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Catching It Early: If Addiction is a Learning Disorder, Can We “Unlearn” It?

Growing up in our respective cities during our respective decades, author Maia Szalavitz and I both hated recess because of its lack of structure. We both read at levels far higher than our classmates, and as teens, were initially scared to use drugs and alcohol because we were afraid to feel out of control.

Unpredictable elements in the world around us became terrifying, and we tolerated unacceptable behavior from men – happy to simply have some form of love and affection, and all the while, looking for a deeper connection – desperate for it, in fact.

Then something changed, and we both became addicts – her to drugs, me to alcohol – and something changed again, causing us to recover, come out the other side, and seek to make a difference through our writing.

Traveling Our Own Paths

Here is where our stories differ: I lived through a major trauma and Maia did not, yet we both ended up going down the same path.

Maia Szalavitz was the first to reach out to me as I was starting to figure out what I had been through in the ten years after 9/11. Her latest book, Unbroken Brain, explores the ways in which addiction is actually a learning disorder.

She writes that teens who become frequent, rather than occasional, alcohol and drug users have other problems like depression, anxiety, and trauma. In fact, at least two-thirds of people living with addiction have suffered at least one extremely traumatic experience through childhood – and just on extreme adversity experienced before age 15 doubles the odds of substance use disorders.

Having post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in your story doubles to quadruples your chance of becoming addicted. Maia writes:

“If you learn that the world is not a safe and stable place—and that others are unreliable‑when you are young, it can shape the trajectory of your emotional learning and the way you cope for the rest of your life.”

Similarly, the reactions that are adaptive during times of stress become handicaps in calmer environments we encounter in everyday life.

So, the path to addiction, then, is paved by the part of the brain that learns that any given substance, alcohol, drugs, the endorphins produced during sex, can be used to “mute” or “soothe” an existing problem that lies much deeper than just the addiction itself. This can be something like depression, trauma, other mental illnesses, or plain old teenage angst.

Similarly, she says, using the substance to create pleasant feelings, revelations, or other “beneficial” feelings, can cause the brain to fall in love with a drug or a drink instead of a person.

“The kind of learning that happens in the region of the brain that involves desire and motivation is the kind that changes your priorities. It makes you reconsider what you’re doing with your life, and orients you towards a loved one or loved thing,” Maia said.

“If that happens to be a drug or alcohol, you’ll get the same kind of behavior that you’d see in someone having an affair, hiding it, lying about it…doing what they can to preserve the relationship because they’ve come to believe it’s the most important thing to their emotional survival.”


Catching it Early

As a young person who was able to “relearn” life and “unlearn” addiction, I couldn’t help but wonder about this notion of “catching it early,” and if it contributes to an increased rate of success or decreased rate of relapse.

In short, her answer was “yes.”

“It’s easier to recover when you’re younger, and you’ll find that the number of people who recover increases with age. It’s easier to change things when your whole life is ahead of you, rather than when you realize everything you’ve done at age 67,” Maia said.

“Most cases of addiction start long before affected people are ever exposed to drugs…what matters is what people learn, both before and after trying them.”

She observes that many of the ideas found on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a form of active psychotherapy used to treat PTSD by teaching skills and utilizing tools to change problematic behaviors and thought patterns – can be found in 12-step programs. Whether it’s step work or CBT worksheets you take home for homework, the brain can, indeed, be retrained.

A Desire to Do Things Differently

It couldn’t be a coincidence that both CBT and 12-step programs ultimately led to my own recovery – I took to both of them the same way I took to my classes in college: eagerly accepting my assignments and paying close attention. Essentially, being willing to learn how to do things differently.

“Most people will also need some form of social support to make them feel loved, safe, and that they have a purpose in order to successfully kick the habit,” Maia said.

“Your brain isn’t broken, and there’s not something permanently wrong with you. The majority of people who live with addiction do, ultimately, recover.”


Image Courtesy of iStock

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