Addiction is a disease that affects more than 21 million Americans and their families. It is by far one of the most pervasive diseases society faces today, with nearly everyone knowing someone who is an addict, someone who died from addiction, or who is an addict themselves. The United States, while currently in the midst of an opioid epidemic, is experiencing higher levels of addiction than ever before. Approximately 130 people die each day from opioid overdose, while roughly 74,000 people are dying each year of drug and alcohol-related causes. There is no doubt that this disease (even though it is still highly stigmatized as it being a “choice” rather than a disease) is something that is affecting the most underserved communities to gated, luxurious communities. That is because addiction does not discriminate against anyone for anything.
If you are abusing drugs, you might not think that you are one of the millions of people who are experiencing addiction. Instead, you may think that you abuse these drugs but are able to stop anytime you want or that you can control how much you use at a time. Quite possibly the most concerning element of addiction is that it can be so consuming that even though you are behaving like an addict, you truly do not believe you are an addict. The denial that is often attached to addiction can make the big picture appear blurry and prevent you from seeing what is truly occurring.
Thankfully, you do not have to be the one to determine if your drug abuse qualifies as addiction. A diagnosis as serious as this should be conducted by a professional. However, you can educate yourself on addiction, ask yourself the right questions, and be honest with your answers to better understand how severe your situation really is.
Risk Factors for Addiction
If you are wondering if you are an addict, one way to start is to look into your past and review your present. The disease of addiction does not occur simply out of thin air, rather it is typically triggered by one or more risk factors. In fact, addiction is always a direct result of genetics, the environment, or a combination of both.
There is a reason why it is common to see more than one person in a family with addiction. That is because there is a huge genetic link to addiction. Depending on genetics, some families might share traits such as unbalanced levels of certain genes, increased production of specific proteins, and even structural abnormalities within the brain that can lead to the development of addiction. Or, characteristic traits such as impulsivity, novelty-seeking behavior, and inability to manage stress can also run in families and trigger the onset of this disease.
One of the most prominent genetic influences in the risk for developing an addiction is mental illness. This includes disorders such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders, for example. Depending on the specific mental illness, families may be more inclined to turn to the abuse of drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with their symptoms.
If genetics do not seem to play a role in your addiction development, then it is likely that your environment has. Some of the most common environmental risk factors associated with include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Physical/verbal/emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse/assault/rape
- Violence in the home or community
- Substance abuse in the home and/or among peers
- Overwhelming amounts of stress
- Constant peer pressure
These are just some of the environmental risk factors that increase the likelihood of becoming an addict.
As mentioned before, addiction can occur as a result of a combination of genetics and environment. Taking a look into your past as well as considering what your life is like today can help you recognize these or other risk factors that may be contributing to your substance abuse. People do not just become addicts for no reason. Therefore, examining your own life can be majorly beneficial in determining if what you are experiencing is in fact addiction.
Signs of Addiction
The next thing you will want to examine is what signs and symptoms your substance abuse is causing you to exhibit. To be clear — substance abuse and addiction are two different things. Substance abuse refers to the abuse of a substance that has not yet led to serious life consequences and physical/psychological dependence. Addiction occurs when a person is in fact dependent on substances in order to function and has suffered repercussions related to his or her use. It is much easier to put a stop to substance abuse before it develops into addiction than ignore the need for help while abusing substances.
If you are unsure if your use qualifies as substance abuse or addiction, there can be a number of different signs that you can look for that clearly outline what addiction looks like. There are several physical, psychological, and behavioral signs of addiction, including the following:
Physical symptoms of addiction are often reflective of the type of substance you are using. For example, someone who is abusing methamphetamine will likely experience a massive increase in energy, while someone abusing heroin may become lethargic in their physical movement. But that does not mean that all addicts do not share any similar signs or symptoms of addiction. In fact, the most common physical symptoms related to this disease include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Gastrointestinal problems (including severe constipation or diarrhea)
- Dramatic changes in weight
- Bloodshot eyes
- Health problems related to certain organs or systems in the body (such as the kidneys or lungs)
- Changes in appetite
- Dilated pupils
- Runny nose
You may already be experiencing psychological challenges as a result of a mental illness or trauma, and your substance abuse is exacerbating those symptoms. Or, you may be beginning to experience symptoms closely linked to a mood disorder or an anxiety disorder. Some of the most typical psychological symptoms often exhibited when addiction is occurring include the following:
- Unexplained mood swings
- Problems concentrating
- Poor cognition
- Problems sleeping
You may not think that your behaviors are in any way different than what they used to be, but you may have heard your friends, family, or loved ones make mention of it. There is truly no way to maintain your regular behaviors when you are being influenced by drugs. That is why those who abuse drugs typically exhibit the following behaviors:
- Becoming socially withdrawn
- Failing to uphold responsibilities at home
- Problems at work (e.g. not showing up on time, not completing assignments)
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Denial and defensiveness when confronted about substance abuse
- Continuing to abuse drugs or alcohol despite experiencing consequences related to that use
- Using in dangerous situations, such as while driving or watching children
These are just some of the many signs and symptoms associated with addiction. Paying attention to their presence (or lack thereof) can help you understand how serious your addiction is.
How is Addiction Diagnosed?
An addiction is best diagnosed by a healthcare professional, specifically someone in the mental health field (e.g. a therapist or psychologist). If you are wondering if your relationship with drugs or alcohol is reflective of the disease of addiction, seeking out a meeting with one of these professionals is best.
When you meet with a professional, he or she will ask you a number of questions, as well as encourage you to share a detailed description of what your substance abuse looks like on a daily basis. He or she will utilize a certified set of criteria designed to provide you with an appropriate, clinical diagnosis. These criteria can be found in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In 2013, the fifth edition of this manual (DSM-5) included, for the first time, diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders. These criteria are regarded as the “holy grail” of traits directly related to substance use disorders. If you are wondering if you are an addict, you can gather a conclusion simply by referring to these criteria on your own or with a professional, which includes the following 11 points:
- The substance is often taken in larger amounts and/or over a longer period than the patient intended
- Persistent attempts or one or more unsuccessful efforts made to cut down or control substance use
- A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from effects
- Craving or a strong desire or urge to use the substance
- Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home
- Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance
- Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of substance use
- Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous
- Substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problems that are likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance
- Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
- Markedly increased amounts of the substance in order to achieve intoxication or desired effect
- Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount
- Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
- The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance
- The same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
With simple yes or no answers, a mental health professional can help you better understand if you are an addict and, if you are, how serious your addiction is. The severity of your substance use disorder will be based on how many different criteria you present with. This is determined as follows:
- Mild substance use disorder: 2-3 symptoms present
- Moderate substance use disorder: 4-5 symptoms present
- Severe substance use disorder: 6+ symptoms present
How Can My Addiction be Treated?
If you have gathered all the information and have accepted that you need help in order to overcome your active addiction, you can begin treatment as soon as possible. The type of addiction treatment program you will enroll in will be determined by a number of things, but most specifically the severity of your addiction.
Addiction impacts everybody differently, meaning that you may need a certain level of care that another person may not. Thankfully, there are varying options for care that can be of great benefit to you. The most common of these options include:
Residential treatment is the most common type of programming for people who have a:
- Severe substance use disorder
- Need for detox services
- Co-occurring condition
Residential treatment is also a viable option for those who have made attempts to get sober before but have been unsuccessful in maintaining it. Usually, residential treatment programs are broken down into three parts — detox, therapy, and aftercare. Depending on your own specific needs, you may remain in residential treatment for 30, 60, or 90 days. During this time, you will live at the facility until you have completed your program.
Intensive outpatient programming
An intensive outpatient program, or an IOP, offers a similar level of care to a residential treatment program but does not require you to live at the facility. Many IOP’s require you to go to the facility daily or near-daily and spend the majority of your time there. You will participate in therapy, exercises, activities, and receive personalized psychological care. In general, an IOP lasts anywhere from 6-8 weeks, however, that time span can vary by patient. You may begin your treatment in an IOP, or you (like many others) may start your treatment in a residential setting and utilize an IOP as a step-down form of continued care.
Outpatient treatment is an ideal option for people who:
- Are experiencing a mild substance use disorder
- Have suffered a lapse or relapse and need additional support to get back on track
- Are unable to uphold the time commitment required by other programming options
- Have already completed a higher level of addiction treatment
Outpatient treatment offers therapeutic services but to a lesser degree than other programming options. For example, if you enroll in this type of program, you will go to the facility at least once per week for therapy. Instead of spending your entire day there, you will only go for a few hours at a time. This allows you to continue to participate in your everyday life while still receiving the care that you need to end your active addiction.
There exist several evidence-based and viable therapies that can dramatically improve the lives of those struggling with addiction. If you are experiencing addiction and do reach out for treatment, there is a likelihood that you will participate in some or all of the following commonly implemented therapies:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Individual therapy
- Group counseling
- Motivational interviewing
- Trauma therapy (including exposure therapy and EMDR)
- Contingency management
Because your needs are specific to you, a personalized treatment plan to meet those needs will be developed. Within that plan will be several elements, including which therapies you will participate in during your treatment.
Dangers of Avoiding Treatment
Quite possibly the riskiest thing you can do is continue to abuse drugs. Addiction is nothing to bat an eye at, as every single time you use could be your last. There are no rules when it comes to addiction and it does not discriminate. Continuing to abuse drugs will unequivocally lead to serious physical and psychological health problems, as well as interpersonal complications and distress.
More specifically, some of the gravest dangers associated with avoiding addiction treatment include the following:
- Overdose — If you are addicted to drugs, you are naturally going to need to increase the amount you are abusing over time in order to feel the effects of being high. This is because your body creates a level of tolerance to the drug the more you continue to abuse it. As you abuse the drug more, you are increasing your risk of overdosing. An overdose occurs when too much of a drug is consumed and the body is unable to process it out. Your risk for overdose also increases if you go back and forth between using and stopping use, as the inconsistencies your body experiences can make you sensitive to the high doses you are used to taking. Overdose, if not treated in time or is unable to be treated, is deadly.
- Vital organ damage and failure — Regular drug abuse impacts vital organs in the body, including the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. Since drugs enter the bloodstream, they interact with every single organ and system in the body, causing damage during each interaction. Repetitive use of drugs will continue to break down the function of these organs, leading to further complications such as heart disease, liver failure, kidney failure, and lung damage, to name a few. And, even if you stop using, the potential for continuing to experience effects related to vital organ failure and damage remains.
- Financial devastation — Addiction is not cheap by any means. Every single day, money goes towards continuing to stay high, leaving little — if any — left for other things. If you continue abusing drugs, all of your money will eventually go into supporting your habit. You may struggle to provide basic necessities for yourself, such as clothes, food, and shelter. You may even find yourself homeless and hungry. The potential to hit rock bottom is very real when you no longer have any funds to even continue using, forcing you to do things you may have never fathomed doing before just to get high (e.g. stealing, prostitution).
- Broken relationships — Addiction is a family disease, so it impacts everyone it touches, even if they do not use. Your continued drug abuse can drive rifts between yourself and your loved ones and keep you estranged from the people who could support you if you’d allow them to. The longer you use, the more distance you create between your family, friends, and loved ones, making relationships more difficult to repair as time goes on.
- Deteriorating mental health — Drugs undoubtedly impact your mental state, even if you are not high all the time. The consistent use of drugs affects brain chemistry in ways that make you susceptible to experiencing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. As you continue to use, these mental health issues can grow worse and prevent you even more from getting the help that you need.
There is no happy ending if you continue to abuse drugs and allow your addiction to rule your life. The more you use, the worse things will get. It is that simple. However, reaching out for help can save your life, so do not waste another second using when you could be getting better.
Get Help at JourneyPure Today
Being an addict does not mean that you are not worth it to get better and start living a life free of active addiction. All it means is that you have a disease that requires professional attention and care, just like any other disease. And while you may face a number of various challenges related to your addiction that are not present in other diseases, there is help available to guide you towards overcoming them.
At JourneyPure, we dedicate ourselves to helping each and every one of our clients get on the road to recovery. We offer our expertise, support, and compassion as they work to rebuild their lives. If you are ready to get sober, do not let one more second go by without giving us a call. We are here to help. Reach out right now.
Michelle Rosenker is a content writer for JourneyPure where she gets to exercise her journalistic skills by working with different addiction treatment centers nationwide. She has 10 years of experience in the field of addiction treatment and mental health and has written content for some of the country’s most prominent treatment centers and behavioral hospitals. Through her writing, Michelle is proud to continually raise awareness about the disease of addiction and share hope for the future. She lives next to the ocean in Massachusetts with her husband, two young children, and faithful dog.