What it means to you
Maybe you know people who drink more than they should, who can't handle certain drugs, or who become somebody else when they smoke pot. Maybe these things happen to you. If they do, you should be really careful—these are warning signs of substance abuse.
You may think you have your recreational drinking or substance use under control. The problem is, most people who develop drug and alcohol problems feel that way or have felt that way once. You may be fooled by the fact that everything seems to be fine now, yet still be in the early stages of substance abuse.
Addiction is not a moral "weakness," it's an illness. An alcoholic or drug addict has a chemical dependence on a substance and needs it to feel physically okay and emotionally "normal." Because addiction is an illness—like cancer or heart disease—people who suffer from it shouldn't feel ashamed or "bad" about themselves—but they do need to get professional help.
Here are some characteristics of people who have substance abuse problems:
- Need drugs or alcohol to have fun—they don't just like to have a few beers at a party—they need a few beers so they can party.
- Use the substance to deal with emotions like anger or disappointment.
- Need the substance to feel "normal," or they feel uncomfortable in their own skin until they have that drink or drug. They don't use to have fun; they need it to feel okay or to like themselves.
- Substitute drugs or alcohol for socializing, and using it when they're alone.
- Get anxious if they think they can't get it or won't have enough.
- Can't say no; they use the substance even when they didn't want to.
- Need to have it on a regular basis (2–3 times a week).
- "Build a tolerance"—they need more of it to get the same effect.
- Can't stop—for example, a "social drinker" will stop when she's had enough. An alcoholic wouldn't be able to stop even if she thought she should.
- Have physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop.
A big problem for people with substance abuse problems is that denial is part of the illness. Denial is dangerous because it keeps people from getting help.
People with denial come up with all kinds of reasons why THEY don't have a substance abuse problem, like:
- "I never drink in the morning."
- "I'm doing okay at school so I can't have a problem."
- "All my friends use it." (If all your friends use it, they probably have a problem, too!)
Sometimes people think:
- "Oh, I just can't drink tequila; I'm fine with beer and wine."
- "I can handle pot; it's booze that's bad for me."
In recovery circles, this is called "switching seats on the Titanic"—either way, you're going down.
Why all this focus on substance abuse?
A lot of people go through life happily as "social drinkers" or may "experiment" a little with drugs, without having it affect their lives. The key word here is: happily.
Being an alcoholic or drug addict isn't a happy way of life. In fact, there's a theory that a lot of people who use drugs and alcohol do it to "self-medicate" a mental illness like depression or anxiety.
And their substance use brings unhappiness to themselves and to those who love them. If you're addicted to a substance, your priorities get all messed up:
- You miss an important test because you were hung over.
- You show up too late for a job interview because you were waiting to buy pot from someone.
- You put the substance before friends, family, work—and ultimately, before yourself.
And it's dangerous when your thinking is cloudy from booze or if you're at the point where you'll do ANYTHING to get more of a drug. You make bad decisions. You can put yourself in dangerous situations (engaging in un-safe sex, dealing with people who are violent, putting yourself and others at risk by driving drunk).
If you relate to any of this thinking or behavior, be careful! Addiction is a time bomb that eventually explodes again and again and again. Don't feel ashamed if you can't handle it on your own. You couldn't cure yourself of cancer, could you? Just get the help you need.