Explaining what it feels like to be addicted to drugs is not easy — it encompasses more than just what the high feels like. Addiction changes brain chemistry. It affects one’s choices and relationships. It can change a person on every level.
While addiction from a scientific perspective may look the same for everyone, it has personal emotional root causes as well. These root causes, along with frequency and amount of use, affect how it feels to be high for each person.
Although it may be difficult, we will do our best here to quantify what it feels like to be addicted to drugs, not just from a scientific perspective, but also from an emotional and familial perspective. The addiction experience is a very personal one, but there are aspects of it that can be quantified from substance to substance. Understanding what it feels like to be high, as well as how drugs can change the brain, is especially helpful for loved ones who struggle to understand addiction.
What It Feels Like to Be High
An anonymous Reddit user, during a discussion of what drug addiction feels like, posted a moving description of what it feels like to be high. “People call it getting high,” the user says, “but I think that’s one of the most misleading words associated with drugs. I always think of drugs as like going and sitting in this room where everything is alright, the rooms are different, but they all serve the same purpose.” During the high, this individual explains how everything in the room is wonderful, but over time everything outside of the room starts to look very bleak. Eventually the only way to achieve the feeling in the room is to get high.
This analogy may provide a more overall view of what it feels like to be high, but each drug type has its own unique feelings. You can trace the different types of highs that come from drugs back to the source in the brain. For most drugs that source is dopamine, although some drugs, such as crystal meth, also affect our brain’s cortisol levels.
To properly explain what it feels like to be high, we have to examine how drugs affect the brain. Since our brains are governed by chemistry, the high we feel represents an actual change in our brain’s chemistry — which has a direct and lasting effect on the limbic system, where dopamine is regulated.
Drugs cause an artificial increase in the dopamine levels of our brain. This induces the pleasure center, resulting in the “high.” Over prolonged use, however, the brain’s ability to properly regulate dopamine on its own can be negatively affected, resulting in lower levels when not under the influence of the drug.
So how do particular substances affect the mind and body? What does it feel like to be high on them, both before and after?
What It feels Like to Be High on Methamphetamines
Crystal meth is the most common form of amphetamine, but this category also includes dangerous legal drugs called bath salts and other artificial stimulants as well. Meth is a white crystalline drug that can be snorted, smoked or injected with a needle. The effects of the drug can be felt almost instantly.
Depending on the purity of the drug, a meth high can last anywhere from four to 16 hours. The initial stage of a meth high includes a rush that is best described as a heightened sense of awareness. What this rush actually represents is a rapid increase in heart rate and metabolism along with a soaring blood pressure. The high can also be accompanied by an increase in aggressiveness and an intense focus on minor things. Meth highs take the phrase “my mind is racing” to an entirely new level.
Because meth affects the body’s cortisol levels, a meth high will often be accompanied by a rapid decrease in appetite and very little desire for sleep. Although it may feel as if awareness is heightened, to an outsider it may look like there is an impairment of focus and social interaction. This state is often described as “the jitters.” These jitters can cause a decreased sense of trust and empathy.
Each time methamphetamines are ingested, there is another initial rush and a burst of mental and physical hyperactivity. This rush lessens each time the substance is ingested until the body begins to be unable to cope with the drug’s effects, leading to the crash.
Since methamphetamine use is accompanied by decreased food intake and lack of sleep — which can potentially last for days — at some point a form of delirium and default exhaustion will set in. This symptom of the body’s inability to continue functioning normally can include:
- Increased Paranoia
These symptoms will inevitably result in a prolonged period of sleep that could last for days depending on how long the high was. Prolonged use of crystal meth and similar drugs will produce extreme weight loss, insomnia, tooth rot, and many other undesirable physical and emotional side effects.
What It Feels Like to Be High on Heroin
When compared to the high on crystal meth, the high on heroin is considered to be at the far other end of the spectrum. Heroin is made from the resin of poppy plants, which is a milky white substance cultivated from the pod of a poppy flower. It is usually injected, but users can also snort or smoke it. In what may be the only similarity with crystal meth, the high comes on almost instantly.
A heroin high can be accompanied by a false sense of well-being and extroversion. Users often feel like they can relate better to people, making it easier to speak to others. Some heroin highs can also cause a sense of floating or being detached from our bodies, followed by fatigue. From the outside it may look as if the eyes are half-lidded or the user is half-asleep.
A heroin high can also come with an increased sexual desire, though this may be short-lived. Generally on heroin it is difficult to maintain sexual performance.
One heroin user explains the high this way: “It will cling to you like an obsessed lover. The rush of the hit and the way you’ll want more, as if you were being deprived of air — that’s how it will trap you.” Certainly nothing in this world is as important as air, so the fact that this drug can create a compulsion akin to breathing is troubling. With that kind of description, it is easy to see how heroin addiction can settle in after prolonged use.
Unlike other drugs in which prolonged short-term use produces very visible and immediate effects, the implications of heroin use build up over time. There are, however, common side effects and withdrawal symptoms that can be seen in the short term, only becoming more pronounced with continued use:
- Loss of appetite
- Wild fluctuation in body temperature
- Wild fluctuation in mood
- Runny nose
- Achy bones and muscles
- General malaise
Over time heroin can cause the skin to start looking pale and waxy with dark circles appearing under the eyes. This is accompanied by an extreme loss of weight, resulting in an unhealthy appearance. And just as with methamphetamines, prolonged heroin use causes the nervous system to adapt and become dulled, leading to increased use and a heightened danger of overdose.
What It Feels Like to Be High on Hallucinogenic Drugs
Drugs such as LSD, “shrooms,” PCP and — to some extent — ecstasy are considered hallucinogenic drugs. These substances produce an extremely potent, mind-altering high that can result in intense visual and auditory hallucinations. Depending on the drug, there are different ways of ingesting. How quickly the high is achieved depends in large part on the method of ingestion.
For these types of drugs, the effects can be very long lasting, up to 12 hours or more in some cases depending on the potency of the drug. Generally a hallucinogenic high will result in images, sounds and feelings that do not really exist. Intense mood swings can also be a side effect of these substances, as the high can often be overwhelming.
It is difficult to mentally prepare for what a hallucinogenic high entails, and it is hard to cope with such intense changes to our surroundings. If the mood or attitude is negative or fearful prior to the onset of the high, this can directly affect how powerful the sense of fear and helplessness can be. When one enters this state of despair while on hallucinogens, it is called a “bad trip.” This is a misnomer, however, because all trips are bad and potentially dangerous. Signs of a bad trip include:
- Intense fear
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Negative or frightening hallucinations
Physical signs of the high can include dilated pupils, listlessness and nausea.
The day-after symptoms of hallucinogens — and potential long-term effects — can also be very extreme. The come-downs on these drugs are often accompanied by:
- A sense of emptiness
- Unwelcome flashbacks
Hallucinogenic drugs are very potent and in some cases can even result in dangerous behavior. There are more than a few documented cases of acid and PCP trips that resulted in near-fatal leaps out of windows and self-inflicted harm. It is very difficult to mentally prepare for the intensity of the high, making it difficult to predict the after-effects — which can sometimes be fatal.
Different Pieces to the Same Puzzle
There are, of course, many more different types of drugs than just crystal meth, heroin and hallucinogens, but they all generally exist within specific categories of drugs that have similar effects. Cocaine, as with crystal meth, elevates heart rate and blood pressure and creates a false sense of heightened awareness and extroversion. Prescription pain killers produce a high that is similar to heroin. All of these drugs fall into two categories:
The differentiating factors between uppers and downers can be seen in their direct effects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter whether it is an upper or downer that is causing the addiction — both affect the brain’s ability to properly regulate the chemicals it uses to communicate with itself and the body. Over time, this breakdown moves the brain from the realm of the high into the realm of the addiction.
The unpleasant side effects of all these drugs are relatively the same. Because most drugs affect the dopamine levels in the brain, having down feelings, such as anxiety or depression, is pretty standard across the board whether it is an upper or a downer.
From “A High” to Addiction
Trying a drug recreationally once or twice typically does not automatically make someone a drug addict. Over time, repeat use causes chemical changes to the brain that then result in the onset of addiction. What it feels like to be high is very different from what it feels like to be addicted. According a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, an addiction can be broken up into three main components:
- The presence of a drive, impulse or urge to engage in the behavior
- Denial of the harmful consequences of engaging in the behavior
- Repeated failure in attempts to control or modify the behavior
Drug addiction follows this pattern, and it generally does not feel good — for either the user or loved ones. The cycle of chasing the high and then battling withdrawal is a vicious circle that causes emotional and physical harm. No matter the substance, emotional impacts of addiction include:
- Decreased social skills
- Friction between friends and family
- An inability to emotionally cope with life
These emotional side effects of getting high affect both users and family members. Often the closest family members need as much assistance dealing with a loved one’s addiction as does the user. The emotional and familial damage that comes from addiction changes lives in ways that cannot be readily predicted.
The emotional aspect of addiction is extremely relevant to understanding the addiction itself. Typically there are underlying causes that led to the addiction — an emotional event that causes someone to start relying on drugs for emotional relief. As the addiction progresses and the ability to regulate dopamine levels decreases, it becomes even harder to cope with not just the addiction itself, but to isolate the root cause of the addiction in the first place.
From Addiction to Recovery
What it feels like to be addicted varies from person to person and family to family. The addiction experience is a personal one that carries with it not just physical signs and symptoms, but emotional and mental ones as well. There are a few main aspects of moving from addiction to recovery, all covered in the 12 Keys Model we ascribe to:
- Admission of the addiction
- The 12-Step Program
- Aftercare & Support
There are specific timeframes and steps involved with the 12 Keys model of addiction recovery beyond those just listed above, but the main component of the program involves focusing on digging down to the root causes of addiction — whether they are physical, emotional, environmental or anything else.
Each person is different, and each road to recovery is different as well. Recovering from addiction requires time and patience along with hard work on all aspects of life. The changes to the brain brought on by the disease of addiction are not permanent and can be reverted back to a healthier and naturally happier state with proper care and focus.
It is possible for the sinking feeling of addiction to be transformed into a hopeful feeling of recovery. Recovering from addiction requires not just a healing of the body, but also of the mind and spirit. Those struggling with addiction are not broken people. It is possible to reach your fullest potential, even from the depths of what may seem like a hopeless addiction to drugs.
When you get help for your addiction, recovery can feel absolutely glorious. With the brain back to normal and able to regulate its chemical levels properly, you can feel:
- A true sense of contentment
- The ability to relate to others
- Better relationships with friends and family
- Increased physical and emotional health and stability
If you are struggling with addiction, you are not alone. We are here to help you through drug addiction in an environment that will nourish the real you. Contact a 12 Keys counselor today to begin your recovery process.