In a comprehensive study regarding the prevalence of addiction in the United States, published in the journal Evaluation & the Health Professions, researchers suggest that about 47 percent of adults have signs of an addictive disorder within any 12-month period. Some people develop addictions to activities, such as gambling or shopping, while others develop unhealthy fascinations with products like pornography or video games. But the vast number of addictions in this country develop in response to drugs, both licit and illicit.

Most people would claim that they know at least something about how an addiction develops and how it’s conquered. But, there’s a significant amount of misinformation available about the nature of addiction and the habits and attributes of people who fall prey to these serious disorders. Learning more about the basics, and the statistics, can provide families with an opportunity to provide meaningful help to someone in need.

Formal Definitions

Drug Abuse

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a “chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” The abuse of drugs, while generally voluntary in the beginning, falls out of the user’s control once addiction takes hold and damage to brain cells begins to reach critical mass. No matter how much drug use might impact an addict, or how much harm might come to that person’s family or community, the abuse can persist due to the damage the brain has endured.

The damage drugs can cause might be internal, but the person’s behavior can change to such a degree that families may soon notice that something is amiss. The signs and symptoms may include:

  • Changes in sleep routines
  • Changes in appetite, including significant weight gain or weight loss
  • Lack of personal grooming habits
  • Odd smells on clothing, hair or breath
  • Glazed eyes, bloodshot eyes or change in pupil size
  • Unusual mood swings and periods that include excessive irritation and being quick to anger

In time, some people may even lose their lives to addiction, as each little hit of drugs continues to do a significant amount of damage to the brain and body of the drug user. Without help, addiction can be chronic, progressive and fatal.

Understanding the Temptation

Since addictions can be so deadly, some families wonder why anyone would even consider dabbling in drugs. The answer to that question might be deeply personal, but there are some attributes that seem to make experimentation with drugs somewhat likely. Some characteristics might also push a person from mere experimentation into out-and-out addiction.

Genetics, for example, might play a role in the development of an addiction. Variants of some genes can make drugs seem more potent inside of a user, and since those drugs cause huge changes, they might be more appealing and attractive, and that might drive a person into repeated and addictive use. On the other side, some genes might make drug use seem unpleasant or unrewarding, and people with these genes might not ever try drugs again, as the experience they have doesn’t appeal to them.

Peers might also play a role in the development of an experimentation or addiction issue. For example, a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that peer pressure was a significant factor in the development of a substance abuse issue, as was the need to conform to the habits of peers. Just spending time with people who abuse drugs can make teens do the same, and that early experimentation might make an addiction all the more likely.

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During adolescence, the brain is constantly growing and reforming, with connections made and broken over and over again. It’s a time of vulnerability, and adding drugs into the mix can lead to significant damage that impairs the portions of the brain that deal with impulse control and planning. An impaired brain like this is simply incapable of making good decisions, and that might make a move to compulsive drug use all the more likely. Similarly, some people seem driven to experience new things and novel sensations. They’re inherent risk takers, and they may feel as though nothing terrible could ever happen to them. The feel the invulnerability of youth. People with this personality trait might be more likely to dabble in drugs because they don’t see the harm that lies in front of them. They think the drugs will simply be fun, and they may think that high doses of drugs won’t cause any damage. People like this might be more likely to both experiment with drugs and develop an addiction, just due to their personality type.

Risk Factors

Anyone could fit into the categories mentioned above, but there are some risk factors that seem closely tied to the development of an addiction issue. For example, experts suggest that having a mental illness could up the risk of both experimenting with drugs and developing an addiction problem. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that nearly one-third of people who have a mental illness also endure a drug abuse problem. These conditions range widely between drug users and a single drug user may suffer from multiple disorders, including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder or other major depressive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorder
  • Low self-esteem or negative body image

Some people may develop a drug addiction issue as they lean on illicit substances in order to manage their mental illness symptoms. Other people, however, may develop symptoms of mental illness as a result of their drug use. The issue is complex, but clearly mental distress plays a role in the addiction risk in some people.

Similarly, some people come to addiction through family history. They may see their parents abusing substances on a regular basis, and they may grow to do the same when they reach adulthood. Sometimes, children growing up in households touched by addiction are subjected to physical and emotional abuse, and these children may use substances to numb their memories, and that use might spur an addiction. Troubled families like this are just devastating, in terms of addiction, as the trauma and damage comes on many fronts.

Some people overcome their risk factors by leaning on sober peers. These role models can demonstrate that life can really be worthwhile, even when no drugs are at play, and they might help to display healthy responses to life’s challenges. But a lack of peers like this might also make an addiction more likely, as there’s simply no way to counteract the urge to use and abuse drugs.

Finding Addiction

Addictions are truly equal opportunity disorders, as they can impact people from all walks of life, as the following statistics make clear:

  • Gender. While both men and women use drugs, men tend to develop addictions at a higher rate than women do. However, the University of Utah suggests that 5 to 8 percent of pregnant women are at risk of alcohol-related problems that could impact both them and their babies. Many others use drugs while pregnant. This is clearly a sign of addiction, as women aren’t able to give up their substances even when another life is on the line.
  • Geography. Residents of both urban and rural areas might fall prey to addictions, but the substances they use might differ. The Treatment Episode Data Set suggests, for example, that 49.5 percent of rural addicts focus on alcohol, while urban addicts tend to focus on heroin or cocaine. The addictions are similar in severity, but the target is different.
  • Economics. Addictions are often associated with lower income levels, but the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality suggests that teens from higher socioeconomic status levels tend to dip into substance abuse earlier than teens in poorer homes. Stats like this demonstrate that addictions really can transcend issues of money.
  • Race. A study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that about 15 percent of Native American youth have drug abuse issues, while 9 percent of Caucasian people and 7.7 percent of Hispanic people had the same troubles. It’s not clear why this particular group has an elevated risk, but the study clearly shows that all races are touched by issues of abuse and addiction.

Types of Treatment Available

Inpatient Treatment at Alta MiraSince statistics regarding addiction are so very dire, and they seem to suggest that anyone, anywhere can fall prey to the problem, it’s vital for families to act quickly to get someone help. Unfortunately, while an addicted person’s family and friends might want drug use to stop, many addicts deny the problem. An intervention can be a very effective way to break through that denial and allow healing to begin.

In an intervention, the family outlines the changes they’ve seen that they attribute to the drug abuse or addiction issue. There’s no blaming or judging involved, and the family is encouraged to keep the talk civil and supportive at all times. When the talk is through, the family encourages the person with the addiction to accept the help that a treatment program can provide. Frequently, families even choose a treatment provider in advance, so therapy can begin as soon as the intervention is complete.

There are several options available for the treatment of drug addiction. Some of these options are conducted on an inpatient basis while others are outpatient treatments. Some provide a hospital setting while others are of a residential nature, with private rooms and luxury accommodations. Many top drug treatment programs today offer holistic and alternative approaches to recovery, including equine-assisted therapy, which uses the influence of horses to help the addict figure out new ways to solve problems. Still others operate on the 12-step principles outlined by established recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Choosing the best drug treatment program is a personal decision, but one that is necessary for an addict to get the support he or she needs to enter recovery and successfully redirect their lives.

Once treatment begins, families can stay involved by providing their support and encouragement to the addict. They might offer to drive the person to appointments, or they might send cards and letters to the person’s inpatient program, if that option is chosen. Some families even participate in family therapy sessions alongside the person with the addiction, learning more about how they might help to keep the issue from returning when therapy is complete. In interventions, family members will often write letters to be read if the patient is considering leaving treatment early, against medical advice (AMA). Integrating family members into treatment gives the patients greater likelihood of success.

Finding Relief

Individuals who choose to use drugs over the welfare and benefit of their own children, the needs of their families, or their employment and ability to earn a living is suffering from drug addiction by the accepted definition. If this sounds like you or someone you love, please call us at Alta Mira.

In our facility nestled in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the hillside in Sausalito, we provide comprehensive addiction treatment that’s personalized. Help begins with a thorough assessment, and we use that assessment to put together a treatment plan and appropriate therapies that can provide real and meaningful help. No matter what kind of addiction has been at play, we can assist. Please call us to find out more about our treatment options and how we may help you.

Drew PaxtonAbout Drew Paxton

Drew Paxton is the Executive Director of Alta Mira Recovery Programs. His experience in the technology and recovery industries spans over three decades. | LinkedIn