Drug abuse is typically defined as the use of illicit substances, or the misuse of prescription drugs, with the express purpose of obtaining a high or altering reality in some way. People who snort cocaine before a party in order to feel a little stronger and more powerful are engaging in drug abuse, as are students who chew up Ritalin tablets they’ve stolen from their friends in the hopes of staying awake for marathon study sessions. These substances might make people feel better in the moment, allowing humdrum concerns to melt away as the body is encased in some kind of transformative sensation, but in time, drug abuse can become sinister. In fact, drug abuse can progress to such a degree that the substances deliver no pleasure at all. Instead, people may feel pain without access to drugs.

A Progressive Disease

Drug abuse begins, obviously, with drug use. At this point, people choose to put these substances inside their bodies, by:

  • Smoking them
  • Swallowing them
  • Snorting them
  • Injecting them

If the substance is illicit, or if the substance is somehow legal but the person is using the substance only to get high, experts would define the activity as voluntary drug abuse. But at some point, this abuse becomes involuntary.

With each hit a user takes, the body and the brain go through a series of very complicated chemical reactions. The drugs cause a spike in the production or the uptake of certain chemicals, and the brain responds by producing fewer of these chemicals without access to drugs, or the brain shuts off receptors for specific types of chemicals. These adjustments protect the brain from future bouts of drug taking, but they also work to prime the brain to respond to the world in a specific way. In time, the person might be dependent on those drugs in order to feel healthy and happy.

This physical dependence is common in anyone who uses a specific type of drugs. Someone who takes a decongestant medication, for example, might feel stoppered up and congested unless the drugs are available, and even thinking about the drugs can make physical discomfort much worse. It’s just part of the bargain people make when they take in strong substances.

An addiction is similar to physical dependence, in that people who are addicted also need the drugs they take in order to feel healthy and happy. But people who are addicted are more than just physically hooked. They also have a psychological dependence on the drugs they take. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse puts it, “Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Even though the drugs might cause the person physical and social harm, the person still feels the need to keep up the use. Stopping is difficult or impossible.

Why Get Started?

teen drug addiction warning signsIf drug abuse can progress and develop into compulsive use of drugs, it’s reasonable to wonder why people would even begin the process in the first place. Wouldn’t they just be safer if they never started using drugs at all?

While it’s true that lifelong abstinence would be safer, and people who followed this path might be both healthier and happier, people have a large number of reasons they can cite, when it comes to experimentation with drugs. For example, some people begin using drugs because their family members, friends or romantic partners do so. These people might want to fit in and seem hip, and doing drugs might seem like the best way to accomplish their goals. Similarly, some people begin using drugs simply because they’ve been told to avoid the substances. Rebelling with drugs seems reasonable, to someone like this, and once the use is in place, addiction can follow.

Addictions can also stem from reasons that have little to nothing to do with peers. For example, the National Drug Intelligence Center suggests that some mental illnesses are closely associated with the development of a drug abuse problem. For example, 15.5 percent of people with antisocial personality disorder also abuse drugs, as do 10.1 percent of people who have schizophrenia. Some people might use drugs to help them medicate their mental illnesses, and when they do, an addiction might follow.

In the end, the reasons that prompt people to begin abusing drugs are deeply personal, and they can vary dramatically from individual to individual. Some people might not even know why they started using drugs. They may simply know that they find it hard to control their use, once it has begun.

Drugs of Abuse

Almost any substance could be a target of abuse, but a study profiled by CBS News suggests that there are certain drugs that tend to be more popular with American users of substances. Those drugs include:

  • Hallucinogens
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine

In the study, nearly 9 percent of Americans 12 or older were defined as current users of drugs. This might seem like a low number, but it certainly does suggest that a large number of people are polluting their bodies with these very dangerous substances on a somewhat regular basis.

General Signs and Symptoms

Drugs work within the body in different ways, attaching to different receptors and bringing about different types of responses.

The way a person looks while under the influence of one drug might look radically different than what intoxication might look like in another person. But often, there are subtle behavioral changes that accompany an addiction to drugs, and those changes might remain whether or not the person is intoxicated at that specific moment in time.

Often, the changes involve secrecy and privacy. People who are addicted may not feel comfortable storing their drugs out in the open, and they might not even use drugs while in the presence of other people. Instead, they might stash their substances in dresser drawers or underneath floorboards, and they might steal away regularly throughout the day in order to take drugs. They might also lie about taking drugs, even when they seem intoxicated and strange, and they might become defensive when they’re asked about their increasing need for privacy.

People who abuse drugs may also be forced to go to extremes in order to pay for their habits. They might be required to steal either drugs or money, or they might “borrow” items from friends and family members and sell those items in order to pay for more drugs. They might also spend time in the company of nefarious-seeming people who also seem a little strange or intoxicated.

People who use drugs might also fail drug tests at work, or get arrested due to the possession or purchase of drugs. These are the sorts of signs that are difficult for family members to ignore, but even so, the addicted person might claim that there was some sort of clerical error involved and that nothing is really amiss. Denial is just part of the process of harboring an addiction, and the person might continue with this behavior long after the family ceases to believe that any of it is true.

Effects of Drug Abuse 

The social consequences of a drug abuse problem are easy to see. People who keep secrets, lie and steal, or otherwise break their commitments to their friends and family members rarely stay in the good graces of the people they love, and their suffering can be extreme and severe. At the same time, however, people who abuse drugs may also face serious medical consequences.

For example, the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies suggests that 2 to 4 percent of all cancer cases are directly related to the use and abuse of alcohol. Each sip the user takes is corrosive, and it does damage as it slides through the digestive tract. Similarly, swallowing substances like cocaine can cause blood vessels to shrivel and die, and that can lead to organ failures and intense pain. Injecting drugs isn’t any safer, either, as the needles users obtain are often dull and/or full of infectious agents that can do an amazing amount of damage underneath the skin. Users can develop localized infections due to their use of needles, or they might develop system-wide infections that could cause them to lose their lives.

In addition, many people who abuse drugs simply don’t realize how powerful the substances really are, when they’re unleashed within the human body. These users are chasing a high, and they might take a huge amount of drugs in order to bring that sensation about. As the body adjusts, these users might need to take in larger and larger amounts of drugs, until they’re taking amounts that are so large that they’re capable of overwhelming the body and bringing about the death of the user. Overdoses like this can sometimes be treated, if they’re caught in time, but it’s not uncommon for users to lose their lives due to their use and abuse of drugs.

Along with these physical changes, people who abuse drugs can also develop psychological complications. They might find it more difficult to keep their emotions in check, as the drugs do damage to the portions of the brain that deal with impulse control and planning. They might also find it hard to connect with others on an emotional level, as the need for drugs takes up so much mental space that there’s little energy left to connect and support another person. Drugs can also make people just a little more impulsive and apt to harm themselves and others. When people feel isolated and alone, as though no one cares for them and connects to them, and they’re feeling impulsive and unable to control their behavior, they might begin to consider suicide. By taking just a little more drugs than they normally would, they could end their lives in no time at all.

Stopping the Damage

While it’s clear that drug abuse can be dangerous or downright deadly, it’s also true that people who take in these substances can find it difficult to stop. They may not have the resources needed in order to change their lives for the better, or they may not understand what steps they should take in order to leave an addiction behind for good. They may feel as though their drug use is simply inevitable, no matter what they might want to do, and that their first decision to use drugs has irrevocably marred the rest of their lives.

Families can help to clear up these misconceptions. In a formal intervention, families can describe how addictions develop and how the person has changed since drugs entered the picture. Families can also outline how treatment works, and family members can urge the person to take advantage of the help a program like this can offer.

These sorts of conversations are appropriate to hold for anyone who uses and abuses drugs. Some people might only need to hear how much the abuse is hurting others in order to stop a habit that’s just developing. Some people might need to enroll in formal treatment in order to make such radical changes. But openly discussing the topic and urging the person to get help is appropriate whenever someone is using drugs. In fact, it might be the best way to ensure that an addiction doesn’t blossom out of a new drug use habit, or that the person doesn’t lose his/her life due to substance abuse.

If you’re ready to hold a talk like this, we’d like to help. At Alta Mira, we can help you find an interventionist, so you can hold this important talk without damaging the addicted person or making a tense situation more difficult. We can also help you to understand how the addiction treatment enrollment process works, so you can get the person signed up for care and start that care just as soon as the talk is complete. We can even get the person you love enrolled in Alta Mira, so that care can start in our facility. We offer holistic care for people who have addictions, and we’re also adept at helping people who have mental illnesses as well as addictions. We have openings right now, and we’d love to help your family. Please call to find out more.