The difference between alcohol and other chemical dependencies is not so much about what prompts the dependency but about how easily accessible the substance of choice is. Because alcohol is legal to purchase, it is not only readily available but is also more socially acceptable as well. Addiction to street drugs, on the other hand, requires a person to circumvent the law, which makes the addiction more costly and recovery more problematic.

Defining Chemical Dependency

What exactly is chemical dependency? It is difficult to define without acknowledging the many opinions that have informed our discussion of addictions over the years. An organic definition of dependency, for example, looks at the chemical composition of a substance (i.e. the “hook”) that makes addiction highly probable.

A moral definition of addiction considers one’s spiritual disposition (i.e. – lack of faith) as a leading contributor. A biological definition provides yet another vantage point in which a person’s brain is implicated as having an addictive bent (i.e. – an addictive personality). With all these differing perspectives, how does one arrive at the truth? There are a few things that we do know about chemical dependency.

Scientists and researchers inform us that addictions are hereditary. Does heredity point to a genetic predisposition toward chemical dependency, or does it imply that a family’s environment cultivates addictive tendencies through a culture of addiction that passes down to the next generation?

It is known that substances have a withdrawal component which strengthens the organic or biological argument. From a moral standpoint, the Bible forbids drunkenness and encourages Christians to be empowered by the Holy Spirit rather than intoxicated by wine. The theory that substances contain a “chemical hook”, however, proves rather outdated.

Johann Hari exposes this outdated theory in a powerful TED Talk entitled, “Everything You Think You Know about Addiction is Wrong”. I strongly recommend that you watch his presentation, or at least watch the condensed, animated version entitled “Addiction,” created by Kurzgesagt (translated, means “in a nutshell”).

The chemical hook theory arose from a study involving rats that were offered both water and heroin-laced water. The experiment showed that the rats overwhelmingly chose the heroin water over the regular water and showed signs of addiction. This finding was then generalized to human populations, despite later experiments that yielded very different results.

In one such subsequent experiment, the rats were still offered both water and heroin-laced water, but the conditions of their confinement were altered. Instead of a sparse cage, the rats were enclosed in a stimulating environment with other rats. This time, the rats did not show a preference for the heroin water.

It would be unethical to replicate this experiment with human subjects, but a look at the Vietnam War offers some insight into how humans might respond in kind. During the war, heroin use was prolific among soldiers with few other options for recreation or diversion. There was a fear that, when they returned home, their recreational drug use would have become a full-fledged addiction. On the contrary, most soldiers were able to give up heroin upon return to their families and civilian life.

Hari points out the discrepancy in the hook theory given the results of both the rat experiments and the Vietnam War example. When one’s environment is taken into account, addiction is seen in a different light. Difficult and hopeless surroundings (i.e. the sparse cage or the battlefield) provide the context within which drugs become a viable escape. In fulfilling and hopeful environments, however, drug abuse makes little sense.

The implications seem clear, but how can they be integrated into our thinking about and treatment of substance abuse disorders? While addiction cannot be oversimplified, one of the often overlooked components in treatment is an individual’s social context.

Professionals must consider a client’s environment when treating chemical dependency. Advocacy becomes a vital role for the clinician in helping identify support systems for their clients as well as encouraging vocational, volunteer, and recreational interests. When recovering addicts can find fulfillment and purpose in their lives, the draw toward substance use weakens.

One former addict stated that he “wanted to have a life worth being sober for.” When it’s all said and done, having a life full of meaning and purpose provides the best alternative to substance abuse as well as other non-substance related escapes. Whether an individual is battling a substance abuse issue or addiction to pornography or food, therapy aims to explore the pain that is being numbed and examine the context in which the coping mechanism became an addiction.

Christian Counseling Newport Beach desire is to come alongside those who are struggling with chemical dependency and work with them to achieve sobriety and to create a life worth staying sober for. These goals can be achieved one small step at a time with the strength that God gives and the encouragement of your support system.

“Walking Home,” courtesy of Jesus Rodriguez, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “City girl,” courtesy of George Gvasalia, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Take a sip,” courtesy of Tanja Heffner, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Field,” courtesy of Karl Fredrickson, unsplash.com, CC0 License 


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