• Many don’t fully understand what it’s like to experience addiction, from developing the illness, to going through withdrawal, to working towards recovery.
  • But it’s important we try our best to achieve a greater understanding, so we can best help those who suffer with the disease.
  • A common misconception is that addicts are scary and dangerous people—in reality, anybody can become addicted to drugs.
  • The disease is also more powerful than most realize. It isn’t just a craving; the substance controls your entire being.
  • Furthermore, going through withdrawal and working toward sobriety are both painfully difficult stages of the recovery journey.
  • However, recovery is possible; it might take some hard work, but there is hope for life after addiction.

Many people who don’t experience addiction themselves struggle to understand why and how others become addicted to substances like drugs and alcohol. Some doubt or downplay the suffering that comes with this disease, and others, those who empathize with struggling addicts, just can’t fully grasp the painful, strenuous battle that is addiction.

In consideration of this lack of understanding, mental health professionals and recovering addicts explain exactly what it’s like to experience addiction, from the onset stages to recovery.

1) Addiction does not discriminate.

Brooks Oscarson has been sober for 2.5 years now and is dedicated to raising awareness about drug addiction. She explains that drug and/or alcohol addiction, like many other diseases, does not discriminate—people from all walks of life experience addiction: “Just like there are many different types of people in the world, there are many different types of addicts as well. I think when most people think of drug addiction, they picture a scary homeless person who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt someone to get their next fix. And while those addicts most certainly do exist, that’s not the whole picture… the thing with addiction is that it can happen to anyone.”

2) It’s more than just a “craving.”

Dr. Sal Raichbach, PsyD, goes on to explain that addiction is more than just a craving or a bad habit. “A lot of people use the word craving when referring to an addict’s lust for getting high, but using that word leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about the disease,” he says. “The reality is that the craving of addiction isn’t the same kind of desire that someone would have for chocolate or potato chips. An addict doesn’t just crave the drug; their body is functioning as if it cannot live without it.”

3) The substance becomes master of mind and body.

“It’s your master,” RJ Oenbrink, DO, says of the disease. “Without it, you have cravings, irritability, physical symptoms of withdrawal—incredible pain, diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, runny nose, yawning (opiates) or rebound anxiety, jitters, agitation (benzos, alcohol) or incapacitating fatigue (uppers). Nobody would choose this. If they went through withdrawal once, they’d never voluntarily do it again. The fact that they do helps prove this is a bona fide illness that causes brain chemistry and structure changes. Yet, they do it again and again and again. Ruining their lives, their families, their relationships, jobs, prospects for a future.”

4) Withdrawal is unimaginably painful.

Withdrawal adds another painful layer to addiction, as explained by Caleb Backe, Health and Wellness Expert: “Withdrawal is a pain unlike any other. Physical and mental anguish. You may find yourself with chills, with sweats, cursing, yelling, angry and upset, hating everyone and everything, including yourself, and trembling like you have a temperature of 105. Day, night, sometimes it is all a gray blur. Sometimes it hits you all of a sudden, even after many days of being clean. And all that time you know there is an end, however brief, to your pain. A solution.” Due to the severity of these symptoms, sometimes people go into medical detox centers before rehab. In addition, it can be dangerous to detox alone.

5) Maintaining sobriety is a challenge in and of itself.

And getting through those withdrawals and maintaining sobriety is yet another obstacle in this journey. “Maintaining sobriety is a formidable task. Cravings and triggers are inevitable especially in the early stages of recovery,” explains Rev. Sheri Heller, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “Attending fellowship meetings, doing step work with a sponsor, and changing one’s lifestyle are necessary prerequisites to recovery. Utilizing resources when the threat of a slip or relapse occurs is critical to handling the challenges and stressors of sobriety. Designing a relapse prevention plan so as to identify the people, places, and things that can trigger a relapse is integral to staying sober. Those who attempt to ‘white knuckle’ it generally do not fare well as one cannot will one’s addiction into remission.”

Meetings and step work aren’t for everyone, however. People can find their own pathways to managing the chronic illness of addiction. They may benefit from distinguishing between “who I am” and “what I do,” for example, because feelings of shame and guilt can make them more vulnerable to relapse. They may need to choose an approach that takes their gender into account. They may find spiritual meaning in recovery. And they may require medical intervention to support their health during the withdrawal process. 

6) But recovery is attainable.

Finally, recovery—though a lifelong process—is attainable. People who struggle with addiction can live a meaningful life again. They can strengthen their recovery with healthy habits and a support system. Through professional therapy, they can explore complex factors that may have contributed to their addiction.

Ken Kilpatrick, a recovering drug addict, offers advice and inspiration to those still struggling: “Your addiction is a different kind of school and you can use the tough lessons you learned for your good. As you step into sobriety, you are entering a whole new world—and it’s not a bad place. After your body and brain are fully detoxed, take inventory of who you are. You walked a long bloody road at war with yourself, your addiction, and those who loved you most. But now, it’s peacetime. Face the shame regarding things you’ve done and focus on the person who you want to be and work toward new goals. Because you made it out of the prison of substance abuse, you will be able to accomplish anything you set your mind to and work for. As you grow in your sobriety, don’t bury your past—tell others. I tell my family, my friends, and even my employees. Why? I want them to be acutely aware of the lifelong struggle with relapse I face. By being honest with them, I am less likely to fall because they keep a close eye on me and help me save me from myself.”