“Addiction Rewires Your Brain Like Falling in Love Does”

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“We’ve tended to see addiction as either a sin or a disease. But there’s no other disease for which 80 percent of the treatment is prayer, confession, and meeting,” regrets Time reporter Maia Szalavitz. “Addiction basically rewires your brain in the same way love or parenting does.”

In her new book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, Szalavitz challenges the conventional wisdom that addicts are either diseased patients or dangerous criminals. Defining addiction as using a substance “compulsively despite negative consequences” such as serious damage to your work or personal life, she stresses that addiction is learned behavior, not abject powerlessness before a particular drug or activity. The addict’s brain is not “broken” or permanently altered through drug use, even if her behavior becomes increasingly problematic.

“What actually goes wrong in addiction is that you fall in love with a drug instead of a person,” she says. “People never shoot up in front of the police. People plan very carefully to ensure they have a supply. That doesn’t look like they are not making choices. It is very similar to the way people act when they are having an affair: they sneak around, they tell lies, they do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do in order to make sure they can be with that person.”

Szalavitz, whose 2006 book Help at Any Cost unmasked abuse and fraud at “troubled teen” programs, says that the only rationale for why some drugs (such as tobacco) are legal and others (such as marijuana or cocaine) are not has to do with past racial and demographic hysterias and that the criminalization of substance abuse is doomed to failure. “If addiction is compulsory behavior despite negative consequences,” she says, “negative consequences ain’t going to fix it.”

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Camera by Todd Krainin and Joshua Swain; edited by Swain.

About 6 minutes long.

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