Why Are They Using Drugs

Why do addicts use drugs? I am gearing this piece ultimately toward those who, quite understandably, stand by in complete and nauseating disbelief as someone they love keeps using drugs or drinking alcohol even though it is directly and obviously destroying their life. I will not address the brain chemistry behind the process, here, but will aim the discussion toward a straight-forward explanation of why addicts use and drink the way they do. Obviously, there are many good books that cover the subject more broadly and in more detail (See Gabor Mate’s, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, or Marc Lewis’s, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain and The Biology of Desire) but here I want to offer a concise explanation in as simple a way possible. I will build this post and the discussion therein around a quote from the movie Drugstore Cowboy (1989) which chronicles time in the life of four IV drug-addicts in the seventies. The leader of this gang and movie’s protagonist, is Bob Hughes (played by Matt Dillon), a lifelong addict who feeds his drug habit by robbing drugstores. Eventually Bob finds himself discussing his attachment to drugs with a counselor in a treatment center. During his discussion with her he makes a statement that I think encapsulates the reality behind an addict’s use as well as I have yet heard. Bob says in his laid back and languid manner, “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get a hold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.” To emphasize the line of import:, “Something to relieve the pressures of everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

Addiction transcends reason in many ways. If it did not, most addicts would only need to suffer a few negative consequences before they would draw on reason to motivate them into making changes that would move them away from their addictions. To the non-drug-or-alcohol-addicted (this discussion lends itself well, by the way, to many other behavioral addictions, but substance-abuse addictions are often easiest to illustrate) there is a natural reaction of incredulity when faced with the seemingly non-reason directed decisions their addicted loved ones make over and over and over again. I have often asked myself how best to explain to the non-understanding (often the loved ones of addicts) the reality behind this unbelievable, unreasonable, and completely illogical behavior. What motivates human beings with all of their biological and innate survival instincts, to act so seemingly stupidly? What is so important? How good could a high be? Well, for those who are looking on and asking these questions, or for those addicts who read this having not yet found a suitable answer for themselves, I propose that Bob said it best. The addict needs something, anything to relieve a state of consciousness that finds pressure in the reality of shoelace tying. Contained in this movie quote is the reality that the addict has at least a low-grade, and somewhat constant, traumatic experience of life in general. It is a feeling that needs tending to and a feeling that is responsible for creating an insatiable hunger for soothing and calming. It’s an unreasonable emptiness that, in itself, also transcends everyday reason and logic. What the hell is so pressure producing about tying one’s shoes?

Now, it would be outside the scope of this short post to describe, in detail, all the reasons behind this phenomenon, and of course the particulars of the story are unique to each person. But suffice to say that the reality I am describing, whereby the addict experiences life as being somewhat traumatic just as it is, probably finds its origins in early life when reality is defining itself for the young infant or child through the process of attachment. Furthermore, this process may be coupled with a genetic component of one kind or another (although specifically which genetics is not known). It is not my intent to go further here, but important to mention so that I can say this. One way to look at this reality for the addict is that they carry along with their neural programming an emotional disruption and a resulting post traumatic reaction to said disruption. This early experience with attachment meets with a genetic expression, forming an emotional amalgam resulting in a feeling of consistent disconnectedness and an insatiable need for soothing. An undeniable thirst. (This process can be addressed and healed, of course, a subject for another article).

I return now to the fact that I am directing this information primarily towards those for whom extreme drug or alcohol use makes no sense. I have pointed out that an addict’s using can seem so nonsensical when viewed by a rational, non-addicted outsider, and I am hoping that it now makes more logical sense. Self-soothing is the primary need in the addict’s life. Ultimately, whether consciously or not, it comes even before the need to eat or shelter properly. The pursuit of the high, in whatever form, is the pursuit for the most basic acquisition, that of feeling loved and connected (this has nothing, whatsoever, to do with how much they actually are loved).When this need is recognized, the addict’s use will be no less heartbreaking to the loving observer, but hopefully this post makes it somewhat less confusing. There is a purpose, a supreme purpose–to achieve a state of being, of consciousness, where the fact that shoes must be tied isn’t, in its tiny self, a pressure producing reality.