What Is Drug Addiction?
One of the most common types of addictions suffered by people is drug addiction. Rich or poor, every country is seeing a growing trend in drug use and it is rapidly becoming a cause for major concern globally. Also known as Substance Abuse Disorder, drug addiction is the term used to describe a dependency on drugs whether it's legal drugs like alcohol or cigarettes or illegal substances like crack and heroin. This dependency leads to an inability to control or stop using drugs even though it starts having a negative impact on the individual's life (mentally, physically and socially). Eventually the addiction reaches a point where the addict is continuously using drugs because their body craves it and needs the addictive substance to function.
While almost any kind of drug can be abused, the most common types of drug addictions are:
- Opioids include legal and illegal drugs such as prescription drugs, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The opioid pain relievers (morphine, oxycodone, codeine etc.) prescribed by doctors are generally safe but become dangerous and addictive when they are abused.
- Alcohol is a legal substance, which can easily lead to addiction when it is regularly abused.
- Cocaine is an illegal drug commonly known on the street as crack, coke, blow or snow. The fine white powder is made from coca leaves and can be injected into the bloodstream when mixed with water, taken orally or smoked.
- Hallucinogens are hallucination-inducing drugs such as LSD and PCP. Properties of hallucinogens can be found in certain plants and mushrooms and can also be man made.
- Amphetamines are a group of stimulant drugs such as crystal meth and speed. Using amphetamines increases brain activity and provides the user with a high and produces feelings of euphoria.
As the number of drug addicts and abusers rise globally, governments everywhere are working together to find solutions to the problem. The United Nations established the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) twenty years ago in order to tackle the issue and the statistics they gather on drug addiction is eye opening.
According to the 2017 United Nations World Drug Report:
- As of 2015, one quarter of a billion people around the world have used drugs at least once;
- 5 million people suffer from a drug addiction / disorder;
- Less than 1 in 6 people get help for their addiction;
- Globally, the number of avoidable drug abuse deaths falls around a minimum of 190,000 people (this number is much higher but it is difficult to have exact data since hundreds and thousands of death by HIV / AIDS, suicides, car accidents etc. are often caused by drugs but are not grouped under drug abuse);
- Drug use has led to the loss of 28 million years of healthy life;
- Drug addiction accounts for losing 17 millions years of healthy life;
- By far the most harmful drug used continues to be opioids (i.e. heroin, prescription drugs, oxycodone etc.). Use of opioids often leads to HIV, Hepatitis C and fatal overdoses;
- Opioid abuse is highest in the United States;
- 52,000 people in the United States die from a drug overdose every year. That's approximately 140 people every day, meaning on average, 6 people die every hour;
- Hepatitis C causes the most harm amongst drug users (222,000 hepatitis C deaths vs. 60,000 HIV deaths).
- An average of 12 million people are using injections for drugs. More than half of them are living with Hepatitis C.
Causes of Drug Addiction
Because drugs are initially taken by choice, it's often debated whether drug addiction is a disease. It is difficult for most people to understand that addiction is directly related to changes in the brain and is thus a very complex illness. The American Medical Association as well as other medical associations view drug addiction as a disease since it is caused by a combination of factors such as genetics, environment and behaviour. The same is true for illnesses like cancer or diabetes.
Over time and after regular, repeated use, the chemical levels in the brain changes, and the individual has to take drugs in order to feel normal or function properly. It is no longer a choice for them. Once addiction sets in, the individual no longer has the power to stop using drugs.
Up to 50% of addicts suffer from a chronic disorder, meaning, their addiction can never be cured and it is something they will live with forever. However, this does not mean it is untreatable. With timely intervention and treatment, all addicts can get better, learn to manage their addiction and go on to live a happy, healthy life.
The Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction
The physical symptoms of a drug addiction will often vary depending on the type and length of drug abused. For instance the symptoms displayed by an alcohol addict versus a prescription medication addict will likely be different. However, the following symptoms and behaviours will typically surface at some point or another in an individual struggling with an addiction.
- Lying about whereabouts and activities
- Being secretive about the amount of drug used, for instance, lying about how much alcohol was consumed during a party
- Unable to stop using addictive substance and telling oneself you'll only do it 'one more time'
- Resorting to stealing money or drugs
- Displaying extreme mood swings, going from euphoria to sadness or depression
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, shakes, nausea when attempting to stop using the drug
- A need to take a higher dose of addictive substance in order to experience the same feelings of euphoria or 'high'
- Getting in trouble with the law
- Problems with sleeping - suffering either from insomnia or sleeping too much
- Problems with appetite - eating too much or not enough
- Physical changes - eyes may look bloodshot, dramatic change in weight, shaking or tremors
- Being careless about personal hygiene
- Displaying reckless and careless behaviour - being promiscuous, engaging in dangerous activities, driving under the influence of a substance etc…
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Lack of interest in maintaining relationships with friends and family
- Hanging around with a new group of friends
These symptoms are not always apparent to the addict themselves and it's normal (even expected) for them to deny there's a problem. Bringing up the issue of addiction can and often does put a strain on a relationship and it's typical for the individual to react badly. But it's important for loved ones to not give up. A carefully planned intervention is often the best course of action in getting someone to recognize they have a problem because they see and hear how their actions are affecting others. Support and encouragement from family members is crucial for drug addicts and can ease the recovery process.
If you've noticed a few of these symptoms in yourself or in a loved one, you might consider getting some help or speaking to a mental health professional because there's a chance you might be struggling with drug abuse or addiction. Any kind of drug addiction can lead to very serious health problems, including death; therefore it is imperative that you get help as soon as possible.
Diagnosing Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is a common affliction and can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender or status and it is possible to get better and rise above the illness. It is extremely difficult to overcome and recover from addiction without professional help and rehabilitation.
Help with your drug addiction can be just a phone call away.
If you're not yet comfortable speaking to a doctor in person or if you simply need some help and guidance on how to approach your addiction, drug addiction hotlines are a great place to start.
Keep in mind however, a proper diagnosis can only be provided by a medical professional. Typically a host of doctors such as a psychologist, a psychiatrist, your family doctor, a counsellor etc. will be involved in the diagnosis process. You will be sent for a complete physical and psychological assessment, which usually includes urine tests, blood tests as well as various other lab tests. Criteria outlined in the DSM-05 will be used to provide the final diagnosis. Once the addiction has been diagnosed and your condition has been evaluated, treatment can begin.
Drug addiction recovery is not something that can be achieved overnight, it's a huge shock for the addict mentally and physically to start the recovery process. A Six Step Addiction Model introduced two decades ago by two researchers Carlo C. DiClemente and J.O. Prochaskha was designed to help mental health professionals and addicts understand their addiction and what they can expect during the process of recovery. Process being the key word, because recovering from an addiction is a process and often a lengthy one requiring patience and determination from the individual and their loved ones.
The Six Step Model
The first step of drug addiction treatment is:
Step 1: Pre-Contemplation
The individual is completely unaware or in denial that they have an addiction problem. Seeking treatment is the last thing on their mind because they don't believe there's anything wrong with their lifestyle and habits.
Step 2: Contemplation
At this point, the individual is aware there is a problem and they feel that some changes are in order. However, they are not yet prepared to seek treatment, nor are they committed to making a change. They might spend some time looking into addiction, its symptoms etc. while at the same time rationalizing their drug use.
Step 3: Determination
Change starts at this step. After going through a list of pros and cons, the individual is ready to start treatment so they can stop using drugs and get their life together. At this point, the individual may seek the help of a professional and put together a treatment plan.
Step 4: Action
The treatment plan is put into action at this phase. They might be more vocal about their struggles and in return receive encouragement and support from family and friends. They might start taking active part in things like counseling and support groups as outlined in their plan. At this point, the desire to succeed and overcome their addiction is strong.
Step 5: Maintenance & Relapse
Lasting change does not happen overnight, it takes commitment, dedication and most importantly, time. For some addicts, as they adapt to their new addiction-free life, they get stronger emotionally and physically. Their treatment plan provided them with the necessary tools to fight temptation and the desire to kick the habit remains strong. They have very little desire to go back to their old behaviour. This is not the case for everyone. Because drug addiction is a chronic disease, relapse is a possibility at all times. The cravings can become overwhelming and the urge to give in can be very strong. This is a very common step and it can sometimes take an individual several cycles of getting better and relapsing before they're able to achieve lasting success.
Step 6: Termination
The final step is the ultimate goal and the objective all addicts are aiming for. At this point, they hope to reach a point where they no longer feel controlled by their addiction. By Step 6, the hope is the individual has gained enough self-confidence and strength to continue living a normal, healthy life without the threat of addiction hanging over them. Relapse can still happen but the individual fears it less because they have greater control over their actions and they have mastered coping techniques.
Understanding the above six stages gives the individual, their loved ones and the doctor an idea on what to expect when treating the disorder.
Treating Drug Addiction
Several types of treatment options are available for drug addiction, both inpatient and outpatient. There are pros and cons to both kinds of rehabilitation programs. You, along with your doctor can figure out the style best suited for your needs. Rehabilitation includes a combination of psychotherapy and drug therapy (when needed).
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has so far proven to be the most popular and successful type of psychotherapy when it comes to treating addiction. The focus of this treatment is to question and change the negative thoughts and actions of the individual into positive ones in order to get rid of their addictive tendencies.
Group Therapy and Support Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Drug Addicts Anonymous follow a 12 Step Program and are also enormously beneficial. It helps individuals and gives them strength to know that others are going through similar experiences. In addition group therapy provides a safe, confidential environment in which to discuss their problems, cravings and successes without having to fear judgement.
Family or Couples Therapy also plays an important role in rehabilitation since an addict's' actions can have a negative impact on the family dynamic and put a heavy strain on a relationship. Family therapy allows everyone in the family to voice their concerns and challenges and enables open, honest communication. It also helps others gain a better understanding of the hardships faced by the addict and assists in moving past painful memories or forgiving one another.
Dialectic Behavioural Therapy is done individually with a counselor. DBT provides a more intense support to individuals who come from difficult pasts because of abuse or trauma. The patient is encouraged to share the challenges or problems they have faced, the counsellor talks through these problems with them and arms them coping skills.
Your mental health professional may also suggest additional types of therapies such as:
- Art Therapy
- Recreational Therapy
- Wilderness Therapy
These types of therapies are designed to provide addicts with healthy alternatives to using drugs as well as build their confidence, increase social skills, raise their self-esteem and self-awareness among other things. These therapy programs can vary in length from a few weeks to several months.
Many people choose to quit their habit without any external or professional help. They feel that curing themselves is as simple as giving up the drug. In some exceptional cases, this may work but in order to achieve sustainable, lasting success rehabilitation programs are extremely important.
If you suffer a relapse, don't give up. Relapses are a very normal part of the recovery process and as long as you stay determined to continue being treated, it's a minor hiccup on the road. The most difficult part of seeking treatment is acknowledging you have a problem. Once you've come to terms with your struggle, you need to make a conscious decision that you no longer want to live that way anymore. Don't let drugs or your addiction take over your life, fight back and get the help you need.
Actor and comedian, Russell Brand has openly struggled with drug addiction for a significant period of time. He fought hard to recover from his addiction and has been sober for over a decade. He put it best when he said, "As a drug addict, you have to accept that you can never have drink or drugs again." It's a harsh and sobering thought but it's the simple truth.
Once you have successfully gone through rehabilitation, you have to stay committed to the cause and to your life post-addiction. You have to wake up every morning and tell yourself you will never go back. The alternative (as evidenced by the global drug statistics) is often death.
Plenty of resources are available online, at your local clinic or at the hospital. If you are contemplating help, don't wait any longer. Go speak to someone.
If you're having suicidal thoughts or need immediate help, call 911 or get yourself to a hospital if you can.
Sources: MayoClinic, WebMd, National Institute of Drug Abuse, UNODC