Recreational drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction are not all the same thing. So it can be confusing to know if you have a genuine problem with drugs. While recreational drug use and drug abuse can both lead to drug addiction, they are not in and of themselves addiction. Drug addiction is the presence of a specific set of behaviors that you exhibit over time. This article will explain some of those issues and give you the next steps to take if you think you are addicted to drugs.
When It’s a Problem
Using any illicit substance, such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, represents a certain level of problematic behavior since they are illegal in most places and can cause harm to the user. If you use these drugs on a recreational basis and think it is relatively harmless, your drug use may in fact lead to legal and social problems, as well as lay the foundation for an addiction later on. Additionally, some employers do drug tests, which can negatively affect your job prospects.
When drug use becomes a problem, it negatively interferes with your daily functioning, your relationships, and your work or school performance. You spend a great deal of your time thinking about using drugs, seeking out drugs, and spending time using drugs. Additionally, you experience physical and psychological dependence to your substance of choice, as well as symptoms of withdrawal if you try to stop using.1
Though prescription drug abuse is a real and growing problem, simply taking a prescription medicine for its intended purpsose does not constitute drug abuse or addiction. However, it does become a problem in a couple circumstances. When the user who obtained the prescription properly continues taking the drug longer than a medical need dictates, this can cross over into abuse. Or, if someone does not have a legitimate prescription or a need for one and either lies to get one or steals one, this may qualify as either abuse or addiction, given the compulsory nature of that act.
Common Signs to Look ForCommon signs of problematic drug use that may lead to, or have led to, addiction are:1
- Lying or otherwise breaking rules to obtain drugs or money to purchase them.
- Using one substance to enhance or counteract the effects of another one.
- Failing to engage in or complete personal, work, or social responsibilities.
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed.
- Joining new social groups that surround drug use.
If you cannot get through a day without using your substance of choice, then you are likely dependent on that drug. More specifically, if you do not feel normal without using your drug and if, when you don’t take it, you experience withdrawal symptoms, then your body has become physically dependent on it.2
And because you may experience unpleasant or even dangerous withdrawal symptoms, you may use again just to avoid this experience—even if you had planned on quitting. This is partially how addiction develops: you can’t easily walk away from your drug habit.
Many commonly abused drugs—especially heroin, cocaine, and opioid painkillers—produce extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as problems sleeping, muscle and bone pain, and nausea and vomiting.3 Further, your brain becomes accustomed to the elevated presence of neurochemicals that drugs produce, adjusts to this “new normal”, and becomes dependent on them to just feel okay—they aren’t even experiencing the same high they once did at this point.2,3
Signs of Dependence and Addiction to Look For
- An inability to get high without increasing your drug intake.
- Changes in personality or bodily functioning when the drug is not available (e.g., withdrawal symptoms).
- Continuing to use drugs even after suffering negative consequences as a result of drug use.
- Irresponsible or reckless use of drugs, such as using before or while driving.
- Committing fraud or theft to obtain drugs, including obtaining illegal or extra prescriptions for legal substances (e.g., prescription opioids).
- Altering the formula of a drug—such as crushing a pill to snort powder or preparing a powder for injection—to obtain a higher or faster-acting dose of the drug.
If you are dependent on or addicted to a drug, the best way to get clean is to go to substance abuse treatment. This can take different forms, depending on the drug you use and the severity of your addictions, as well as other physical and mental health issues you may have. To get through the difficult withdrawal period, you will likely need medical and psychological supervision. Again, depending on your substance of abuse and the severity of your addiction, this could take place in an outpatient facility, an inpatient facility, or a hospital or residential center.4
Specific medications are used to lessen the discomfort or danger associated with withdrawal symptoms from different drugs, including buprenorphine and naloxone. These medications may carry their own risks for someone who is prone to addiction, so a properly trained and licensed clinician should always supervise their administration and maintenance.
However, medical support alone is not enough to help you return to a drug-free life. Individual or group counseling is also recommended to address the underlying psychological and social causes of your addiction. Experienced addiction counselors are able to provide therapy that helps you learn constructive ways to deal with the various triggers that usually lead you to abuse drugs.
The most common forms of psychological therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and multidimensional family therapy.4 As you engage in these therapeutic modalities regularly, over time you uncover dysfunctional patterns you use to cope with difficult feelings or experiences and learn new ways to address them without drugs. Involving your family in treatment is also very helpful, since addiction is often both a genetic and an environmental problem.
The most important thing to do if you think you have an addiction is to get help as soon as possible. People who do so fare better in achieving long-term sobriety and a fulfilling, drug-free life.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. American Psychiatric Association Publishing: Arlington, VA.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007). The Neurobiology of Drug Addiction: Definition of Dependence.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Heroin.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.