When considering the devastating consequences of addiction, it’s doubtful that someone will want to willingly become addicted. Still, people start using drugs and alcohol for self-medication, coping mechanisms, or recreational use. However, at one point, their drug use becomes a habit. So, it’s common to hear people asking themselves: “am I a drug addict if I only use once a month?” It might seem a harmless question, but the answer can be complicated. Let’s talk about how to recognize when drug use becomes an addiction.
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Drug addiction is a highly complex disease of the brain. People with drug addiction often experience compulsive behavior, uncontrollable cravings, and many mental and physical effects attributed to drug use. Typically, most people start using drugs for experimentation and recreational purposes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a chronic condition with the following characteristics:
- Compulsive drug-seeking behavior
- Continued use despite consequences
- Long-lasting changes in the brain
At the core of addiction is the behavioral aspect of it. Drug addiction is both a mental illness and brain disorder that drastically changes an individual’s behavior. The expression of these behaviors is what most people start seeing when their loved one struggles with addiction. Most of these include:
- Excessive frequency of drug use despite attempts to keep it under control
- Increased time using or recovering from drug effects
- Continued use despite problems
- Extreme focus on the rewards linked to their drug use
- Inability to take steps to address the problems
How Addiction Starts
Whether people start their drug use due to social pressure, experimentation, or even a prescription, addiction isn’t something they control. Research shows that long-term drug use (excessive or not) can cause chemical changes in the brain that alter the brain’s reward system. When this happens, the state of addiction continues despite adverse consequences or the fact that the drug use is no longer rewarding. This is known as the “pathological pursuit of rewards,” and it’s the core of addiction.
Even when you only use drugs once a month, for example, your brain and body continue to recreate that first feeling of euphoria that the initial use produced. However, because the reward system has already been altered, achieving that same effect is nearly impossible.
It’s important to note that addiction has a genetic component. Some people are genetically more susceptible to becoming addicted to drugs than others. So far, researchers believe that the heritability of dependence is between 40-60 percent due to genetics. When environmental risk, abuse, and other factors come into play, some people are more likely to become addicted.
Notice that when referring to addiction, this includes more than drugs and alcohol. Behavioral addictions such as sopping, gambling, and sex addiction work very similarly to how substance abuse works.
One of the most significant factors in developing an addiction is what happens with the brain. Most drugs cause a surge in dopamine that alters the brain’s reward system. Over time, this neurochemical chance permanently changes the brain’s reward circuit and makes it impossible to achieve the same level of euphoria or relief it once did under the influence of drugs.
Even with occasional users, since they don’t get as high as they did the first time, it’s common for many to increase their dose. Most of the time, the body starts to develop a tolerance, making people use more and more to achieve similar effects. Before they know it, it becomes uncontrollable, and they’re struggling with a full-blown addiction.
The biggest problem with regular drug use is that while people develop a tolerance to the drug’s effects, they don’t create a tolerance for the withdrawal effects after. Rather than coming back to normal, they often experience a deeper state of dysphoria.
When people become addicted, their highs remain low unless they start mixing substances or ramping up the drug they use. However, this also causes lower lows.
Addiction as a Chronic Disease
After some time, the pursuit of rewards becomes pathological, and people find themselves without control over their choices. At this point, addiction stops being solely a function of occasional choice. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), this happens when:
- The reward-seeking behavior becomes compulsive
- The behavior ceases to be pleasurable
- The behavior no longer provides relief
Still, the truth is, addiction can quickly become a chronic illness. Other chronic diseases include diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, all of which can have relapses. Sometimes even after long periods of abstinence or recovery, people can experience a relapse. It’s the notion that addiction is no longer a choice but feels more like an automatic habit or an impulse that the user cannot control.
How to Know If I Need Help?
Not all the signs of addiction are noticeable, especially among high-functioning addicts. Even if someone only uses drugs once a month, they could be struggling with drug addiction. Changes in appearance, behaviors, problems with relationships, and loss of interest in things you used to enjoy are common addiction patterns. However, there are many more. Use the quiz below to help you get a better understanding.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, please seek help immediately. Comprehensive addiction treatment is the best way to find long-term recovery. Additionally, for chronic abusers, seeking medical attention for detox is paramount to control and manage life-threatening withdrawal symptoms that could arise. There’s no such thing as an occasional drug user, don’t let these substances take away the best of your life — your choice.