What Is Addiction?

Addiction isn’t about willpower, intelligence, or self-control – it is a progressive disease in which the brain becomes physically dependent on a substance for normal functioning. Addiction is typically characterized by intense cravings, loss of control, tolerance, and withdrawal if the substance is taken away. In addition to physical addiction, drug abuse can lead to psychological dependence, or a recurring compulsion to use a particular substance, despite harmful consequences to your health, mental state, or social life.

There is no such thing as casual drug use. Using any amount of any type of drug puts you at risk for developing an addiction. Very few addicts recognize when they have crossed the line from casual use to addiction. Often, the problem starts with experimentation, which turns into regular use, which becomes a chemical dependency, and then an addiction. Even if you vow never to use drugs again, your body can become dependent on the substance and will override even your best intentions.

No one ever plans on becoming a drug addict. Every user plans to just “try it,” believing they are making a voluntary and controllable decision. But once the drug takes over and changes the chemistry of the brain, you feel nearly powerless to stop.

The Signs of Addiction

There is a fine line between experimentation with drugs and alcohol, abuse, and addiction. It can be extremely difficult to know if you have a problem.

There’s no way of knowing how many times you can take a drug before becoming addicted. Depending on your genetic make-up, predisposing risks, your emotional state, and other factors, you may become addicted after months or years of use, or after just one or two uses.

Here are a few of the early warning signs that you may have a substance abuse problem:

- Relying on drugs or alcohol to have fun, forget problems, or relax

- Feeling the need to have a particular drug or substance

- Having blackouts

- Failed attempts to stop taking drugs or drinking

- Drinking or using drugs alone

- Withdrawing or keeping secrets from friends or family

- Changes in mood, weight, or sleeping habits

- Losing interest in activities that used to be important to you

- Feelings of anxiety, anger, or depression

- Performing differently in school (such as grades dropping and frequent absences)

- Hanging out with a different group of friends who use drugs

- Building an increased tolerance to alcohol or drugs so that you gradually need more and more of the substance to get the same feeling

- Lying, stealing, or selling things to get money for drugs or alcohol

If your life centers around getting and taking drugs, and you no longer feel like you have a choice, you’ve likely crossed the threshold into addiction. Just as your body can become dependent on a drug, people who abuse drugs can also become psychologically addicted to their substance of choice, feeling overcome by the desire to have the drug and sometimes lying or stealing to get it.

Quitting drugs or alcohol can be hard to do, and many people find they can’t do it on their own. If you’re concerned about your use, or the habit of a friend or loved one, the best thing you can do is talk to someone you trust, preferably an adult who can offer support and guidance about what to do next. A parent is often the best resource, though doctors, school counselors, nurses, teachers, relatives, or religious leaders can offer helpful insights and support as well.

If you begin to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, agitation, sweating, vomiting, insomnia, hand tremors, anxiety, or dilated pupils, it is important that you seek medical treatment immediately. Withdrawal can be dangerous when it is not being actively monitored, and there are ways to reduce the discomfort with medication and behavioral treatments.

Getting help is not a sign of weakness or something to be embarrassed about. Thousands of people each year find themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the bravest ones reach out to those they trust for support.

Recovery is usually a bumpy road – you may have to attend a wilderness program or residential treatment program to get sober, and then find new friends, stop going to parties that involve drugs or alcohol, attend 12-step meetings or join a recovery community, and find new ways to have fun. But the alternative path is far bumpier, and could stand in the way of your plans for the future.

Knowing When to Say When

If you’re wondering if you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, things have probably already gotten out of hand. Denial is an early sign of addiction, which is why it’s important to talk to someone who can objectively assess your use and whether treatment may be necessary.

As a first step, talk to a counselor, doctor, or family member who will keep your concerns confidential, or attend a few meetings of a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. If you feel uncomfortable asking for help in person, try calling a help line or resource center that can give you guidance and suggestions for the type of treatment that is right for you. The Internet is one the best resources for information about addiction and treatment programs.

Therapeutic wilderness programs and outpatient, inpatient, and residential drug rehab programs provide detoxification services if needed, individual, group, and family therapy, and education about the disease of addiction. You will be introduced to the 12-step program and get comfortable attending meetings and speaking with others in recovery. You’ll also learn skills to cope with difficult emotions and drug cravings, to avoid relapsing back into old addictive behaviors, and to improve your interpersonal relationships and communication with your parents.

All of the research shows that the sooner you seek help, the greater your chances are for a long-term recovery. If you think there’s even a possibility that you have a problem, get help now.