Experimenting with drugs. Am I an addict?

Experimenting with drugs. Am I an addict?
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If the title of this blog caught your attention, you may be someone who uses drugs.  You may also be a parent of a teenager who wonders if your son/daughter is using drugs, or you may be the partner of someone who uses drugs. If you have asked this question to yourself, then you may be curious to understand more about such drug use, or perhaps be even worried that such behaviour may lead to some undesired consequences.

The use of drugs typically goes through stages, and although drug addiction starts with experimentation, not everyone who experiments with drugs becomes addicted.  So, what are these stages and what makes a person become an addict and another one not?

The first stage is initiation.  This is when a person, typically a teenager, first uses a drug.  Most of the time this is done out of curiosity and because others are doing it. There are some who are satisfied with this one-time use, while others move on to the experimentation stage. At this point, drugs are used in specific situations, for example at parties.  Experimenting with drugs is usually done in the company of others and associated with fun.  If you are merely experimenting with drugs, you should not be experiencing any drug cravings and you have control over your use.  This means that you can choose when to take drugs and you can stop any time you want to.  Drug experimentation may still involve large amounts of drugs, like when you go on a binge, however, your use is not regular.

Some people stop here.  Others move on to regular use, where although you may still not use every day, you have developed a pattern, e.g., every weekend.  You may still be using with friends, but you may have also started to use on your own.  If you have experienced negative consequences of your drug use, such as, caught drug-driving,  performing poorly at school, or fighting with your partner, you are in the problem use stage.

The addiction stage, or substance use disorder, occurs when you have developed both a physical and psychological dependence on the drug. This means that you cannot face life without the drugs, you have built a tolerance to it, your life is organised around your use of drugs and you have no control over it.  You normally realise that you are having such problems, and although you may have tried to stop, you know that you cannot.

Although people’s first choice to use drugs is voluntary, continued use can impair our ability to exert self-control. Numerous studies of brain imaging of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain which help us with decision-making, judgement and behaviour control.

So, what makes a person become addicted to drugs and others not? Research tells us that there are factors which influence this. For instance, individuals who have strong parental support and monitoring, are surrounded by positive relationships and are actively involved in different activities, tend to exert more self-control and stop themselves before becoming addicted than those whose social and familial environment is lacking.

Therefore, never take a decision to experiment with drugs lightly.  Although you may feel that your drug use is under control, remember that what you are experimenting with can have serious, negative consequences.  If you are doubtful about your drug use, or you may have started to worry about it, do not hesitate to reach out to people who can offer you the support you deserve.

Reference:

National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA, 2018) Drugs, Brains and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction

Stephanie Caruana is a counsellor at Willingness. She offers counselling services to adolescents and adults experiencing some form of distress. She can be contacted on stephanie@willingness.com.mt or call us on 79291817.

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