Drugs and Addiction
Contact Information: Susan Myrlin, MA, LBSW, LCDC
Addiction can be described as the compulsive use of drugs (including alcohol) which continues despite all of the negative consequences the drug user experiences as a result of their drug use. If you’re an addict, you continue to use drugs, despite knowing it’s hurting you. It’s causing major problems in your life—blackouts, infections, mood swings, depression, paranoia, legal problems, family problems, money problems—but you use anyway!
Addiction does not happen all at once; it happens one step at a time. Gradually, getting and using the drug or drugs becomes more and more important. Very few drug users are able to recognize when they have crossed the line into addiction; it is extremely important to see the warning signs in order to stop the problem.
Common signs and symptoms of drug abuse include:
- You’re neglecting your responsibilities at school, work, or home (failing classes, skipping work, etc.) because of your drug use.
- You’re using drugs under dangerous conditions or taking risks while high, such as driving while on drugs, using dirty needles, or having sex.
- You’re under age and your drug use is putting yourself at legal risk or trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, or stealing to support a drug habit.
- Your drug use is causing problems in your relationships, such as fights with your family , friends at school, an unhappy boss, or the loss of old friends.
- You use drugs to avoid solving problems or to escape from unpleasant feelings.
Common signs and symptoms of drug addiction include:
- You’ve built up a drug tolerance. You need to use more of the drug to get the same effects.
- You take drugs to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms. If you go too long without drugs, you experience symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety.
- You’ve lost control over your drug use. You often do drugs or use more than you planned, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t.
- Your life revolves around drug use. You spend a lot of time using and thinking about drugs, figuring out how to get them, and recovering from the drug’s effects.
- You’ve abandoned activities you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your drug use.
Myths about Addiction2
MYTH 1: Overcoming addiction is a simply a matter of willpower. You can stop using drugs if you really want to. Prolonged exposure to drugs alters the brain in ways that result in powerful cravings and a compulsion to use. These brain changes make it extremely difficult to quit just by sheer force of will.
MYTH 2: Addiction is a disease; there’s nothing you can do about it. Most experts agree that addiction is a brain disease, but that doesn’t mean you’re a helpless victim. The brain changes associated with addiction can be treated and reversed through making good choices, therapy, medication, exercise, and other treatments.
MYTH 3: You have to hit rock bottom before you can get better. Recovery can begin at any point in the addiction process—and the earlier, the better. The longer drug abuse continues, the stronger the addiction becomes and the harder it is to treat. Don’t wait to change.
MYTH 4: Forcing you into treatment can’t help; you have to want change before you can get help. Treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be successful. People who are pressured into treatment by their family, employer, or the legal system are just as likely to benefit as those who choose to enter treatment on their own. As they sober up and their thinking clears, many formerly resistant addicts decide they want to change.
MYTH 5: Treatment didn’t work before, so there’s no point trying again. Recovery from drug addiction is a long process that often involves setbacks. Setbacks are opportunities to get back on track, either by going back to treatment or adjusting the treatment approach.
MYTH 6: You can’t get addicted to some drugs. Remember, addiction is continuing to use drugs despite all the problems drug use is causing you. Some drugs are more lethal than others, but addiction never changes.
Addicts think differently, and though there are many explanations for why an addict thinks like an addict the end result is the same: addictive thinking. Addictive thinking is easy to describe even if it may be hard to understand.
Picture what would happen if a non-addict drank too much alcohol and decided to drive too soon. When that person gets pulled over by the police, they would think something like "I can’t believe I did something so stupid! I could have hurt or killed myself or somebody else. I’ll never, ever do this again. Next time I’ll get a cab, or have a designated driver, or just wait until the alcohol is out of my system."
This would be a normal response to a very serious mistake: the person recognizes the problem, takes responsibility, and changes their behavior. An addict who gets pulled over in that same scenario would think something like "I can’t believe this happened – the police are always out to get people!" For an addict it is always somebody else’s fault; addicts perpetually believe that life is not fair to them, and they will convince themselves that it is not and cannot be their fault for their problems. Addiction cannot exist without the addict’s addictive thinking. That’s why the first step in overcoming addiction is understanding the problem is not everybody else!
Teens and Dangerous Drugs
Drugs are simply more dangerous for teens than they are for adults.
Teenagers are in a growth period known as adolescence in which virtually every part of their body and brain is changing. Drugs interfere with this natural growth; teenagers are at much greater risk for long-term damage to their brains and bodies because of drug abuse. To make matters worse, teenagers – whether they use drugs or not – are more likely to engage in risky behavior since they lack the benefit of life experience and because their brain is not yet fully developed. When teens take drugs their chances of engaging in things like unintended sex, dangerous driving, criminal behavior, and other types of impulsivity increase.
Marijuana: Marijuana is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the country. Teenagers are more likely to use marijuana than smoke cigarettes. Although there is plenty of debate on marijuana use, medical marijuana, and marijuana legalization, the effects of marijuana on teenagers have been shown to be potentially severe. In August of 2012, a long-term research study was published involving more than 1,000 marijuana users who began smoking the drug as teens. The study showed that even if marijuana-smoking teens quit using marijuana as adults, long-term brain damage often occurs. Clearly, marijuana is not harmless to teenagers.
Alcohol: One of the most significant risks associated with teen alcohol abuse is called binge drinking, defined as four alcohol drinks for females and five for males on one occasion (one drink of alcohol equals one 12-ounce can of beer, one five-ounce glass of wine, or one shot – 1.5 ounces – of liquor). Binge drinking is a severe problem for teens: 90% of all alcohol that teens drink is by binge drinking. This kind of drinking can cause serious health risks for teens including long-term brain damage, alcohol poisoning, and alcohol addiction. Alcohol use in teens is also associated with increased risk of rape, suicide, unintentional sex, and drunk driving.
"K2" Synthetic Marijuana: K2, also known as "Spice," is a synthetic form of marijuana that is dangerous for all users, including teens. K2 was first created in a research study by a professor named John Huffman. K2 was never meant for people to use, but after Huffman published his research some people used his findings to create K2 and sell it as so-called "legal marijuana." John Huffman stated "It's like playing Russian roulette. You don't know what it's going to do to you;" "[Chemicals in K2] have profound psychological effects. We never intended them for human consumption;" and "people who use it are idiots." K2 use can cause vomiting, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, seizures, and hallucinations.
"Pills": Teenagers often refer to prescription medications they use to get high as, "pills," regardless of the prescription or intended purpose of the medication. Any time medication is taken by someone who has not been prescribed the medication, taken in doses more than prescribed, and/or mixed with other drugs (including alcohol) the risk of a drug addiction and drug overdose increases significantly. Some commonly abused pills include:
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, etc.): Also known as "benzos," this type of medication is often prescribed to treat certain kinds of anxiety disorders. These medications are addictive, thus it is extremely important to take them only if they are prescribed and only as directed. Taking benzodiazepines in higher than prescribed doses and/or mixing them with other drugs (including alcohol) can suppress a teen’s heart rate and ability to breathe resulting in unconsciousness, coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
- Opioid Painkillers (Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Methadone, etc.): These prescription drugs are highly addictive and dangerous. It is critically important that these medications are taken only by individuals who are prescribed them by a doctor, and that they are taken exactly as directed. Even when these drugs are prescribed and taken as directed, symptoms of drug dependence can begin to occur within 30 days of use. Just because they are "medicine" does not make them safe! For instance, although Methadone makes up only 2% of all painkiller prescriptions it is responsible for over 30% of all prescription drug overdose deaths. Taking painkillers in higher than prescribed doses and/or mixing them with other drugs (including alcohol) can suppress a teen’s heart rate and ability to breathe resulting in unconsciousness, coma, permanent brain damage, and death. It is very dangerous for teens to take these drugs to get high!
- AD/HD Amphetamines (Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, Ritalin, etc.): Teens who abuse AD/HD medication can easily become addicted. Overdosing on this type of prescription drug is similar to overdosing on cocaine, with symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, difficulty breathing, heart attack, and a condition known as hyperthermia in which the body becomes dangerously overheated, causing potential organ damage, permanent brain damage, and death.
Heroin: Almost everyone knows that heroin is a very dangerous and very addictive drug. Besides dangers like addiction and overdose, heroin users often share needles which can cause teen users to become infected with HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Smoking or snorting heroin isn’t safe either – in fact the risk of addiction and fatal overdose may be even higher!
"Cheese" heroin, a form of low-quality heroin mixed with other drugs, is cheap enough for teens to easily afford. Its added danger is that it’s very easy for teens to keep snorting it throughout the day as the high wears off; before long, heroin builds up in the teen’s body to dangerous levels and the likelihood of overdose is high. Heroin – whether it’s "Cheese" or not - can suppress a teen’s heart rate and ability to breathe resulting in unconsciousness, coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
Ecstasy (MDMA): Ecstasy is dangerous for numerous reasons. One lesser-known risk is that Ecstasy tablets are often impure – they contain drugs other than MDMA or contain no MDMA at all! Just because a pill is sold as Ecstasy does not mean it is Ecstasy! It is impossible to say what’s in the pill unless it’s tested in a laboratory. Ecstasy is known for increasing sexual desire, leading to increased risk of rape, sexually-transmitted diseases, and unintended sex. Ecstasy overdose can lead to kidney failure, hallucinations, delusions, difficulty breathing, heart attack, and a condition known as hyperthermia in which the body becomes dangerously overheated, causing potential organ damage, permanent brain damage, and death.
Methamphetamine: It is almost impossible to exaggerate the risks of teen meth use. Meth users often experience hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, stroke, irregular heart rate, and insomnia. Long-term damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, mouth/teeth ("meth mouth") and brain is likely to occur in meth addicts. Meth overdose is for the person who wants to experience it all: common symptoms are psychosis (resembling schizophrenia), violent behavior, memory loss, heart attack, heart failure, heart palpitations; a condition known as hyperthermia in which the body becomes dangerously overheated, causing potential organ damage, permanent brain damage, and death; stroke, seizures, diarrhea, and severe/suicidal depression.
Cocaine: Whether it is powder or crack, cocaine is one of the most rapidly addictive drugs. Cocaine is almost always impure as it is mixed or "cut" by drug dealers with other substances including baby formula, laxatives, caffeine, and baking powder in order to increase profits. Cocaine has also been mixed with much more dangerous chemicals including a veterinary drug known as levamisole, which is used to de-worm cattle, sheep, and other livestock. Levamisole has been used because when it’s mixed with cocaine it mimics a cocaine-like high, increasing the drug’s effects. Unfortunately, levamisole is not meant for human consumption which was proven after cocaine mixed with levamisole was found to cause a flesh-eating disease in cocaine users throughout the country. Overdosing on cocaine leads to symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, difficulty breathing, heart attack, and a condition known as hyperthermia in which the body becomes dangerously overheated, causing potential organ damage, permanent brain damage, and death.
Have you ever seen these kinds of warnings on a pill bottle before? Doctors will often warn you not to drink while taking a medication, not to drive while taking a medication, not to mix one medication with other kinds of medication, and more. And they do it for a very good reason – it’s dangerous not to follow those instructions! But whether it’s a prescription drug or not, it really doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that if abusing one drug is bad, abusing two or more is worse.
When a person mixes drugs, they’re really gambling. A person who mixes drugs is basically treating their body like an experiment; it’s as if they’re saying "how many different chemicals can I put into my body without hurting myself or dying?" People often mix drugs because it intensifies the effects – in makes them feel more high. Unfortunately, the risk of overdose skyrockets when drugs are combined.
To sum it up: you might enjoy driving a nice car and you might enjoy visiting the Grand Canyon, but you really wouldn’t want to drive that car into the Grand Canyon. Some things are just not meant to be mixed!
Winning The Fight: WTF was developed after losing our son, Brett Morgan O'Keefe, to an accidental drug overdose. He fought and lost. We choose to be a part of saving, not losing!
National Institute on Drug Abuse: NIDA's mission is to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction.
The Partnership at Drugfree.org: Working toward a vision where all young people will be able to live their lives free of drug or alcohol abuse.
Above the Influence: Our goal is to help teens stand up to negative pressures, or influences. The more aware you are of the influences around you, the better prepared you will be to face them, including the pressure to use drugs, pills, and alcohol.
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