What is Addiction?

Strangely, the question is more complicated than it sounds, so lets’ break it down into sections.

What do you mean?

Most people think of addiction as meaning ‘physical addiction.’ This is where you suffer from medically defined withdrawal symptoms if you do not take your substance of choice at regular intervals.

Can you give me some examples?

Absolutely. For instance, it is common knowledge that heroin is physically addictive if you use it on a daily basis. The withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable and difficult to put up with, but it is extremely rare that they are actually dangerous, unless the individual withdrawing has other health problems.

So heroin withdrawal isn’t dangerous then?

It is not life threatening, but withdrawal from other substances can be more difficult. For example the withdrawal from alcohol, GHB/GBL or Valium, once an individual is physically addicted can be a lot more dangerous, and might require an in-patient detox in a hospital.

Wow! How do I know if I need an in-patient detox?

On accessing treatment you might well see a doctor after you have had an assessment and they will be able to tell you what your best course of action will be.

So, is it true of all drugs that if you take them every day you become physically addicted?

No it isn’t. A great many drugs are not physically addictive in that ceasing to use them, while never easy, does not cause physical withdrawal symptoms. Cannabis and cocaine are both examples.

Does that mean if you do not have physical withdrawal symptoms you are not an addict?

No . . . . and now it gets a little tricky. All addiction can be viewed as psychological, simply because using a substance, whether drugs or alcohol, on a daily basis is neither safe nor normal. After all, it is not possible to become physically addicted to any substance unless you are using it on a daily basis.

So how would you define addiction then?

Using any mind altering substance, whether legal, prescribed or illegal to an extent where it is having a negative impact on your physical or mental health, work, family circumstances or relationships is considered to be addictive behaviour and you might want to think about getting some help.

Is this true even if I only use a few times a week?

It can be. Binging whether on alcohol or drugs, can be extremely dangerous even if you only do it on the odd weekend or now and again.

You mean going out with my mates for a drink on a Friday night is binging?

Not exactly, but if you drink so much that you cannot remember what happened the next day, or use drugs to the point where you are vulnerable to abuse by others because you are unable to look after yourself or make a sensible decision, then perhaps you want to have a look at your behaviour.

But this is normal!

Because it is common behaviour does not make it normal. The use of large quantities of drugs or alcohol even occasionally carries obvious health risks (like over-dose for example) or can lead to a stay in the accident or emergency department of a local hospital, if not a night in the police cells.

Aren’t you being a bit dramatic?

Let’s be honest, stories of women being abused or men getting badly hurt in fights on a ‘night out’ is hardly uncommon in the press these days, and very often the people involved are incapacitated by their substance use.

Yeah, but it won’t happen to me.

Perhaps not, but there are other risks to consider. If you are used to going out at the weekend and getting completely wasted as  a matter of course, what could happen if a problem occurred, such a losing your job?

Carry on . . . . .

People don’t suddenly become addicts. Very often it is a gradual process. What starts off as a Friday and Saturday night session can creep into Sunday and Monday, especially if there other problems going on that are making life difficult.

So how do I know if I have a problem?

If you are worried by anything you have read on this site, or are wondering about your drinking or drug use, why not ring your local service and have a confidential chat. It can’t hurt to put your mind at rest.