An ADDICTION is defined as something that is hard to stop even though it is interfering with your life. You can be addicted to substances such as alcohol or drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin, morphine, nicotine), or to activities such as eating, gambling, shopping, video games, or sex.
You have an intense desire or need for a substance or activity
- you can’t stop using a substance or stop an activity even if you want to
- a substance or activity becomes the most important thing in your life
- you continue to use the substance or participate in the activity despite the harm it is causing you (e.g., financial, work, health, or family problems)
If you think you might have an issue with addiction, make an appointment with your doctor or with an addiction counselor so you can be properly assessed.
Addiction symptoms or behaviors can include:
- feeling that you need the substance or behavior regularly;
- trying to stop the behavior or use of the substance but being unable to stop;
- making sure you have access to or supply of the substance;
- spending money on the substance or addictive behavior, even though you can’t afford it;
- doing things to obtain the substance that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing;
- feeling that you need the substance / behavior to deal with your problems;
- intense craving or increased “hunger” for the substance or addictive behavior or experience;
- significant problems with school or work and relationships;
- giving up social or recreational activities for the substance or addictive behavior;
- lack of awareness of the problems the addiction is causing;
- dysfunctional emotional responses;
- driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the substance;
- and focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the substance.
Myth #1: Drug addiction is voluntary behavior.
Reality: A person starts out as an occasional drug user, and that is a voluntary decision. But as times passes, something happens, and that person goes from being a voluntary drug user to being a compulsive drug user. Why? Because over time, continued use of addictive drugs changes your brain — at times in dramatic, toxic ways, at others in more subtle ways.
Myth #2: More than anything else, drug addiction is a character flaw.
Reality: Drug addiction is a brain disease. Every type of drug of abuse has its own individual mechanism for changing how the brain functions. But regardless of which drug a person is addicted to, many of the effects it has on the brain are similar: they range from changes in the molecules and cells that make up the brain, to mood changes, to changes in memory processes and in such motor skills as walking and talking. And these changes have a huge influence on all aspects of a person’s behavior. The drug becomes the single most powerful motivator in a drug abuser’s existence. He or she will do almost anything for the drug. This comes about because drug use has changed the individual’s brain and its functioning in critical ways.
Myth #3: People who continue to abuse drugs after treatment are hopeless.
Reality: Drug addiction is a chronic disorder; occasional relapse does not mean failure. Psychological stress from work or family problems, social cues (i.e. meeting individuals from one’s drug-using past), or their environment (i.e. encountering streets, objects, or even smells associated with drug use) can easily trigger a relapse. Addicts are most vulnerable to drug use during the few months immediately following their release from treatment. Children are especially at risk for relapse when forced to return to family and environmental situations that initially led them to abuse substances. Recovery is a long process and frequently requires multiple treatment attempts before complete and consistent sobriety can be achieved.
Myth #4: There is an addiction gene
Reality: There is no single gene, or set of genes, that determines whether or not a person will become an addict. And even if a person’s parents are addicts, it doesn’t mean they will be too. Current addiction research shows that roughly 50% of addiction tendencies are attributable to genes. That’s a high percentage, but it still leaves half of the equation up to the environment and personal experiences. The addiction gene myth lulls many people into a false sense of confidence about their own drug use while paradoxically also discouraging many addicts from seeking treatment.
Myth # 5: You have to hit ‘rock bottom’
Reality: Here’s why this is dangerous: If we wait until a person “bottoms out,” it could be too late to help them. Every person has a different “bottom.” For some, it could be getting arrested or becoming homeless. For many, it’s much less dramatic — losing an important personal relationship, being confronted by family or doing poorly at work or school. There is little evidence that the level of consequences a person accumulates before seeking help is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. It’s better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment.
Myth #6: There is Nothing Friends or Family Can Do to Help
Reality: This myth maintains that friends and family members are powerless against the addiction. This myth is not only incorrect, but it is dangerous since it implies that loved ones and their actions do not factor into someone’s ability to get recover from addiction. Certainly, no one can force an addicted person to quit using, but luckily, there are many methods you can use to improve the situation.
Addictions are relatively common. Approximately 3 out of every 100 Canadians are dependent on alcohol or drugs and 3 out of 100 Canadians have problems with gambling. Nicotine is also a major addiction in Canada, with about 17% of Canadians smoking regularly.
There are many factors that can cause a person to develop an addiction to some behaviour or substance. These factors are complicated and there is a lot of controversy around how much is caused by genetics versus a person’s environment, giving way to debates on how much responsibility the addicted individual has. It is important to note that although someone with an addiction has the power and ability to recover, addiction is very hard if not almost impossible to stop on one’s own without support, care and treatment. Seek support. Addiction is never someone’s “fault”, it is not a character flaw or weakness.
Here are just some of the factors that can contribute to addiction:
- childhood trauma, abuse or loss of a parent / loved one;
- low self-esteem and insecurity;
- presence of another mental illness such as depression or psychosis;
- presence of a personality disorder (anti-social personality disorder, conduct disorder and oppositional-defiant disorder in particular have been found to have high links to addiction);
- grief and loss;
- traumatic event / experience;
- seeking to avoid negative feelings and gain “positive” ones, regardless of consequence;
- dissatisfaction with life and wanting something to make you feel better;
- having low dopamine receptors, a chemical in the brain that helps control reward and pleasure centers and that helps to regulate emotional responses;
- deficient reward and motivation circuitry in the brain;
- sense of meaninglessness, emptiness, spiritual, emotional or psychological pain and distress;
- messages of escape from society / culture, emphasis on external “happiness”;
- attempt to escape one’s problems, stress, or pain;
- social isolation may cause use of a substance to obtain the feeling of social connection.
- Alberta Health Services: albertahealthservices.ca
- Tobacco Cessation: albertaquits.ca
- Alcohol Intake Screen: checkyourself.ca
- Understanding Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines (Video): youtube.com/watch?v=NbpdMFE-AIE&feature=player_embedded
- Interactive games to learn about substances: xperiment.ca
- Drug Identification Chart: rcmp-grc.gc.ca/drugs-drogues/poster-affiche/index-eng.htm
- Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse: ccsa.ca
- Information for Gambling: knowyourlimit.ca
- Information for Gambling: problemgambling.ca
- Mouse Party – interactive game to learn about substances: learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/mouse
- Mentor Foundation – Adolescent Brain Development and Drug Use: mentorfoundation.org/uploads/Adolescent_Brain_Booklet.pdf
- Parent Information Series: albertahealthservices.ca/amh/Page2434.aspx