Substance Abuse vs Addiction: Understanding the Differences
Substance abuse and substance addiction are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. The truth is that people who are addicted to substances and people who abuse substances are quite different. While both actions can have consequences in an individual’s life, understanding the difference between substance abuse vs addiction will arm you with the knowledge to help you take positive action. While it’s true that people who abuse drugs or alcohol might still have a fair amount of control over their lives, this isn’t an excuse to continue this behavior. Conversely, for people who are suffering from addiction must realize that they have a disease that will affect many aspects of their life. People with addiction often mistake their addiction for a milder substance abuse problem and might go so far as to fool themselves into thinking they have it under control. In reality, their life is starting to fall apart.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Abuse of drugs or alcohol differs from an addiction in that it does not cause major disruption in a person’s life. A good example is drinker who has a few cocktails after work and suffers little more than a hangover a few times a week. This doesn’t mean binge drinking or substance abuse is without consequences. Besides some potential legal problems (DUI, or for drug users, potential possession charges) drug and alcohol abuse causes damage to the body. The more they binge or party, the more risks they face. For drug users, risks of infectious diseases, overdose, organ damage, and other life threatening issues are very real possibilities. The stories our parents told us about “gateway” substances have been substantiated by scientific research. A person who casually uses marijuana is much more at risk of dabbling with harder drugs than a person who does not use any substances.
The use of mind-altering substances to cope with life’s stresses does nothing to help one develop utilizing healthier ways of managing stress. Without treatment, substance abuse can turn into addiction very rapidly. By this time, the user will have difficulty recognizing the difference.
Fortunately, a fair number of individuals with a substance abuse problem tend to learn from negative consequences and change their behavior before it turns into full-blown addiction. Friends and loved ones have a clear morale obligation to talk to a person if they sense a problem with moderation or a propensity to abuse substances. This discussion is never easy, but it can sometimes be approached by a simple, honest conversation about their behavior. Friends and loved ones first need to understand the differences between substance abuse vs addiction. When it’s clear that there are consequences to your friend’s use of alcohol or substances, it’s time to intervene. If you take the time to share your observations and lay out the consequences of their actions, they might be inspired to change their behavior. Denial of a problem is a danger sign – it can mean that they’re leaning on substances to deal with stresses and they see no other alternative. If they’re in denial at this point, they might need to suffer some sort of “wake up call.”
A stockbroker goes to his stressful job every day. After work, he goes out drinking with friends to help him unwind and to forget about the challenges he faces daily. One day on his way home, he gets stopped by the police and arrested for a DUI. His conviction not only results in a suspended license, but also means a hefty fine, dozens of hours of community service, and requires him to attend a substance abuse program. These consequences make him reexamine his alcohol use. He decides to stop drinking after work so that he no longer risks getting a DUI. Instead, he takes up exercise and other hobbies to help release the tension of his stressful job.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction
The main difference between drug and substance abuse vs addiction is that addiction takes over virtually all aspects of a person’s life. They’re spending the majority of their time either using substances or counting the hours until they can use again. They tailor their schedules to allow time to indulge in substance abuse and this often leads to poor decisions that only worsen their situation.
At this point, they’ve ignored all of the potential risks of addiction and continued abuse can endanger their families and their livelihood. The warning signs become more obvious, as they often miss work or school, find themselves in legal trouble, they become distant or confrontational with their families, and they start having financial problems. Meanwhile, they cover their addiction with outrageous stories and excuses.
When addiction sets in, even severe consequences might not inspire them to seek treatment. They’re willing to put getting high above all else, even at their own peril. Before long, they’re jobless, homeless, and have little or no communication with their family. Tragically, many will eventually die from their substance use.
To an observer, it may be impossible to fathom this pattern of self-destructive behavior. It’s important to understand that people suffering from chemical dependency have a disease that that prevents the addict from seeking help. No amount of will-power will remedy the situation. Their cravings trump all love from the family and pleas from friends. By this time, their life is in ruin. They may be facing extended jail time, a felony record, a broken marriage and a loss of all friends and support. They sometimes continue to deny the seriousness of their illness and make false promises to take corrective action. The only real option at this point is to seek treatment. Rehab is the first step, as the addict will need to go through a medically-supervised detox process. Once clean, rehab facilities will start treating the underlying causes of addiction. People in this stage of recovery will be introduced to the 12-step program, group therapy, individual therapy and family counseling. A stay at a rehab facility typically runs 1 to 3 months but after discharge, there’s much more to do. Rehab only gets a person through detox and provides an introduction to continuing treatment. 3 months of rehab is almost never sufficient to break a cycle of addiction that has lasted for years, even decades. The best chances of success come from continuing treatment at an outpatient or sober living home. These residential facilities provide continuing therapy, treatment and offer life skills training that will help patients learn new job skills or finish their education. These skills are especially helpful for those who have been so wrapped up in their addiction that they’re unprepared to enter the workplace with any of the skills necessary to live independently. Helping your friend or loved one realize that they need treatment can be challenging. In some cases, an addict needs to suffer extremely dire consequences before he’ll admit that he needs help. This sometimes means being faced with homelessness or jail is the only thing that works. This is why family counseling shows how enabling the addict by providing a place to stay or assisting with legal troubles is the worst thing you can do – you’re just providing a safety net, a privilege that will be abused repeatedly by an addict who is incapable of managing the disease of addiction.
A stockbroker with a stressful job goes to the bar every day after work. He loves unwinding with friends and getting drunk helps him forget about the rigors of his daily grind. One day on his way home, he gets pulled over by a police officer, and is arrested for a DUI. His conviction not only means a suspended license, but he’s now required to pay a hefty fine, perform dozens of hours of community service, and attend a substance abuse program. Instead of understanding these as consequences of his alcohol problem, he blames the police for not having anything better to do than pull her over. He ignores the order to attend the substance abuse program, believing he is in total control of her alcohol consumption. He continues to go drinking every day, and often leaves work early to do so. When his boss confronts him about this, he simply shrugs it off and begins to bring alcohol to her workplace instead of leaving early. Eventually, his boss fires him because of poor performance. Even without a job, the man goes out drinking at night with his friends. His finances start to dwindle since he is jobless, and he starts couch-surfing with various drinking buddies. The friend asks how the job search is going, and the man makes excuses – nobody is hiring, the pay is too low, or he simply feels that the job is beneath him. Meanwhile, the man notices he often has stomach pains and goes to his doctor who diagnoses it as gastritis, an inflamed stomach. He asks how often he drinks, and he replies usually one drink a day even though it’s actually three or four times that. He tells him to stop drinking until hisstomach feels better, likely for a month. He does well for a few days, but can’t resist having one drink when he’s out with his friends. That one drink turns into two, then three, then four. He tries several times to stop drinking, but can’t seem to not go a day without at least one drink. The friend notices him struggling with alcohol, and calls the man’s family. They conduct an intervention, and lay out the real consequences of the man’s alcohol addiction and not attending treatment.These includes losing the support of his friends and family. The man had recently begun to realize that he was not in control over his alcohol consumption, but the intervention allowed him to admit the truth to himself and his family in a safe and supportive environment. He willingly enrolled into a treatment program, and there he healed his body, mind, and spirit and learned how to better cope with life’s stresses.
Knowing the difference between substance abuse vs addiction will help you to recognize when to seek treatment. There’s a fine line between the occasional binge episode and addiction and almost anyone can cross that line before they even realize it. When the cravings start to become recognizable, that’s a strong warning sign that you’re teetering on the edge of addiction. Don’t wait until you suffer consequences with the law, your family, or your job. It’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive. If you need help, we’re a phone call away.