Imagine two individuals. Both take drugs and have tried to quit — only to go back to using when the withdrawal symptoms grow too intense. One is addicted, and one is not. Do you know why? The answer comes down to physical dependence vs drug addiction.
Understanding Physical Dependency
Your body is capable of relieving normal aches and pains with natural painkilling chemicals made in the brain. When you suffer an injury, you might take a drug such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which boost the body’s ability to kill pain. If you suffer a catastrophic injury such as a broken leg, or you are recovering from surgery, you might take a narcotic painkiller. Narcotic painkillers are extremely powerful substances that force the brain to release a large reserve of natural painkilling chemicals.
For someone who is truly suffering from pain, these drugs offer immediate relief. In large amounts, or when abused, these drugs can cause an intense high — and potentially an overdose. Although painkillers are among the most addictive drugs in the world, there are several kinds of physically addictive prescription drugs.
The problem is that the more you take an addictive prescription drug, the more your brain learns to rely on the drug to manage everyday painkilling functions. Many who take painkillers, for example, might find themselves having to ask for stronger medicine, because the original dose no longer works. This happens because the brain becomes tolerant to the effects of the drug. The result is a dangerous cycle of growing dependency and upping the dose to relieve pain. Quitting the drug suddenly shocks the brain and results in extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Relieving these symptoms, the user believes, is only possible through taking more drugs.
Although a physically dependent user and an addict might feel the same physical withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, the emotional stories are quite different. A person who is physically dependent on opiates, for example, might require a doctor’s supervision or professionally supervised withdrawal when quitting — but recognizes the problem, is desperate for help and cannot wait to live a sober lifestyle. You can identify a problem as physical dependency and not addiction when the client:
- Takes drugs exactly as instructed.
- Takes drugs because the original symptoms are still present — not to get high.
- Does not combine drugs with alcohol or any other substance.
- Does not feel original pain symptoms but continues to take the drugs exactly as prescribed due to withdrawal fears.
- Is under the watchful care of a qualified, competent physician.
When abused, all drugs and alcohol cause changes in the brain that relate to emotions, memory, decision-making skills and the ability to learn. Some ways you can identify an addicted individual include:
- Denial — Even in the most serious cases, many addicts refuse to believe using is causing problems.
- Lying and hiding abuse — If lying about or hiding certain behaviors is common, addiction could be a problem.
- Doctor shopping — Keeping drugs around “just in case” or getting multiple prescriptions filled is a big sign that addiction is a problem.
- Using substances together or taking too much — Combining drugs with alcohol or taking more than the recommended dose is a red flag.
- Avoiding loved ones and favorite activities — A person who spends increasingly more time getting high has a growing problem.
- A pre-existing mental health disorder — Depression and anxiety commonly occur alongside addiction, especially if the user has never been diagnosed or treated for a mental health problem.
- Switching to a stronger drug, such as heroin — When the original drug no longer works or becomes too expensive, using a dangerous street drug, such as heroin, seems like a reasonable choice.