People recovering from Addiction to drugs or alcohol usually don’t expect their problem to extend beyond their drug of choice. But this is not the fact. If a person has addiction issues with a particular substance, it is appropriate to consider this person will likely have problems with all classes of addictive substances.
Many relapses occur when recovering individuals feel that their addiction is under control and therefore controlled use is possible. Or, the person may recognize that their previous drug of choice is obviously not an option, but may feel that experimentation with other substances is harmless. Relapses under these circumstances may be unfortunate, but the person is rarely surprised of the outcome following this behavior.
Unfortunately, many people in good recovery have unexpectedly relapsed and later traced the relapse back to a seemingly innocuous prescription issued by their physician for something unrelated such as sleep, pain, anxiety or even attention deficit problems. Taking an addictive drug of another class may lead to a new addiction, but more than likely will lead back to the original substance of choice
Cross-addiction can occur by different mechanisms. A person in good alcohol recovery, for instance, may go to the dentist and be prescribed with some pain medicine along with an antibiotic. He may take this exactly as prescribed thinking nothing troublesome will come out it. He may then, without considering what is happening, begin to increase the dosage and/or frequency of the medication and may even seek a refill although the pain does not warrant a narcotic. This person, who was previously doing well as a recovering alcoholic may be on the path to developing a dependency on narcotics or, at very least, is on a slippery slope for an alcohol relapse.
The reason for this cross addiction is as follows: There is an area deep in the brain which in lay terms is called the “pleasure center”. This is the part of the brain which is stimulated following pleasurable activities such as eating, having sex, etc. Again, the primary neurochemical responsible for this stimulation is dopamine. It is the main “feel good” chemical in our brain and release of this transmitter in our pleasure center is incredibly reinforcing for repeating the particular behavior which caused its release.
Though each class of addictive drugs has its own unique area, or nucleus, in which it exerts its actions, there is a common nerve pathway that acts to increase the release of dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain, following the use of any of these drugs. In many of these cases the patient was so desperate for resolution of the problem for which he sought relief he failed to consider that the prescribed medication might prove problematic.
Many physicians are not taught about addiction or cross-addiction in medical school, so it is not uncommon for a practitioner to prescribe a potentially hazardous drug for someone in recovery. For this reason, it ultimately becomes the patients’ responsibility to ask questions about the prescription and check with his or her addiction professional before filling the prescription to avoid any potential problem.