Wayne Ergle
September 9, 2023

What is Addiction: A Deep Dive from My Personal Journey

The clink of a glass bottle, the familiar burn of vodka, the short-lived solace it promises – a dance many know but few can truly fathom.

Addiction isn’t just a series of bad decisions or a simple craving; it’s an insidious force, a shadow that can cloud even the brightest of lives. I remember walking into my kitchen one day, the weight of nearly two bottles of vodka a day heavy on my shoulders, only to find divorce papers sprawled across the table. That paper, stark and undeniable, was more than just a legal document; it was a culmination of choices, battles lost and fought, and a stark reminder that addiction doesn’t just affect us – it echoes into the lives of those we love. 

Yet, this article isn’t about my addiction story or any one person’s journey. It’s about answering the question of what is addiction in all its complexity, about delving deep into the intricate dance of biology, psychology, and societal influences that define it. Drawing from both scientific insights and the echoes of personal experiences, we aim to shed light on a topic that, for many, remains shrouded in mystery and stigma.

So, let’s embark on this exploration to understand addiction and appreciate the resilience of the human spirit and the boundless potential that awaits beyond the struggles.

A Heart-to-Heart: If You’re Reading This, Consider It Your Sign

A vibrant watercolor painting portraying a human heart, surrounded by an explosion of vivid, organic colors. The heart is suspended in a fantastical, dreamlike garden where anatomical accuracy merges with surrealism.

Before we delve deep into what is addiction, pause and read this section thoroughly. If you don’t venture beyond this, know this message is crucial. While a handful of individuals might navigate the treacherous waters of addiction alone, addiction is a chronic disease, and most of us need a lifeline. And there’s absolutely no shame in reaching out for it.

Here’s the Reality: If you’ve found yourself wondering what is addiction and reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re seeking answers, clarity, or even validation. Whether you’re already entangled in the grip of addiction or teetering on its edge, your quest for understanding is telling. It’s a sign, perhaps a subconscious one, that you recognize there’s a challenge. And with recognition and the right addiction recovery tools comes the opportunity for change.

Symptoms of Addiction: Recognizing addiction can sometimes be challenging, especially when its subtle signs are misconstrued as mere ‘phases’ or ‘bad habits.’ However, specific symptoms often emerge for people with substance use disorder, signaling a deeper issue related to substance use or behavioral addiction. Awareness of these symptoms can be the first step towards seeking help and intervention. Symptoms of addiction include:

  • Increased Tolerance: Needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effect or feeling a reduced impact when consuming the usual amount.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Experiencing physical or psychological symptoms (like anxiety, irritability, nausea, or fatigue) when not using the substance.
  • Loss of Control: Consuming more of the substance than intended or for longer periods.
  • Desire to Quit but Unable to: Having a persistent desire to cut down or control the substance use but being unsuccessful in attempts to quit.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities: Due to substance use, missing out on work, school, or home duties.
  • Loss of Interest: Giving up or reducing important social, occupational, or recreational activities due to substance use.
  • Continued Use Despite Problems: Continue substance use even when it causes or worsens physical or psychological issues.
  • Time Spent: Spending significant time obtaining, using, or recovering from the substance.
  • Risky Behavior: Using the substance in situations where it could be physically hazardous.

Treatment Program Options: The path to recovery isn’t one-size-fits-all. There’s a myriad of treatment options tailored to individual needs:

  • Inpatient Rehab: A residential treatment environment where individuals receive structured care.
  • Outpatient Programs: Treatment sessions while living at home, offering more flexibility.
  • Detox Centers: Medical facilities that help manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Therapy and Counseling: One-on-one or group sessions that delve into the psychological aspects of addiction.
  • SMART Recovery: A science-based program that focuses on self-empowerment and behavioral change.
  • 12-Step Programs: Community-based support groups, like AA or NA.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment: Using medications in tandem with therapy to aid recovery.
  • Holistic Treatments: Incorporating methods like yoga, meditation, and nutrition.

From My Heart to Yours: I’ve been where you might be right now. The sinking feeling, the oscillation between hope and despair, the belief that sobriety is an unattainable dream.

I clung to the notion that I could conquer addiction solo, only to be proven wrong time and time again. But here’s what I’ve learned — it’s not about doing it alone. It’s about recognizing the challenge and seeking the proper support. I urge you to seek professional treatment.

I once believed quitting alcohol was impossible. Yet, here I am. So can you, if I can do it, with all the pitfalls and hurdles? And trust me when I say this: the benefits of an alcohol-free lifestyle, every challenge, every tear, every moment of doubt is worth it. Because on the other side lies a life of clarity, purpose, and genuine happiness.

Key Takeaways from Our Exploration of What is Addiction

An artistic interpretation of addiction: An abstract painting that depicts a lone figure standing at the threshold of a swirling vortex of vibrant colors.
  1. Definition of Addiction: Addiction is a multifaceted condition that extends beyond physical dependency on a substance. It encompasses changes in brain chemistry, psychological triggers, societal influences, and personal experiences.
  2. The Brain’s Role: The interaction of substances with the brain’s neurotransmitters and reward pathways is pivotal in drug addiction. Prolonged substance abuse can lead to long-term changes in brain structure and function.
  3. Psychological Triggers: Emotional and psychological factors, such as trauma, stress, and existing mental health disorders, can lead to and exacerbate substance abuse.
  4. Societal Views: Addiction has historically been viewed through various lenses, from moral failing to criminal activity. However, there’s a growing shift towards understanding it as a treatable disease.
  5. Physical Vs. Psychological Addiction: While physical addiction revolves around the body’s dependency and withdrawal symptoms, psychological dependence is rooted in emotional and mental cravings.
  6. Co-occurring Disorders: Many individuals battling addiction also grapple with other mental health disorders, emphasizing the need for comprehensive treatment plans that address both issues.
  7. Genetics and Addiction: While genetics might predispose certain individuals to addiction, it’s the interplay of genes, environment, and personal choices that shape the journey.
  8. Signs of Addiction: From behavioral changes, neglect of responsibilities, and an overwhelming focus on substance procurement and consumption, the signs of addiction can vary but are crucial for early intervention.
  9. Alcohol Addiction: Like drug addiction, alcohol addiction is a complex interplay of brain chemistry, personal experiences, and societal influences. It requires specialized understanding and treatment approaches.
  10. Hopeful Horizon: Despite the challenges, addiction is treatable. With the proper support, understanding, and treatment plan, individuals can navigate the path of recovery and rediscover their potential.

Definition of Addiction

What is addiction? Addiction is a word that holds diverse meanings. For some, it’s a clinical term molded by definitions from esteemed organizations like the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

For others, like myself, it’s a deeply personal and lived experience. As we seek to understand what is addiction, we’ll journey through its clinical definitions and the raw, emotional narratives that paint its accurate picture. Whether it’s a substance use disorder, behavioral addiction, or a combination of both, it’s imperative to understand its multifaceted nature.

The Many Faces of Addiction

A gritty urban scene where the faces of addiction are spray-painted on the walls of a dark alley. The style is street art graffiti, with bold colors and expressive, graffiti-style portraits.

Substance addiction resonates differently for everyone. Some view it as a distant concept, perhaps a topic explored briefly in school or seen in movies. For others, it’s an overpowering drive, a connection between an individual and a substance or behavior.

While organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse define it in terms of compulsive drug use and harmful consequences, there’s a vast realm of experiences and stories that this definition doesn’t capture.

Overpowering Drive and Redefined Priorities

Delving deeper, addiction isn’t just about substance misuse or the fear of withdrawal symptoms. It’s a complex intertwining of biology, psychology, and personal experiences. The transformation from casual drug use to a full-blown addiction involves various stages, each marked by distinct signs and symptoms. The risk factors evolve at each stage, making prevention and treatment a dynamic challenge.

Bridging Biology and Emotion

The science of addiction offers valuable insights, highlighting how drug use affects our brain and body. But there’s an emotional and psychological aspect that’s equally crucial. Behind every statistic or clinical definition are stories of people with addiction, narratives that shed light on the emotional whirlwinds, the traumas, and daily battles.

A Personal and Universal Journey

As we continue this exploration of what is addiction, remember that while we’ll touch upon the clinical and scientific aspects, we’ll also dive into the personal journeys and experiences. These tales, including my own, provide a unique lens, helping us understand addiction’s true impact on individuals and society.

Is Addiction a Brain Disease? The Brain’s Role in Addiction

A stunning sculpture of a human brain, carved from a rare and exquisite piece of marble representing the brain in addiction.

As we journey deeper into what is addiction, it’s impossible to overlook the profound influence of our brain. While personal experiences, emotions, and societal factors undeniably play pivotal roles, the intricate dance of neurotransmitters and neural pathways lays the foundation for understanding addiction. Drawing from scientific insights and personal anecdotes, this section sheds light on how substances interact with our brain, leading to the overpowering drive and redefined priorities we associate with addiction. Let’s explore, fusing the lines between biology and personal narratives.

Neurotransmitters: The Brain’s Chemical Messengers

Every time someone with addiction uses their substance of choice, a series of chemical reactions ignite in the brain. Neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, play a crucial role. Neurotransmitters are at the heart, from the euphoria of the initial high to the despair of withdrawal symptoms. But what exactly happens when substances interfere with these messengers?

Reward Pathways: Why They Matter

At the core of addiction lies the brain’s reward system. This intricate network, powered by dopamine and other neurotransmitters, is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. But substances can hijack this system, amplifying the rewards and making natural pleasures pale in comparison. This alteration often drives individuals to seek the substance repeatedly, even at significant personal cost.

Brain Structure Alterations: The Long-Term Impact

Prolonged substance use doesn’t just affect the brain’s chemistry; it can also lead to changes in its structure. Areas responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning, and memory can be impacted, leading to behavioral changes and challenges in overcoming addiction. This transformation offers insights into why breaking free from addiction requires more than willpower.

A Personal Reflection on Brain Changes

While science offers a detailed map of what happens in the brain, personal experiences provide color to this map. The cravings, the justifications for “one more hit,” and the intense battles against withdrawal symptoms are all manifestations of the brain’s interactions with the substance. As someone who’s walked this path, I can attest to the overpowering grip and the challenges posed by these brain changes.

Psychological Triggers and How They Cause Addiction

A man suffering from addiction sits alone in a room on a table. The style is minimalistic with walls of the room painted in bright colors.

Beyond our brain’s intricate neural pathways and chemical reactions lies a vast landscape of emotions, memories, traumas, and experiences. These psychological elements often act as triggers, propelling people with a substance use disorder towards substances to cope, escape, or even seek solace. Understanding these triggers is paramount in unraveling the complexity of addiction. Through research and personal reflections, we’ll delve into the myriad psychological factors that can lead to substance use and addiction.

Emotions and Addiction: The Inextricable Link

Positive and negative emotions can play a significant role in substance use. For many, substances temporarily escape painful memories, traumas, or daily stresses. Conversely, positive emotions and celebrations might be linked to substance use as an enhancement. Over time, this reliance on substances to modulate emotions can pave the way for addiction.

Trauma’s Shadow: Its Role in Substance Use

Traumatic experiences can leave lasting imprints on the psyche, whether childhood or adulthood. Many individuals turn to substances to numb the pain, silence the memories, or regain a semblance of control. While offering temporary relief, this coping mechanism can set the stage for a deeper entanglement with addiction.

Mental Health Disorders: A Double-Edged Sword

Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder often intertwine with substance use. For some, substances might seem like a solution to the overwhelming feelings these disorders bring. However, substance use can exacerbate these conditions in the long run, leading to a vicious cycle of increased use and worsening mental health symptoms.

A Personal Glimpse into Psychological Triggers

The weight of a glass bottle, the allure of momentary escape, and the desperate need to drown out the din of past traumas aren’t just outcomes of chemical imbalances but are deeply rooted in psychological triggers. As someone who’s navigated this labyrinth, I can vouch for the profound influence of emotional and psychological factors in the journey of addiction.

Societal Views and the Ever-Evolving Perception of Substance Abuse

An abstract artist portrayal of a woman struggling with addiction. She is in mid-air with arms outstretched. Around are a swirling colorful shapes and lines.

With its ever-shifting dynamics, society plays a significant role in shaping our views on various subjects, including answering our question: What is addiction? Over the years, societal views on addiction have evolved, influenced by media portrayals, historical events, and growing scientific knowledge. In this section, we’ll journey through the societal lens, examining how addiction has been perceived over the years, the stigmas attached, and the gradual shift towards a more compassionate understanding.

Historical Perspectives: Addiction Through the Ages

The concept of addiction is not new. Throughout history, societies have grappled with substance use and its implications. From being seen as a moral failure to a criminal activity, the historical perspective on addiction offers a window into how societal values and knowledge influenced perceptions.

Media’s Role: Portraying Addiction on the Big Screen

Movies, TV shows, and news reports – the media powerfully influence societal views. Media portrayals of people with addiction often oscillated between the extremes of glamorization and demonization. These representations, while impactful, don’t always mirror the multifaceted reality of addiction.

Shifting Paradigms: From Moral Failing to Disease Understanding

One of the most significant shifts in recent years has been the recognition of addiction as a treatable disease rather than a moral shortcoming. Organizations like the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have been pivotal in promoting this understanding, leading to more compassionate approaches to addiction treatment and recovery.

Personal Reflections on Societal Stigmas

Navigating addiction isn’t just a personal battle; it’s also a struggle against societal judgments, stigmas, and misconceptions. From whispered judgments to overt discrimination, societal views on addiction can heavily influence an individual’s recovery journey and self-perception. As someone who’s walked this path, I can attest to the challenges posed by these societal pressures and the importance of fostering understanding and empathy.

Physical Vs. Psychological Addiction: Navigating the Differences

An abstract expressionist painting that uses bold colors and brushstrokes to navigating the road to addiction recovery.

Addiction is a multifaceted beast, manifesting in various forms and intensities. Two key distinctions often discussed in addiction are physical and psychological dependencies. While they may appear intertwined — and often are — understanding their differences is crucial in the journey toward effective treatment and recovery. In this section, we’ll dissect these two types of addiction, drawing from scientific insights and lived experiences to paint a comprehensive picture.

Physical Dependency: When the Body Calls the Shots

Physical addiction, often called physical dependency, is primarily about the body’s adaptation to a substance. Over time and with consistent use, the body may rely on the substance to function “normally.” When the substance is absent, withdrawal symptoms — ranging from mild discomforts to severe, life-threatening conditions — set in. This physiological need drives individuals to continue using the substance, sometimes to avoid these unpleasant or painful symptoms.

Psychological Cravings: When the Mind Takes Over

Contrary to physical dependency, psychological addiction is rooted in emotional and mental desires rather than physiological needs. It’s about the intense cravings, the perceived need for the substance to cope with stress, emotions, or daily life. Even without physical withdrawal symptoms, the psychological pull can be overwhelming, driving behaviors and patterns of use.

Substances and Their Ties: Which Leads to What?

Different substances can lead to varying degrees of physical and psychological addiction. For instance, substances like opioids might lead to a strong physical dependency, while others, like marijuana, often have a more pronounced psychological grip. Understanding the type of addiction associated with a substance or behavior can guide treatment approaches and strategies for recovery.

A Personal Perspective on Dependency

Navigating the tightrope between physical and psychological addiction is a complex endeavor. From the gnawing cravings that occupy the mind to the tangible withdrawal symptoms that scream for attention, the journey through addiction is a testament to the multifaceted nature of dependency. As someone who’s experienced this firsthand, I can vouch for the intricate dance between the body and mind in addiction.

Co-occurring Disorders: The Complex Dance of Addiction and Mental Health

An artistic representation of the complex emotions associated with mental health, conveyed through a series of abstract paintings. The faces represent emotions ranging from despair to resilience.

Addiction rarely exists in isolation. Often, it’s entwined with other mental health disorders, creating a complex web of challenges and symptoms. These co-occurring disorders can amplify the struggles faced by those battling addiction, making diagnosis, treatment, and recovery more intricate. In this section, we’ll highlight the common mental health disorders that often accompany addiction, their challenges, and the importance of a holistic approach to treatment.

The Link Between Addiction and Mental Health

Mental health disorders, ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder, can contribute to and result from substance use. For instance, someone might turn to substances to cope with overwhelming anxiety or the haunting memories of trauma. Conversely, prolonged substance use can exacerbate or trigger mental health symptoms, creating a cyclical relationship.

Navigating Dual Diagnoses

Being diagnosed with both a substance use disorder and another mental health disorder — often referred to as a dual diagnosis — can be overwhelming. The symptoms of one can mask or intensify the other, making treatment a delicate balancing act. Addressing only one aspect while neglecting the other can lead to incomplete recovery and a higher likelihood of relapse.

Treatment Approaches: Addressing the Whole Person

Effective treatment for co-occurring disorders goes beyond just addressing the symptoms. It’s about understanding the individual’s unique experiences, challenges, and needs. Holistic treatment approaches, considering both the addiction and the accompanying mental health disorder, offer the best chance for sustainable recovery. These approaches might include therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and coping strategies tailored to the individual’s unique challenges.

A Personal Dive into Co-occurring Challenges

The intersection of addiction and other mental health disorders is a territory I’m intimately familiar with. The weight of addiction, compounded by other mental health challenges, can feel insurmountable. Yet, with the proper support, understanding, and treatment, recovery is not just possible but attainable. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of comprehensive care.

Genetics and Addiction: Exploring the Hereditary Link

The age-old debate of nature versus nurture also extends its tendrils into addiction. While environmental factors, personal experiences, and choices undeniably play significant roles in addiction development, there’s growing evidence to suggest that genetics might also have a hand in predisposing certain individuals to substance use disorders. In this section, we’ll journey through the scientific research, personal stories, and ongoing debates surrounding the genetic aspects of addiction.

The Genetic Predisposition: What Research Suggests

Several studies have pointed towards a genetic predisposition to addiction. Certain genes, when present, might increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing a substance use disorder. This doesn’t mean those with the genes are destined for addiction, but they might be at heightened risk when exposed to specific environmental triggers.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Ongoing Debate

While genetics can play a role, it’s just one piece of the intricate puzzle of addiction. Environmental factors, upbringing, trauma, and personal choices intertwine with genetic predispositions. The nature versus nurture debate in addiction is about understanding the balance and interplay between these inherent and external factors.

Personal Reflections on Genetics and Addiction

While science offers insights into the genetic factors of addiction, personal stories bring these statistics to life. Whether it’s a family history riddled with substance use or the noticeable absence of such patterns, these narratives shed light on the multifaceted nature of addiction. While genetics might have played a role in my own journey, the combination of genes, environment, and personal choices shaped my path.

The Cycle of Substance Use Disorder: Tracing the Journey from Curiosity to Dependence

The path to addiction is rarely a straight line. It’s a progression, often starting with innocent curiosity or experimentation and gradually deepening into a grip that’s hard to break. Understanding this progression is crucial for those grappling with addiction, loved ones, and society. In this section, we’ll map out the typical stages an individual goes through, highlighting potential intervention points and the complexities of each phase.

Experimentation: The Initial Foray

For many, the journey into addiction begins with experimentation. It could be peer pressure, the allure of escapism, or a simple desire to try something new. This stage is characterized by occasional use without a pattern or compulsion.

Regular Use: Not Always a Problem, But a Potential Precursor

Regular use doesn’t always signify addiction. Some people can consume a substance regularly without developing a dependence. However, it’s a stage where patterns can emerge, and awareness is crucial to prevent progression.

Risky Use or Problematic Behavior: The Warning Signs

This stage sees the emergence of harmful behaviors associated with substance use. It could involve driving under the influence, missing work or school, or neglecting responsibilities. The consequences of the substance use become more apparent, and the risks increase.

Dependence or Addiction: When the Substance Takes Center Stage

Here, the substance becomes a central part of the individual’s life. There’s a noticeable physical or psychological dependence, and life without the substance seems challenging, if not impossible. Withdrawal symptoms emerge, and the individual might consume more substance to achieve the desired effect.

Coexisting Mental Health Disorders (Dual Diagnosis)

As previously discussed, addiction can often coexist with other mental health disorders. As the cycle progresses, these disorders can become more pronounced, creating a complex web of symptoms and challenges.

Relapse: Part of the Process, Not the End of the Road

Recovery from addiction is rarely a linear journey. Relapses can occur, where the individual returns to substance use after a period of abstention. Viewing relapse as a setback, not a failure, and an opportunity to re-evaluate and adjust treatment approaches is essential.

A Personal Look at the Cycle

The stages of addiction, while clinically outlined, resonate deeply on a personal level. From the initial foray driven by curiosity to the overpowering grip of dependence, every phase has its challenges and emotions. As someone who’s navigated this cycle, I can attest to its intricacies and the importance of support and intervention at every step.

Conclusion: What is Addiction – Embracing the Journey Ahead

As we’ve journeyed through its various facets, addiction is a complex interplay of biology, psychology, society, and personal experiences. It’s not just about the chemicals and brain structures, though they play a significant role. It’s also about emotions, past traumas, societal perceptions, and the intricate dance between genetics and environment.

For many, like myself, understanding addiction isn’t just an academic endeavor – it’s a deeply personal addiction journey. It’s about making sense of past struggles, recognizing the factors that led us down specific paths, and arming ourselves with knowledge for recovery.

However, it’s essential to remember that no single narrative defines addiction. Each person’s journey is unique and shaped by individual experiences, challenges, and strengths. While the stages of addiction and the underlying factors might have commonalities, the personal stories imbue them with unique colors and textures.

To anyone asking themselves what is addiction, whether you’re seeking to understand a loved one’s struggle, are in the throes of addiction yourself, or are on the path of recovery – know this: every day offers a new opportunity. An opportunity to learn, grow, seek support, and take another step toward a brighter, more authentic future.

At Be Your Own Invention, we believe in the inherent potential within each individual. Addiction might be a chapter in your story, but it doesn’t define the entire narrative. You can pen a story of resilience, recovery, and rediscovery with understanding, support, and determination.

Here’s to the journey ahead, the challenges we’ll overcome, and the brighter horizons we’re destined to meet.


Is there a difference between addiction to alcohol and drug addiction?

While alcohol and drug addiction share many similarities, such as changes in brain chemistry and behavior, there are distinct differences. The substances, physical and psychological effects, and societal perceptions can vary. However, at their core, both are chronic conditions that can be treated with the right interventions.

What is a Severe Substance Use Disorder, and how does it differ from other terms used for addiction?

A Severe Substance Use Disorder is a term used to describe an advanced stage of addiction where the individual’s life is significantly impacted by their substance use. It denotes a higher intensity of the condition compared to milder forms. While “addiction” is a general term often used to describe a compulsive need for a substance, “Substance Use Disorder” (SUD) is a more clinical term that can be categorized into mild, moderate, and severe stages based on the intensity and impact of the condition.

What are the stages of addiction?

SMART Recovery outlines the stages of addiction as follows:

  • Pre-Contemplation: Unawareness of the problem.
  • Contemplation: Awareness of the problem but ambivalence about change.
  • Determination/Preparation: Getting ready to change.
  • Action: Making the change.
  • Maintenance: Keeping the evolution going.
  • Graduation/Exit: Moving on after change is sustained.

Is it truly possible to recover from addiction?

Absolutely. While the path to recovery may be challenging and filled with ups and downs, many individuals successfully recover from addiction and lead fulfilling, substance-free lives with the proper support, treatment, and determination.

What does overcoming addiction entail?

Overcoming addiction is a multifaceted process. It involves recognizing the problem, seeking help, undergoing treatment, building supportive networks, and maintaining the commitment to sobriety. It’s a journey of self-discovery, resilience, and transformation.

How is addiction treated?

Treating addiction often involves a combination of interventions tailored to the individual’s needs. This can include therapy (individual and group), medication-assisted treatment, inpatient or outpatient rehab programs, support groups like SMART Recovery or AA, and holistic approaches. The goal is to address addiction’s physical and psychological aspects, equipping individuals with the tools to build and sustain a substance-free life.

Wayne Ergle

Wayne firmly believes that each of us possesses extraordinary gifts and talents, just waiting to be unleashed upon the world. But life's hurdles often obstruct our path to greatness. That's why he birthed Be Your Own Invention – to ignite the flames of motivation in everyone's transformation journey. Wayne’s transformation story includes conquering a 20-year battle with severe alcohol addiction, emerging triumphant and sober since 2018.