Believe it or not, it’s not always clear how to tell if what you’re experiencing is drug dependence or full blown addiction. Sometimes addiction can creep up on us, especially when we least suspect it. Keep in mind that virtually any person has the potential to develop an addiction. No one is immune to potentially becoming an addict–it happens to the young, the old, the sick, the healthy, and so on.
The truly cunning thing about addiction is that we can become physically and psychologically dependent on a substance, and then use our own mind and logic to convince ourselves that we are choosing to use the substance, instead of being controlled by it. This is called denial, of course, and through this mechanism we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are actually in control.
The fact of the matter is that most addicts suspect that they are truly hooked long before they will openly admitted it to themselves and others. Fear holds us back from making the diagnosis and proceeding towards a healthy change. Fear is what holds us back from facing our addiction.
Dependence Versus Addiction
Let’s clarify the difference between dependence and addiction. For a little background, you might first want to check this out about whether alcoholism and addiction is a disease or not.
Physical dependence refers to the state of your body when it becomes physically dependent on a substance. This is characterized mostly by withdrawal symptoms when the substance is taken away. For example, someone who is using Valium as a sleeping pill every single night for several years may find it very difficult to sleep without the medication (by the way, Valium is a terrible sleep aid, as it does not produce deeply restorative sleep). In the same way, someone using strong pain medications on a regular basis over a period of time may experience withdrawal symptoms when abruptly stopping the medication.
This is physical dependence. It is not the same as full blown addiction. Anyone engaging in a pattern that produces dependence must also have other environmental and genetic factors involved that will lead them into full blown addiction.
At this point in time, all our medical knowledge does not have predictive power when judging personality and guessing who will become drug addicts and alcoholics and who will not. It’s not practical to look at a person and warn them that they might become an addict someday, or that they are predisposed to addictive tendencies, because we have proven to ourselves that we do not have the ability to accurately make these predictions.
Perhaps you or someone you know is hovering on the line between physical dependence and drug addiction. For example, maybe you are taking pain medications, and you are taking greater and greater amounts each day, buying it from multiple sources (perhaps illegally), and you can’t really see yourself stopping the medication without some serious help. Does this qualify as physical dependence or full blown drug addiction? Where is the line between the two, and when has a person crossed it?
Getting Past the Stereotypes
Some of us have a preconceived notion of what a typical drug addict is like. Most of us probably think that such an individual is beneath us, and that this stereotype could not possibly apply to our situation. We might picture someone who is truly out of control, dangerous, living in the gutters, and going to certain extremes with drug use that we ourselves have not yet experienced.
Stereotyping addicts can be a large factor in our own denial. We might justify our own drug use because “it’s not that bad,” as we compare ourselves to this idea of a hopeless junkie living in the streets.
The truth of the matter is that there are all sorts of modern day drug addicts, many of whom are still working and holding things together by the skin of their teeth. These are the people who have become physically dependent on either drugs or alcohol, and are slowly making the transition into full blown addiction. Their lives may not yet be in shambles, but chances are good that they have started to experience some consequences. However, consequences don’t always tell the whole story.
Using Consequences to Measure Addiction Isn’t Accurate
It’s easy to look at a person’s life and judge them by the consequences that they have brought upon themselves. For example, people who have racked up several drunk drivings and lost their license. There are also people who have lost their jobs or gotten into all sorts of trouble because of alcohol or drug use. But these consequences are actually a poor measure of a person’s level of addiction. The problem is that many people merely abuse drugs and alcohol, find themselves getting into trouble, and promptly make a change in their life–consequently “straightening out.”
On the other hand, there are serious drug addicts and alcoholics who remain fairly “lucky” for several years, experiencing very little in the way of consequences. My personal story reflects this exactly, as I had very few legal consequences and basically managed to hold a job through most of it.
So while consequences might be a strong indicator, they are not the final authority on diagnosing addiction, because there are so many exceptions. So how can we accurately diagnosis addiction?
Self Diagnosis is Always Accurate
We might look at an individual who appears to be out of control and facing major life consequences because of their drinking or drug use, yet continues to abuse drugs. Surely this person is a drug addict, we think. But this might not be the case. Many people go through stages of heavy drinking or drug use in their lives without becoming full-blown addicts. It can therefore be tricky to know for sure who is merely abusing drugs and who needs real addiction help.
Therefore, the only truly accurate method is through self-diagnosis. For physical dependence:
* Increase in tolerance – when it takes more and more of the drug to produce the same effect
* Withdrawal symptoms – when you stop taking the drug abruptly
And to diagnose the psychological element found with full-blown addiction:
* Preoccupied with the substance – thinking about it all the time, planning future uses, etc.
* Loss of choice – using drugs or alcohol when you had previously decided you would not
* Loss of control – using more than you had planned on
* Loss of time – using so much or so often that you sacrifice all of your extra time to the drug.
The line between physical dependence and full blown addiction is not always clear. Another experiment you might want to try is controlled using, as outlined in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Set a limit for yourself that is very low and stick with it for six months, taking only one drink per day, for example. It should quickly become clear to you if you are truly an addict or not. If you resent the fact that you have to control your chemical use, and if it proves to be difficult and uncomfortable, then that is a pretty good indication. If the only way you can have fun is to cut loose and remove all limits, then that is a pretty good indicator as well.
Remember that denial will always scoff at these experiments as being unnecessary.
Your peace of mind and contentedness should not rest on drugs or alcohol. That is a sign of preoccupation and obsession. If you feel relief when you obtain your drug of choice, that is another strong indicator.
If you are reading this because you think someone you know might be addicted, be sure to read this about how to help an addict.