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Addiction as Meaning: Perspectives on Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Why are drugs so attractive for a small percentage of the population in Canada?

The public continues to believe that there is something magical about a white powder or plant root or black tar or liquid that can transform anyone into an addict. “If I use enough of a substance enough times I will become addicted to it”. The drug is the sole agent. Because the drug is the actual agent producing intoxication, the public continues to believe that, for example, those using LSD will have the same experience.

The expert community not only in Canada but throughout the world has long since dismissed these popular ideas. To explain the attraction of intoxication for selected individuals, they highlight what they call “risk factors” for addiction, such as anxiety or other mental health issue, trauma, hanging out with others who use drugs, and many others. Neuroscientists (brain scientists) tell us that those who succumb to addiction have a genetic predisposition. Some individuals are born predisposed to become addicted, and this predisposition accounts for about half of a person’s addiction.

Yet none of these ideas explains why this person becomes addicted and another does not. There are always many exceptions to whatever is proposed. Most people with mental health issues do not have addiction, including lots of people suffering from trauma. Lots of people addicted to drugs have had wonderful upbringings, loving families, did well in school, and earn a six-figure salary. Even the brain scientists acknowledge that many people likely have a genetic predisposition for addiction, but don’t use drugs.

In this blog, we explore the possibility that the defining feature of who does and who does not succumb to addiction is based on the meaning they give to being intoxicated.

Examine the meaning users give to fentanyl. The fentanyl crisis in Canada is being played out in the media. Experts, parents, and concerned citizens interpret fentanyl intoxication as very dangerous. We hear repeated calls to educate drug users that they risk overdose and death. Yet, opiate users find a different meaning in the drug. Our clients tell us that when they learned how powerful fentanyl was, their reaction was, “Wow! That must be great stuff. I’ve gotta get some.”

We Learn to be Intoxicated

One type of evidence supporting the link between the meaning users give to drugs and addiction is the discovery that we have to learn how to be intoxicated.

In one study, researchers gave a mystery substance to participants. It was heroin, but the participants did not know this. The participants then described their experience.  A typical response was, “I feel a slight flushing of the face.” No one reported, “Oh, this is fantastic” or “Wow, this makes all my troubles go away” or euphoria.

It seems that if you don’t know what you are taking, you don’t know what you’re supposed to experience.

Conversely, researchers have conducted drug studies using placebos, often with those who have never experienced drug intoxication. They tell a young person that they are giving them a marijuana cigarette, but then actually give them a herb that smells like pot. Participants typically describe symptoms we normally associate with marijuana intoxication, such as things seem funnier. Other experiments give participants a vitamin that mimics the biological symptoms of LSD intoxication but tell the participants that they are taking real LSD. Participants routinely report hallucinations.

If the participants have no real-life experience of marijuana or LSD, where did they learn what the experience was supposed to be like? Perhaps they learned from Cheech and Chong movies, Timothy Leary, or www.erowid.com. (For a detailed overview of drug characteristics, see our Drug Information at https://www.sunshinecoasthealthcentre.ca/drug-information/).

Alcohol and Drug Expectancies

Another type of research to back up this meaning idea is expectancies. Addiction psychologists have compiled an impressive amount of evidence that what a drug user expects to experience from a drug will usually be the experience. This phenomenon is known as “alcohol expectancies” or “drug expectancies”.

If I expect to feel relaxed when I drink alcohol, then the chances are extremely good that I will feel relaxed. If I expect to feel like getting into a fight at the bar when I’m drunk, then the chances are very good that I’ll feel like fighting after a few drinks.

Even the pattern of drinking is informed by expectancies. Canadian society has come to expect that, for instance, college students will blow off steam by getting very intoxicated at a party on Friday night. On the other hand, Italian society does not endorse an expectation that young people the purpose of drinking at a party on Friday night is to “get wasted”.

The Meaning of Intoxication as a Predictor of Addiction

When we study people without addictions who use drugs, we discover that they interpret intoxication as a temporary solution for a specific issue. Psychologists call this the “instrumental” use of drugs.

Here are some examples of instrumental users. A young woman in first year university at the University of British Columbia, attends a party in her first week where there’s lots of alcohol. Making friends and fitting in, she gets tipsy. A long-distance truck driver going from Calgary to Vancouver wants to stay awake on a long haul and uses amphetamines. A person’s favorite pet passes away and drowns their sorrow in alcohol. A blues musician uses heroin as part of a rite of passage for blues musicians. A college student is curious about cocaine and tries it to see what all the fuss is about.

In these examples the meaning of intoxication for the drug user is a way to find social acceptance, a method to keep alert on the job, a form of self-medication for sorrow, a ritualized behavior, and curiosity.

Compare the above meanings that instrumental users give to intoxication with those we hear from addicted drug users. Literary writers who are addicted describe intoxication as a way of being true to themselves (Charles Bukowski), a sense of belonging (Eugene O’Neill), a religious experience (Baudelaire), the secret of happiness (Thomas De Quincey).

Clients at our drug rehab and alcohol treatment center in Powell River, BC, have reported the meaning they give to intoxication. Some examples: “When I smoke heroin, I am more creative writing music.” “When I’m drunk, even boring things like chores are interesting.” “Drinking is my reward after spending all day doing things for other people.” “I feel free when I’m drunk.”

Such examples indicate that addicted people interpret intoxication far differently than people without addictions. One essential difference appears to be that people without addictions typically feel drug intoxication is “unnatural,” as one person told me. It may be fun for a night, but the thought of being intoxicated day after day is abhorrent to them. For the addicted, however, it feels normal and natural. “Ah. This is the way I was meant to feel.”

Addiction and Meaning

In this blog, we’ve been exploring why some people find intoxication so powerful and others do not.

Addiction psychologists have not yet provided very good answers. For any explanation they give, there are just too many exceptions. If, as some argue, that alcoholism is a disease that undermines voluntary control of drinking, then how do we explain alcoholics who learn to drink socially? If, as some argue, that trauma is a huge risk factor for addiction, then how do we explain all those suffering from PTSD who don’t like drugs?

In the big research study we conducted at SCHC, the only variable that was always linked to the addiction was the meaning the participant ascribed to the drug experience. In a nutshell, they looked to intoxication to escape suffering, but also to feel vital and alive.

Meaning appears to determine drug of choice. In the study, many clients reported, “I tried cocaine once, but I hated it. Alcohol is my drug of choice.” When we examined the meaning that the participant gave to cocaine intoxication, it was negative. But the meaning he gave to alcohol intoxication was, “It was my way of being in the world.”

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