Drug abuse can be defined as the regular use of either illegal or prescription drugs with the goal of achieving an altered state of consciousness.
The change of consciousness the drug abuser undergoes varies depending on the substance ingested. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine (commonly known as “uppers”) cause a person to experience an intense onrush of energy, while their “downer” counterparts (e.g. benzodiazepines and opiates) induce extreme mental and physical relaxation.
Despite drastic differences in the effects of different drugs, they function similarly in the human brain – by over stimulating its pleasure center. Over time, the presence of the drug alters the user’s brain chemistry in such a way that the brain depends on this drug to maintain normalcy. The overwhelming drive to use the drug begins to eclipse all other priorities in life – a signature trait of drug abuse. Health, relationships and career go downhill as the user appears to choose drug abuse over all else.
THE CYCLE OF DRUG ABUSE
People who fall into drug abuse and addiction tend to be people who suffer from untreated mental and emotional pain. In the absence of healthy strategies for coping with anxiety, depression and loneliness, these individuals embrace any opportunity to escape themselves. From this perspective, we can see that drug abuse often begins as a desperate attempt at self-preservation. As a means of escape from internal pain, drug abuse is never successful for long, and brings with it pain that only deepens preexisting wounds.
Genetic predisposition is also a factor in alcohol and drug abuse. A family history of addiction greatly increases an individual’s risk of alcoholism and drug abuse. Also at high risk are chronic pain sufferers who utilize prescription medications to manage their pain. Though the use of these medications starts out as a legitimate desire to ease physical pain, the result can be descent into severe drug abuse. These substances are every bit as addictive as illegal drugs, and can be just as detrimental to a person’s life.
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF SOMEONE YOU KNOW HAS A PROBLEM WITH DRUG ABUSE?
Some of the most obvious indicators of drug abuse are its physical symptoms. An individual who is abusing stimulants will often go through periods of insomnia and restlessness, followed by extended periods of sleep. An individual whose drug abuse involves opiates, benzodiazepines or other depressants will exhibit slowed speech and movements while under the influence. Abrupt gain or loss of weight signals unhealthy behavior, and might very well indicate drug abuse. Persistent cold-like symptoms can also be signs. Drugs that are smoked can cause bronchitis, resulting in violent coughing. Drugs that are snorted can cause ongoing nasal problems – runny or stuffy nose and nosebleeds. Long-term use of methamphetamine will cause progressive dental problems.
Emotional and mental signs of drug abuse are often just as pronounced as physical signs. An individual who abuses stimulants will go through manic periods, talking excessively and appearing elated at unusual times. An individual who abuses depressants will act unusually calm and disengaged. Long-term drug abuse can make a person apathetic, depressed, paranoid, irritable and violent. Though it sounds extreme, it is not uncommon for a person to hallucinate or experience temporary psychosis as a result of prolonged drug abuse.
WHY CAN’T THOSE WITH A DRUG ABUSE PROBLEM JUST STOP?
Persistent alcohol and drug abuse in spite of negative consequences is the definition of addiction. Usually, if an individual’s drug use is out of hand, it is a sign that he or she is addicted, and will therefore find it impossible to “just stop” without the help of a treatment center and/or a 12-step program. While it may be obvious from the perspective of friends and family that a loved one’s drug abuse is spiraling out of control, the individual may not be able to see it. Denial is a powerful element of drug addiction.
The mind of an individual addicted to drugs is well versed in rationalization. The addicted brain will find any excuse to protect the addict’s ability to use drugs. Addicts tend to grossly underestimate the severity of their drug abuse. They misjudge the amount of drugs they consume, the frequency with which they consume them, the negative effects their using is having on other areas of their lives, and the strength of their dependency.
Aside from the mental tricks drug abuse can play on an addict, there is the physical aspect of addiction, which is incredibly powerful. With long-term drug abuse, a tolerance to the chosen substance builds up, making it necessary to constantly increase the dose to obtain a similar effect. As the body develops a tolerance to the substance, it is also adapting itself to expect the presence of the drug. Once the body has adjusted its definition of normalcy to include the substance, decreasing or eliminating this substance is unpleasant and painful. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the drug, and may appear as body aches, insomnia, chills, shakes, and inability to hold down food. With the looming threat of withdrawal, the addict is even more inclined to continue his or her drug abuse.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW HAS A DRUG ABUSE PROBLEM?
Most importantly, don’t feel ashamed that you or your loved one is coping with addiction. Drug abuse is a global phenomenon, affecting all different types of people from all different economic and cultural backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to address the problem.
While our natural desire is to protect the ones we love, recovery from drug abuse must be self-motivated. What we can do is provide resources and support when they are requested. When the addict we love comes to the decision to quit, we must look out for his or her safety. Withdrawal is not to be taken lightly, as detoxification from drugs or alcohol can be physically agonizing, and even deadly. It is wise to seek medical advice, and often necessary to place our loved one in the care of medical professionals while his or her body adapts to sobriety.
Even with the help of treatment and 12-step programs, people who have dealt with drug abuse and addiction will not be “cured.” Recovery is an ongoing process, and will require the addict or alcoholic to learn new coping skills and face demons that may have been hiding behind the chemicals. It is not an easy process, but with the proper support, any addict can leave drug abuse behind and begin a new life.