Seven Signs of Addiction
This article reviews the signs of addiction and explores how those dealing with substance abuse are often the last to realise their use is spiralling.
Recently, the team at Hader Clinic Queensland received a first-hand account of addiction by a client we’ll call ‘Holly’.
“Being an addict and using, my world felt so alone and isolated. I didn’t think it would end up like this when I started smoking weed at 16. Eventually, I progressed onto other drugs and hit a crossroads with my ice use. I felt so worthless, so disgusting, of what I did from those years on ice. I don’t even know who that person was. I thought I was cool. I thought I was this criminal. I thought, this is my life now, I’m just a junkie”.
For someone without knowledge of addiction, this may seem shocking; but for people suffering from substance abuse disorders, it’s very relatable.
What is addiction?
When it comes to addiction to drugs and/or alcohol opinions on determining factors tend to vary. Genetics, predispositions, environments, circumstances…there are simply too many underlying causes for addiction to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.
Although alcohol addiction has been considered a disease since the 1920s, the idea that addiction is a choice is still prevalent today. While addiction treatment has come a long way in the past century, the stigma of addiction to drugs and/or alcohol still prevents many sufferers from seeking help – and keeps loved ones of addicts engaged in enabling behaviours to cover up the shame of having a family member with a substance abuse disorder.
It is time to radically shift our perspective when talking about addiction. Modern neuroscience has proven beyond a doubt that drugs and/or alcohol have the power to change the structure of our brains to re-wire regular users into compulsive and destructive behaviours. Unfortunately, as this is a slow process, it often goes unnoticed by the budding addicts themselves; which makes it all the more important to be aware of the warning signs of addiction.
#1 – Increased Tolerance
The myth of the ‘gateway drug’ still runs deep, but the truth is that the spectrum of addiction is far too broad to conform to this idea. Not every person who smokes a joint in high school is on the road to heroin addiction. Some people remain casual drinkers and/or drug users for a lifetime.
Instead of focusing our attention on the types of drugs used, we should rather pay attention to the tolerance to these substances. Once addiction is starting to take hold, the user’s tolerance for their substance(s) of choice increases, meaning they need to take more to get the desired effect.
Holly describes her spiral like this:
“At 17 I moved to the UK and lived there for a year. That’s when I started using coke and pills, then eventually ICE when I came back to Australia. It wasn’t long before I was in psychosis.”
Increased tolerance means the body is getting so used to drugs and/or alcohol that its functions are no longer influenced by low doses, which leads to increased and more frequent use. Eventually, users will need to keep up their intake in order to function on a basic level, without any of the ‘desirable’ effects.
#2 -Withdrawal Symptoms
The layman’s idea of withdrawal – as popularised in movies and TV – is that of an addict screaming, writhing in pain and hallucinating as they shiver in a padded cell. While this is unfortunately not inaccurate, it represents only the most extreme end of the scale.
In order to diagnose and treat addiction before it gets to this stage, it is important to understand the early signs of withdrawal.
Physical withdrawal symptoms in the early stages of addiction include:
- Lack of energy
- Inability to make it to work/school
- Loss of appetite
Psychological withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Mood swings
- A burst of unexplained rage
- Poor concentration
- Lack of interest in socialising and/or doing things for fun
Experiencing these symptoms can be debilitating, especially if the sufferer doesn’t connect them with their substance abuse.
“I reached a really ugly state in my mind where I didn’t give a shit about anyone except myself.”
#3 – Loss of Control
Nobody sets out to become an addict; yet many people end up struggling with their substance use. How is this possible?
Holly experienced this:
“I had been off the drugs when I went back home to see my family in Brisbane, but as soon as I was back in Sydney, I found drugs again. I would do everything external, but I just couldn’t put down the drugs.”
Put simply, the human body and mind are wired for pleasure and once a source of pleasure is discovered it can be close to impossible to exert the control needed to access it in moderation. Chocolate – a natural source of endorphins – is the perfect example. How many times have you opened a block of chocolate, 100% determined to only eat a square or two and found yourself fifteen minutes later with an empty wrapper and a vague sense of shame?
Overuse of drugs and/or alcohol works in the same way. The pleasure centre of the brain takes over and without assistance, the effort of resisting is simply unmanageable. Addicts frequently have what is termed “moments of clarity”, when they become very aware of the need to stop their destructive behaviours; but stopping is not a matter of willpower. It is a matter of getting help.
#4 – ‘Bad Luck’
Addiction affects every aspect of the sufferers’ lives – as well as the lives of their loved ones. Loss of employment, loss of accommodation, constant money troubles, conflict with the law; addiction leaves no stone unturned. To a person in the throes of substance abuse disorder, this often feels like ‘bad luck’ or some kind of cosmic injustice. However, unfortunately, these horrible experiences are part and parcel of substance abuse.
As Holly puts it:
“I started working in this restaurant in the Valley to make an “honest” living. But inevitably, I’d end up smoking weed, or doing drinks after work. I ended up getting involved in crime. I got charged with possession and stuff and got raided by the police I was charged with category R weaponry possession charges. My parents got raided too and had to move house. They wouldn’t tell me where they lived; they said they were done with me. I had been living on the streets for a couple of weeks, homeless, and I was completely lost. I thought, I don’t deserve to live anywhere, I don’t deserve to have anything.”
Once compulsive use of drugs and/or alcohol has taken hold, addicts may go into ‘survival mode’ and get to a stage when their days revolve around concealing their use, obtaining funds to use and scoring their substance of choice; leaving no energy or mental capacities to address the underlying problem.
#5 – Self-Imposed Isolation
Persons suffering from substance abuse disorders often break off contact with family and loved ones; partly because of the shame attached to their self-destructive behaviours and partly because they are simply too busy feeding their addiction and making it through the day.
Family gatherings, no matter how important and no matter how much they used to enjoy them, are a huge source of stress for addicts. While they may promise to make and effort and be there, substance abuse has a way of preventing sufferers from following through; sending them into spirals of self-loathing and increased consumption.
Holly describes her rock bottom like this:
“I would spend my paycheck on drugs and an outfit I’d wear for a whole week. I would be living pretty disgustingly in a hostel or hotel hopping”.
#6 – Becoming unreliable
“I found it really hard to hold down a job, and it didn’t help when I did use that I’d turn my phone off and just disappear.”Holding down a job, meeting parenting commitments or simply maintaining a relationship can be close to impossible for many addicts. Substance abuse disorders overshadow everything, no matter how much the sufferer cares deep down inside, and addicts often become less reliable as time goes on.”
In the worst-case scenario this can lead to unemployment, homelessness, losing custody of children and becoming cut off from family and friends; all of which is bound to exacerbate depression, anxiety and stress, ultimately leading to increased use of drugs and/or alcohol unless the addict seeks help.
#7 – Wanting to Stop
We keep repeating it: Nobody wants to be an addict. In fact, most people struggling with substance abuse disorder report a deep desire to stop and an inability to do so.
Holly experienced this during her recovery journey:
“I put myself into this detox program. It went pretty badly. I was doing HeadSpace at the time, and I would go to these drug and alcohol appointments. But I would turn up high. I was just so anxious, and I couldn’t stop using.”
This, unfortunately, is when the harmful myth about ‘willpower’ comes into its own. Addicts are led to believe that they should be able to stop their destructive behaviours unassisted or with minimal support and experience tremendous mental setbacks when they find this impossible. Struggling to control drug and/or alcohol use is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of addiction.
Substance abuse disorders are complex and often come with a number of mental health issues that need to be addressed – properly and by professionals – in order to give addicts the best chance of long-term recovery. Understanding the inner workings of addiction is essential when it comes to quitting destructive behaviours, but professional help is essential for long-term success.
If you recognise yourself in the behaviours described above, don’t feel ashamed. You are not alone and help is available. With the right support, you can reclaim your life, your relationships and your future.
Holly did it.
“The three months I spent in rehab helped me overcome my fear of being around others; it helped me become social again. I’m with people who understand, including the support workers, who are previous addicts. The whole connection thing and being in a safe environment with other people who relate to you, being stable, and focusing purely on your recovery is really cool”.
Names and photographs of this client have been changed to protect their privacy.
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