There are millions of people who start drinking alcohol socially or take drugs only once in a while. Then, subtly or sometimes suddenly, drug use becomes an addiction. The user cannot step away, becomes dependent, and drugs become problematic. Use becomes abuse and a full-on addiction, leaving loved ones and sometimes the addict wondering, “how exactly did that happen?”
What is drug addiction?
It can be challenging for non-users to understand how or even why some people become addicted to drugs. There’s a misconception that people who are substance abusers simply lack willpower or morals. It is incorrect to assume people who are addicted can just quit if they just choose the right path.
Addiction is “a brain thing.” When a person does something that he or she likes, the human brain is wired in a way that makes us want to repeat that enjoyment. Think about the kids that ride roller coasters over and over again for the thrill. People who go to scary movies all the time seek the same excitement they had when they were first shocked or frightened while watching such a film.
This is also true for drug users. Drugs can make people feel good, and they excite the parts of the brain that trigger good feelings. But just like the 50th ride on a roller coaster may become, or the scary movie becomes predictable, people’s brains become accustomed to a drug after a while.
Those seeking the excitement and great feelings they had once before will now require more of that drug to try and get the same effect. After some time, the brain chemistry changes, and it will start to register to have this drug as a regular thing. If a user stops, it will make him, or her feel horrible without the drug and physically ill.
The transition to addiction
There is no single magic key to pinpointing what changes drug use to addiction. Because everyone’s body and biological make-up are different, it’s hard to state with any certainty about how much is too much and what might put someone over the edge into abuse.
Development and environmental factors also come into play. What a person learned while growing up and where he or she grows up is influential. Family, friends, peers, and economic status or overall quality of life are also part of the mix.
Plus, there are so many types of drugs out there, and some are much more addictive than others. Taking a few aspirins may not cause addiction, but a few injections of heroin likely will.
Tolerance, however, is one key to recognizing addiction. When an individual begins increasing a dose or taking more frequent doses, it is a sign of being chemically dependent. Drug use becomes an addiction when the user loses control over their substance use and begins drug-seeking behaviors. It becomes impossible to resist use, and he or she will be compulsively looking for ways to get what they need.