Addiction 101

Let me start by saying that addiction is so complex that this post most definitely will not cover all aspects of it. My goal here is to provide a basic understanding of (and to spread some truth about) this disease. I’ll also give you some links to other articles that will provide even more information on this topic. I want to be clear that I’m focusing on drug and alcohol addictions today; we’ll tackle “process addictions” (addiction to sex, gaming, shopping, gambling, etc.) and eating disorders another day. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions or suggestions!

What is addiction? The most straightforward answer to this question is that addiction is a disease. Addiction takes place in the brain. Your brain, just like any other organ in your body, is susceptible to diseases that need treatment. This article from the American Society of Addiction Medicine explains how addiction is classified as a medically recognized disease. (It’s really important to understand this. More on that in a minute!) This article from the National Institute of Drug Abuse explains in-depth how addiction develops in the brain and how it is treated. You are at risk for developing addiction if you are “genetically predisposed” to it (meaning it runs in your family), if your environment exposes you to addictive behaviors (you grew up watching your parents use drugs and alcohol, you spend time with friends that use them, etc.), or both. The bottom line: addiction is a disease that is chronic, progressive, and fatal if left untreated. This means that it cannot be “cured” (although it can be treated) and will get worse over time, possibly leading to death, if left untreated. This is why it is extremely important to seek help if you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction.

What substances can a person abuse or become addicted to? Any substance that produces a mind-altering effect (like a high or a buzz) can be abused and can cause you to develop a dependence on them. Alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, prescription pain killers (hydrocodone, oxycontin, morphine, codeine, etc.), prescription anxiety medication (Xanax, Valium, etc.), prescription stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, etc.), heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, hallucinogens (ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, etc.), and even some common household products that produce this effect when inhaled or ingested… just to name a few.

How do I know if I am (or my loved one is) addicted? The symptoms of addiction (or, “Substance Use Disorder”) are: using the substance in larger amounts or for longer periods of time than you intended to, finding it difficult or near impossible to stop or cut down your use, developing cravings for the substance, developing a tolerance for the substance (having to use larger amounts to achieve the same effect), giving up activities that you used to enjoy so that you can use the substance more often, developing withdrawal symptoms (feeling sick when you stop using), and continuing to use the substance despite any negative consequences you have from using it. Here’s an article from VeryWell Mind that talks a little more about how addiction is diagnosed by a professional.

How does age affect someone’s risk for addiction?: I always tell people that addiction is not biased: it doesn’t care about who you are, your gender, your race, your financial situation, or your age. People of all ages can be susceptible to this disease, just like most other diseases. This is a great article from addiction.com that talks about the myth that someone is “too young” to have an addiction. It mentions that many people start experimenting with drugs and alcohol in their early teenage years and that many people who develop an addiction started using drugs and alcohol prior to age 18. Early experimentation with alcohol and drugs is what we call a “risk factor” for developing addiction later in life. This article from The Recovery Village discusses both the genetic and environmental risk factors that make a teenager more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. That being said, addiction can raise its ugly head at just about any age, so take caution before assuming that you are either “too young” or “too old” for addiction.

So, what do I do if I want to get help? The good news is that the better we understand addiction, the better we get at learning to treat it. There are A LOT of addiction treatment options out there, so it’s important to find one that meets your needs:

  • Detox: If you have been using drugs or alcohol heavily, you may need medically-monitored detoxification. Certain substances can have dangerous withdrawal symptoms if not supervised by a medical professional. If you have been using large amounts of a substance or have been using them for a long time, you may want to consider going to a local hospital to be assessed for detoxification.
  • Inpatient/Residential Treatment: This is what most of us think of when we hear the word “rehab” (which is not my favorite word… but that’s a discussion for another day). Most of these programs are 30-90 days long, some are longer. You live at the treatment facility during this time and receive intensive treatment – individual therapy, group therapy, educational classes, medical and psychiatric care, etc. If you are unable to stop using substances in your current environment, inpatient treatment may be necessary to get you started in recovery.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs: In PHP, you receive the same treatment you would in an inpatient/residential facility but only for certain days of the week, during certain hours. For example, you may attend from 8:00am to 5:00pm five days a week but you do not stay overnight in the facility. It’s still a high level of care but allows you to return home between treatment sessions.
  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment: The main difference between PHP and IOP is the amount of time you spend in treatment per week. In IOP, you may only attend for a few hours a day, a few days per week.
  • Outpatient: Outpatient treatment typically consists of regular individual appointments with a licensed therapist and/or psychiatrist. It is the least-intense level of treatment and is typically most useful to those who have already completed a more intense form of treatment.
  • Support Groups: This is not considered “treatment” but is still an important part of recovery. Most of us are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, and this is a great resource to find support in your recovery. There are other 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, etc. There are also non-12-step groups like SMART Recovery, Lifering Secular Recovery, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS).

“Why don’t they just stop drinking and using drugs?”: This is an extremely common question in our world today and also a huge part of the reason I wanted to write this post. There is a large misconception in our society that if a person is addicted to a substance, that must be because they don’t want to stop using it or because they are morally flawed somehow. This could not be further from the truth. Go back and re-read the point above about the disease of addiction. Yes, the initial use of the substance is typically a voluntary action – you decide to start drinking alcohol with your friends, you experiment with drugs, your doctor prescribes a medication – but once addiction sets in, it interferes with the brain’s ability to think clearly, make rational decisions, and resist impulses. Overcoming addiction is so much more complex than simply deciding not to use drugs and alcohol anymore. It’s time that we stop viewing addiction as a moral flaw – something that only happens to “bad people”. It’s time that we start viewing addiction for the disease that it is, and treating it accordingly.


Do you have more questions? Let’s talk about them. The information here only scratches the surface of this complex and complicated topic, but I hope that it was useful in furthering your knowledge even a little bit.

Check back or subscribe for future posts on related topics, including how substance abuse differs from process addictions and eating disorders, how family members are impacted by addiction, and more.

Take Care!

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