Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

When Drug Abuse Becomes Addiction

Adolescence is known as a time of risk-taking and experimentation, and many of these youthful experimentations involve drugs. A lot of teens will try drugs once or twice without ever getting hooked. Some will go on to abuse drugs for a limited period of time, while others will become chemically dependent or addicted. How can you tell when drug abuse has turned into addiction? Understanding the difference between the two conditions is a good place to start.

Substance Abuse vs. Addiction

The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University states that substance abuse may be one of the most commonly overlooked health problems among adolescents. Substance abuse often goes undiagnosed until a teenager is hurt in a car accident, attempts suicide or is arrested while intoxicated. A teenager who abuses drugs or alcohol displays the following behaviors:

  • Uses drugs or alcohol in an illegal, destructive manner
  • Has problems with school, family or work as a result of drug use
  • Uses alcohol or drugs in high-risk situations, such as driving
  • Continues to use drugs in spite of the adverse consequences

Teens who abuse drugs retain a certain amount of control over their use. They may be able to limit their drinking or drug use to parties or weekends, and they can usually quit on their own without experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Some teenagers don’t engage in substance abuse for months at a time, which may lead them to believe that they have complete control (parents may hear statements like “I can quit anytime I want!”); however, it doesn’t take long for substance abuse to evolve into chemical dependence and addiction.

Most addiction experts agree that substance abuse becomes addiction when the user is no longer able to stop on their own. Addicts no longer have complete control over their drug use; they seek and use drugs compulsively in spite of the legal, financial or personal consequences. Addiction is often accompanied by chemical dependence, a state in which your body and brain rely on certain substances to sustain normal activity.

How Is Addiction Defined?

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence identifies these key characteristics of addiction:

  • Tolerance. As the body gets used to the constant presence of a drug in the system, addicts need larger doses to satisfy their need for the chemical.
  • Withdrawal. Stopping the drug or cutting back on the dose produces unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, paranoia or restlessness. In severe cases, withdrawal may cause seizures, hypertension, fever and delusions.
  • Continuing to use in spite of the damage. Most addicts know that their behavior is destructive; however, even if they’re surrounded by the evidence that they need to quit, they will continue to use.
  • Repeated failures at quitting. No matter how much an addict wants to stop drinking or using, he will almost surely fail if he tries to quit alone. Relapse is one of the primary signs of addiction; it is not a moral weakness or a failure of character.
  • Failure to control drug use. When an addict or alcoholic picks up a drug or a drink, he can never tell how much he will use or how long he’ll continue using. He may have every intention of having “just one drink” or “just one hit,” but once his need for the drug takes over, he won’t be able to stop.
  • Feelings of guilt, remorse or shame. Addicts don’t feel good about using drugs. They’re often overwhelmed by self-loathing and guilt whenever they use, but they still can’t stop.

Addiction is defined by its compulsive, repetitive nature. This disease is cyclical in that continued use of the drug creates a greater need, which leads to an ongoing pattern of destructive drinking or drugging.

What Can a Family Do?

Many families feel helpless as they watch a teenager succumb to drug abuse and addiction. They might recognize the turning point when abuse turns into addiction yet feel unable to intervene. Some parents worry that they’ll only make things worse if they try to stop their son from abusing drugs and alcohol. Others go into a state of denial, hoping that things will get better once this “phase” passes.

Parents and other family members must realize that addiction isn’t just a phase; it’s a disease that can strike youths as well as adults. If you feel overwhelmed by thoughts of the future, contact Muir Wood for advice and information. Our unique treatment programs for teens help boys between the ages of 12 and 17 prepare to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Call us to find out how our rehabilitation plans could help you and your son restore health and balance to your lives.