Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a serious social problem, and it is on the rise. Estimates are that one in nine adult Americans suffers from an addiction.1 Common addictions include alcohol, powder and crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines or speed, hypnotic drugs such as PCP and Ecstasy, and prescription drugs, including pain medications such as Oxycontin, and benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax. While some argue that marijuana is not among the serious addictions, and particularly when compared to other drugs, the truth is that any drug use is unhealthy.

The problem is that once someone starts abusing drugs, he or she may not be able to stop. Instead, the person may continue down the path towards addiction, moving on to using greater and greater amounts of the drug, and experimenting with new drugs or combinations of drugs in search of the ultimate “high.” 

Drug use:  Always dangerous, and often deadly.

Drug use has the potential to kill even first time users. Teenagers and young adults who experiment with drugs often are unaware of the risks. They may not know, for example, that drug use can kill, even if it’s the first time they have ever tried drugs. The new designer drug, Ecstasy, for example, is a popular “club drug” among teenagers, and especially among teens attending all night parties called, “raves.”  Ecstasy combines methamphetamines (speed) with a hallucinogenic drug. The drug is inexpensive, and is available in tablet, capsule or powder. Teens enjoy using Ecstasy because if lowers inhibitions and gives them energy to party all night. The problem is that Ecstasy can cause paranoid thinking, hallucinations, heart attack, seizure and stroke, along with permanent brain damage, coma or death.

Still others mistakenly believe that as long as they avoid certain drugs, like Ecstasy, they will be exempt from danger. The fact is, however, that common drugs, including alcohol, has the potential to kill. Increasingly, for example, we are hearing news media reports of college-age adults who died after participating in an all night drinking binge. These young people were healthy adults in their prime who literally dropped dead because they were unable to withstand peer pressure to abuse alcohol. Middle-aged and older adults who have minor health problems, such as high blood pressure, are also vulnerable to the lethal effects of alcohol. They may fail to recognize warning signs of an impending stroke that could have been avoided were they not abusing alcohol. Even stopping an alcohol addiction can be dangerous when the alcoholic attempts to self-detox in his or her own home. The alcoholic can suffer sudden, severe and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Yet, when detoxification is done under the guidance of trained medical professionals, the process can be handled safely and with a minimum of physical and psychological distress.

Another serious risk associated with drug use involves the way that drugs are manufactured. Addicts forget that by the time they purchase the drug, it may have changed hands dozens of times. Drug dealers often try to expand profits by diluting or “cutting” drugs with chemical powders or other substances that resemble the drug in its pure form. The problem is that many of these drug substitutes are actually drug poisons, which may not be detected until it is too late. The risks are further compounded when drug abusers use more than one drug at a time. This is especially true when addicts mix drugs with alcohol, to create a lethal cocktail.

The Role of Denial in Addiction

Despite serious and potentially life-threatening risks associated with addiction, most addicts laugh off their drug use. Addicts are experts at making excuses to rationalize their behavior and to minimize the risks. They are adept at manipulating others into believing that their drug use is recreational, and that they are “just having fun.”  Even when caught “red-handed” in the act of abusing drugs or alcohol, addicts will likely make excuses or blame someone else for their behavior. In fact, most addicts will continue to minimize or deny the addiction no matter what. Sadly, the addict fails to understand - denial is a hallmark symptom of addiction.

As addiction begins to take hold, the addict will become more and more preoccupied with abusing alcohol or other drugs. At the same time, the addict’s drug use may become more noticeable to others, who recognize changes in the addict’s behavior. The addict’s spouse may notice, for example, that the addict seems less interested in spending time with family, avoids family outings and get-togethers with friends, or makes promises that he or she fails to keep. The addict may abandon longstanding relationships in order to find new friends who share the addiction. He or she may miss time from work or no longer be able to perform tasks formerly enjoyed.

The longer the addict abuses drugs and alcohol, the greater his or her chance of encountering serious addiction-related problems. Addicts routinely experience family conflicts, deteriorating physical and mental health, job loss and legal problems. When addicts fail to get help, their problems often escalate and their lives spin helplessly out of control. The addict loses his or her sense of self, and may behave like a completely different person. Addicts who were formerly good parents and good partners, for example, many suddenly become emotionally and physically abusive. The addict may exhibit a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. /Ms. Hyde personality in which he or she behaves horribly one minute and lovingly the next. The addict may lie, cheat, steal or become involved in activities in which he or she feels degraded, embarrassed or ashamed, and which run contrary to personal values.

Addicts become experts at denying their addiction problems. They learn to talk smoothly and convincingly to con those around them into not taking their addiction problem seriously. Their goal:  to continue using drugs and to keep others from interfering with their drug use. Most addicts will say and do virtually anything, including lying, manipulating, pleading or threatening in order to maintain their drug use.

Addiction and the Brain – Why Addicts’ Personalities Change

Medical experts have long recognized the biochemical processes by which addiction changes the way the addict thinks, feels and behaves. And while family members cannot see the damage going on inside the addict’s brain, they clearly recognize changes in the way the addict behaves. Family members often notice the addict seems moody, changeable, depressed, irritable and angry. Job supervisors may notice changes in the addict’s motivation, attendance or work attitude. What goes unnoticed is the fact that drug abuse causes brain damage. This damage begins with the first use, and continues for as long as the addict abuses drugs or alcohol. Addicts who abuse substances on a daily basis will incur the greatest brain damage. And, it is this very damage that is causing the addict to behave differently than his or her usual self.

The good news is that with professional treatment and abstinence, the brain may heal. However, brain tissue heals very slowly, and some brain damage may be irreversible. Medical experts estimate it takes six months to one year of complete abstinence before the healing process begins. Sadly, even though professional treatment is readily available, many addicts will never seek help. Their brain damage gradually will worsen over time. Many addicts go on to develop premature senility or dementia. Others will die from other addiction-related ailments, including liver damage, stroke, cancer or other disease.

Deaf and Blind

Drug users typically are unaware of how their drug use is affecting them physically, emotionally and mentally. They lose their sense of perspective about how their addiction is negatively impacting their lives. Addicts also are out of touch with how their addiction is impacting others. Addicts simply are “deaf and blind” when it comes to recognizing the dangers of addiction. They have little capacity to maintain a realistic perspective about what is going on to them and around them. And, keep in mind, the addict’s brain is “under the influence” of drugs and alcohol whether he or she used drugs today, yesterday, last week or last month. The addict must be clean and sober for many months to years before the brain adequately can heal. Only then, will the addict begin to think clearly and realistically.

Addicts are Good People with a Bad Illness

It is important to remember that addicts are good people with a bad illness. Addiction is common; it cuts across all ages, races and income groups. Our family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors are among those suffering from or in recovery from addiction. Addiction is not someone else’s problem – it’s our problem.

We must also recognize when the addict is in denial. We must not buy into the minimizing, denying and blaming, or allow ourselves to be manipulated by the addict. If several people who care about the addict are worried he or she has a drinking or drug problem, chances are the person does. The fact that the addict does not recognize his or her addiction problem does not mean the problem does not exist. The majority of addicts deny the problem – remember, denial is a hallmark symptom of addiction.

It’s frustrating, however, when we talk to the addict about getting help, and he or she minimizes or denies the problem. It’s easy to blame the addict or to put him or her down. Yet, those educated about addiction recognize that addiction is not a personal weakness, but a treatable illness. And the addict who is thinking about getting help needs our encouragement and support. He or she deserves our respect for the tremendous courage it takes to begin to recognize the problem and to try to seek help.

If you or someone you care about is suffering from an alcohol or drug problem, call the BAC Member Assistance Program (MAP) to speak privately and confidentially to a licensed mental health professional. MAP provides information and referral services at no charge to active and retired BAC members and their immediate families. We’re here to answer questions, discuss options and to encourage the addict to seek help. Give MAP a try. MAP generally is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST. Call MAP today (toll-free):  1-888-880-8222. “Just ask for MAP.”

1 Reference: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-41, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 11-4658. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011.