Drug addiction is characterized by highs and lows but over time, most people find that the lows get lower, and the highs do too. At a certain point in the cycle of addiction, you may be using drugs just to escape the lows, rather than to experience the highs. Despite the fact that your addiction has begun to bring more pain than pleasure, you probably are afraid of the pain you may experience without the drug.

You could be dreading the physical or psychological withdrawals, or even assuming that without the drug you will be unable to cope, function or ever be happy. You have probably weighed the known pain of your addiction against the unknown pain of sobriety many times and ultimately decided that addiction is the lesser pain.

In reality, you probably know that drugs are probably only the less immediate pain, and that a lifetime of addiction would be much more painful, especially since addiction tends to become more painful over time.

The unknown is scary, but the known is scary, too. Addiction is a cycle, like walking around a track that keeps getting shorter each lap. Before you might have gone weeks without using, then it turned into days, and now it might be just a few hours before withdrawals, crashes or cravings pull you back around for another lap.

In the beginning, drugs may have been a harmless and enjoyable activity you did on weekends or the occasional Thursday. But what about now? How much time do you spend on the track and when you are away from it, how long before you start the mental laps that signify your cravings and fixation on the drug?

When you start spending most of your time using drugs or thinking about using drugs, you don’t have time and energy for the other important people, things and activities in your life. At best, these start to show signs of neglect and at worst, you endanger or exploit them for drugs. If you are honest, I bet you could look around and already see some of the damage to your health, mental health, relationships, work and life caused by your addiction. How painful would another year, or even 5 or 10 years of this addiction be for you?

How Did You Get Here?

Why is it that addiction so often prevails over sobriety? The answer has to do with the ways that addiction rewires the brain. In the brains of people susceptible to addiction, taking drugs causes the reward centers in the brain to light up. Over time, the lighting up of the reward center in the brain causes an addiction pathway to form in the brain.

Addiction pathways are like the track in your favorite park you went to when you were young. You have such fond memories of being there that just the sight of it brings positive emotions. Because of these positive associations, you feel compelled to keep going back again and again, not really noticing that over time, it stops being as much fun.

You might not really notice than an addiction has formed until you find yourself going there any time you feel bad, stressed or need to escape and even though it gets less fun to be there, it’s easier to be there than anywhere else. The rest of your life might be demanding, stressful, or a place where people love you but expect things from you. The park and this track is the place that feels like it is just for you. Eventually, you know you are spending too much time there but it’s getting harder to pull yourself away from it.

You make excuses and try to rationalize your addiction but you still feel guilty about the places you are supposed to be, and feel a sense of pain and shame when you look at the parts of your life that are showing signs of neglect or abuse.

Conveniently, drugs are usually effective at temporarily numbing or dulling pain so when addiction starts to hurt, many people take more drugs. This is all a part of the pull that drugs have.

Addiction has a way of keeping you focused on each lap, as opposed to letting you pull back and see the cycle for what it is—a trap. Over time, as the drug use becomes more frequent, the cycle shortens, and continues to close in around you.

As your world gets smaller, you also begin to feel and think smaller, and getting out of the trap seems less and less possible for you. Because of the guilt and shame you have about what was lost or broken when you were on this track, you might even start to feel like you don’t deserve to be free.

The Readiness Myth

Addiction traps people and makes them feel small, ashamed and helpless so almost no one who begins the process of getting sober feels 100% ready or confident that they can quit using drugs and alcohol. Being ready and confident also doesn’t predict how successful a person will be in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction (2). Believing that you have to be completely ready to stop using substances can even become a way to continuously delay making a change.

There will always be a reason why “it isn’t a good time” to stop and several reasons to doubt that you even can but giving in to these excuses leads you back to the same trap you are trying to escape. Quitting or stopping won’t get easier tomorrow, next week, or “soon” and you probably won’t feel more ready or confident then than you do right now.

Being “ready” also isn’t as helpful as you think it might be. Being ready won’t help when you don’t feel able or even know how to stop. A better question might be: are you tired and desperate enough to try something different? Being tired and desperate might not seem like a strong precursor to recovery, but it is almost always the catalyst for change. The majority of people who stop using drugs or alcohol do so because of the suffering caused by their addiction, and not because they are.

How tired and desperate you need to be depends entirely on you. “Rock bottom” is wherever you decide it is. It could be right now or it could come months or years from now, and for some, it could even be too late. After all, almost 185 people died each day from a drug overdose in 2018 and while they probably weren’t ready to quit using, they also probably weren’t ready to die (3).

Opioids are responsible for the vast majority of drug overdoses, followed by stimulants like cocaine (3). For people abusing these drugs, addiction is a life-threatening disease. Even if you are addicted to less lethal substances, addiction is life-threatening. It might not physically kill you, but it will threaten all of the relationships, activities and things that make your life worth living.

The longer you stay trapped in the cycle of substance use, the more aspects of your life become threatened by your addiction.

Taking the First Step

There is a saying in the 12-step community that goes: “When the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than our fear of change, then we will do something different”. The pain of addiction can feel like sadness, emptiness, desperation, hopelessness or just feeling lost or stuck.

If you are experiencing any of these emotions and find yourself repeating the same cycle of craving, using and crashing, it is possible to do something different.

Luckily, there are a great number of resources that have helped others escape from even lower lows than you are at now. You don’t have to know exactly where or how to start doing something different, you just have to feel tired enough of doing the same thing that you are willing to try something different.

There are many different paths to recovery, and many of them begin with a simple phone call. Calling a hotline, helpline, or addiction recovery center is often the best first step in doing something different. Some people begin their journey in a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Smart recovery.

Taking any step away from drugs or alcohol, no matter how small, begins the process of recovery, and also reminds you that there is another path than the circular path of your addiction. You might not feel ready or sure or committed to long-term recovery, and that’s ok. Most people aren’t 100% ready or sure when they take the first step. The first step isn’t the hardest, but it is the most important.


  1. 1. Chen, G. (2010). The meaning of suffering in drug addiction and recovery from the perspective of existentialism, Buddhism and the 12-step program. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 42(3), 363-375.
  2. Kelly, J. F., & Greene, M. C. (2014). Where there’s a will there’s a way: A longitudinal investigation of the interplay between recovery motivation and self-efficacy in predicting treatment outcome. Psychology of addictive behaviors, 28(3), 928.
  3. NIDA. Overdose death rates. Retrieved 15, September 2020

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