Can a Recovering Heroin Addict Drink Alcohol? (Cross Addiction)

cross addiction drinking alcoholOne of the more common questions around recovery goes something like,”I’m addicted to heroin, not alcohol, so why can’t I have a drink? What’s this cross addiction I’ve heard about?”  That’s really not an unreasonable question. Why do men and women suffering from the disease of addiction aka substance use disorder who don’t seem to have problems with alcohol need to stay away from it anyway? Why can’t a prescription drug or heroin addict have a few drinks? Or can they?  What is cross addiction? There are really two reasons that medical professionals advice against drinking alcohol, even if this was not an individual’s drug of choice.

Two Reasons Drug Addicts Are Advised Against Drinking Alcohol (Cross Addiction)

* Alcohol reduces an individual’s inhibitions and increases the likelihood that he or she will make bad choices

* Cross Addiction – Just as they say in the rooms, “A drug is a drug is a drug.”  In other words, all drugs are mind altering substances and can either lead to addiction or be a trigger leading an individual addiction to another drug back to that drug or drugs.

Number one is pretty much self-explanatory and can be attested to by anyone who has regretted something he or she did while they were drinking. The parts of our brains that are responsible for taking in information and allowing us to make reasoned decisions are among the first functions to be depressed by alcohol, along with some motor skills.

People make poor decisions about driving, about kissing the boss’s wife at the Christmas party, about arguing with large men who carry guns and handcuffs, and all sorts of other things, including whether or not to drink more or use other drugs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” can become a major problem when we’ve had a couple of drinks. Essentially, booze makes people succumb to making bad decisions while convincing them that we’re smarter.

The second reason, known as cross addiction, is a bit more complicated but makes perfect sense when an individual understands a few important concepts. For starters, cross-addiction refers to how individuals suffering from substance use disorder, once addicted, are far more likely to get hooked on other drugs or exhibit negative behaviors in addition to their drugs of choice.

Why do People drink or Use Drugs?

Individuals may say we like the taste of whiskey, but the fact is that they like it because we associate it with the way alcohol makes us feel. We use alcohol and other drugs because they change the way we feel. They relax us or they make us feel “good” in some way. Various drugs create different effects but ultimately, individuals select a drug that touches the pleasure center of the brain in such a way that makes them feel better than they were.  It’s not always limited to one drug either.  It’s sometimes and often a combination of drugs.

Sometimes individuals use because they’re happy and they want to feel happier.  However, most of them use drugs and mood-altering behavior because they distract them from reality. The trouble is, these drugs always wear off, and each individuals is always in a bad place, wishing they still felt good. So what happens next?  They use more of the same drug in order to re-create the same feeling.

The Reward Center of the Brain and How it’s Affected

Certain activities stimulate the production of chemicals in the brain that make us feel pleasure. Generally, these relate to things that are mostly beneficial: seeing a loved one or good friend, eating, exercising, playing games — especially if they win — fun, daydreaming, getting a good grade in school, a compliment, sex and so forth. They are quite literally a person’s body’s way of ensuring that they keep on doing things that are good for them. We refer to the portion of the brain that is stimulated as the reward center.

Alcohol and other drugs also stimulate the reward center, and they do it extremely well to begin with. When an individual starts drinking and using drugs, the feelings are phenomenal. They are much stronger than normal feelings, because the drug causes the production of extra quantities of feel-good neurotransmitters or, in some cases, stimulates the receptor sites in the reward center directly. Now that’s a reward, they think (sort of) — a powerful reward for using the drugs instead of our natural system of feeling good. Doing it again seems like a very good idea indeed.

But the goodness doesn’t last. As our reward centers become accustomed to the higher levels of stimulation, they become pretty much immune to the natural reward chemistry. People begin to need chemicals in order to get any sense of pleasure, and eventually just to feel normal. As people increase the levels of drugs, their brains attempt to compensate for the high levels of stimulation in two general ways: first by reducing the production of the natural feel-good chemicals, and also by building new receptor sites to deal with the excess chemicals floating around. It does this in an attempt to keep things to something like normal, but it’s doomed to lose the contest. Eventually, we have to have the drugs in order to function at all. We’re — guess what — addicted.

Now some of you are going to think, “Man, that was oversimplified that big time!”, and you’ll be right. Others are going to think, “What crap!  I drink…use drugs…whatever…because I want to!” Well, if you only have had a couple a week you may be right, but if you’re reading this because you think you might have a problem, you’re wrong and you’d best pay attention.  Do note however, that many individuals that don’t have the genetic predisposition to drug addiction may never become addicted and be able to drink without ever using any other drugs and drink only on occasion.  But why take the risk – especially by taking other drugs?

So what does all this have to do with a prescription addict having a drink? Everything. At the end of the day all drugs, including alcohol, act on the reward center. We get our good feelings from the reward center, and the reward center doesn’t know the difference between one drug and another. People can tell the difference in our conscious mind, because they feel the physical changes in other parts of their brains — stimulation, depression, whatever those effects may be — but the reason people enjoy them is because of the effects on their reward center, which operates mostly below the conscious level. Really now, who would want to get all jittery…or dumb and sleepy…or stupid and hungry if it didn’t feel good?

So, when an individual takes a drink, their reward center is elated and feels terrific.  If an individual is in early recovery — the first two years or so, their brain likely hasn’t even gotten back to normal yet. It has to deactivate all those extra receptor sites that it created to handle the extra stimulation, and it also has to have time to reactivate the systems that make the natural neurotransmitters. During that time we’re sitting ducks for relapse. Even after the repairs, the receptors are still there waiting to be reactivated by the presence of the drugs.  It’s all about repairs here, not new brains.
Any mood-altering drug or activity can affect the reward center, and so any of them can become addictions. Cross-addiction normally refers to substances, but it can also apply to behavior.

People often replace alcohol and other drugs with mood-altering activities like gambling, which is especially dangerous because of all the booze and drugs around (they know it makes people stupid). Other behaviors include relationships, porn, other sexual acting out, exercise, thrill-seeking and other activities that heavily stimulate the reward center. The fact is, people can get addicted to almost anything, if it causes pleasure or distraction from life issues.

That means that the name of the game in recovery is avoidance of all mood-altering substances.  There may be a limit to this…for instance, caffeine (in reasonable quantities) — and excess in other areas of our lives. Fun is fine. Pleasure is fine. But when the feelings become the reason for what we’re doing, to the exclusion of the activity itself and the people involved, we are headed for trouble.

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Written by William Charles, Owner and Publisher of Kill the Heroin Epidemic Nationwide™, Heroin News, and the National Alliance of Addiction Treatment Centers (NAATC)

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