When your loved one’s relationships at home, work, school and elsewhere suffer on account of their addiction, it’s not uncommon to believe the addiction has turned them into a different person. But how true is the concept? Could an addiction, in fact, bring forward a personality—or person—that is truly a diversion from his or her actual self? In an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio State psychologist Dr. Brad Lander has spoken about the topic.
Previous studies with rats have revealed some startling insight for how the minds of human addicts probably work. In the lab, rats that were addicts repeatedly choose the substance over eating, drinking, resting, having sex, and other basic behaviors. Even when the addictive substance was made difficult to get to—requiring rats to cross over an electrified grid—they still choose to get to the drug, despite the jolt.
Is Addiction a Choice?
This last part of the study is telling, because it implies that a drug addiction can even overwrite a being’s instinct for survival. And it’s logical to reason that if the survival instinct is compromised, any and all other instincts, behaviors or personality traits can be compromised as well.
According to Lander, addiction rewrites the brain on a fundamental level. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that controls reward and pleasure, and this is the part of the brain that essentially becomes restructured in the face of addiction. Because of this important neurological rewiring, Landers asserts that a person who is in the throes of addiction is, in fact, not the same person.
The dissonance created when your loved one becomes less and less of the person you knew, can cause substantial pain and conflict. You just want him or her to “just quit" or behave more like their old self.
But, according to Landers, that isn’t possible as long as the addiction is being fed. So long as the addict’s brain continues to define reward and pleasure the way that it does, all other parts of his or her life are at stake, including base personality and most certainly survival instinct.
So what are you supposed to do if someone you love is an addict and no longer quite resembles the person you know?
This sincere advice might seem like a cold comfort: encourage and support the person, stay strong and optimistic, but do not neglect your own needs as you wait for the person to choose differently. This approach is easier said than done, but it's an important approach to embrace.
The Miracle of a Sober Life
The human brain is capable of making remarkable change—the amount of flexibility that has been demonstrated in the brain is astounding. The person you know is not “hiding” within the addict so much as the true version of the person represents his or her natural state sans addiction. What you’re waiting for isn’t for the old loved one to come out of hiding, rather for the person to eventually reset back to themselves once the addiction has been treated.
Although it can be a frustrating journey, remember that addiction has a way of overpowering all else in the brain. Instead of becoming impatient or angry with the person you love, shift your attention and efforts to more productive actions. Whether that involves learning all that you can about the disease of addiction or getting your loved one professional help they need, this may be his or her best chance to begin the journey back to who they really are.