What Would Life Be Like for You if You Were An Addict?
Drug addiction is something that touches the lives of many of us. There’s probably someone you know or someone you’re close to who has had a brush with substance abuse at some point in their life. Whether in response to a moment of tragedy or because they got in with the wrong crowd, substance use disorders affects millions of Americans every year. So what is life as an addict actually like?
But have you ever sat down and imagined what life as an addict is actually like? The pleasure, the pain, and the constant drive to get more of the drug, whatever the cost — it’s an interesting thought experiment for those of us who’ve never been on the inside of an experience like that, but it can be instructive. Life as an alcohol or drug addict in recovery is often very different from how we might imagine or instantly judge.
Withdrawal From Addiction
The cycle of addiction is a more nuanced process than many people think. When it comes to dependency, there’s a focus on the psychotropic qualities of the substances themselves. Doctors and medical experts will often talk about the THC in cannabis, the nicotine in tobacco, and the cocaine hydrochloride in coca plant extract, implying that these chemical harbingers provoke addiction and that there’s little that people can do to avoid getting hooked if they ingest them.
But anyone with experience of substance use disorders, whether directly or through somebody they care about, knows that it rarely happens this way: drug abuse is almost always the consequence of preceding psychic pain. People will turn to drugs when there’s a problem in their emotional lives that they can’t face directly.
Drugs take away the pain — at least temporarily — and that’s what ultimately makes them so addictive: they’re a superhighway to feeling “normal” again. With drugs, a person can finally avoid all the negative feelings that are holding them back from being the happy person they want to be.
This perspective should change how we think about addiction. It’s not so much the result of chemical fallout in the brain from repeated substance use (although this undoubtedly plays a role), but instead a consequence of the prior emotional state of the individual. Addiction arises from a place of pain and is sustained by the false belief that taking dangerous substances offers a solution to life’s cruel hardships including betrayal, abandonment, violence, emotional abuse, bullying and depression.
When you understand where addiction comes from, it’s easy to see why withdrawal is so painful. Not only do people have to cope with the biology of eliminating disruptive chemicals, but also the emotional torment of dealing with negative feelings they’ve ignored for so long. Now they must face their demons without the mitigating effect of drugs. Withdrawal is a raw experience where a person’s biology and emotions fight them through every step of the recovery process.
The fear of withdrawal, therefore, is not merely about the physical manifestations — the sweating, elevated heart rate, twitching and so on — but the worry that you’ll have to re-enter that negative mental state you’ve been medicating against in an attempt to avoid. Almost always, facing one’s feelings is more difficult than coming off the drugs themselves. It’s the emotional pain that people fear most.
When discussing withdrawal, medical professionals like to focus on the physical effects since these are the most visible. But many people suffering from addiction avoid coming off drugs because they worry that they will no longer have the assistance they need to continue feeling “normal.” The physical side is scary, but it pales in comparison to the pain of raw, underlying emotions.
This is all not to say that physical withdrawal is easy: far from it.
The symptoms of physical withdrawal can be severe and, in some cases, life-threatening. Symptoms can be mild, such as a slight fever, or they can be extreme, such as hallucinations, fits, and problems regulating the cardiovascular system.
Many people in withdrawal spend up to two weeks detoxifying the remaining drugs in their body. During this time, they require the help of medical professionals to monitor their vital signs and ensure their continued health and safety. Drug addicts in withdrawal often need additional medication to manage the symptoms of coming off addictive substances.
Overcoming Negative Stigma
Besides the personal battle with the emotional and biological aspects of addiction, there’s also a social stigma associated with substance abuse. It’s not uncommon for friends and family to make negative assumptions about someone after finding out about their addiction. People close to the drug user may believe (often incorrectly) that they are weak, a thief, a liar, or a deviant who has disengaged with society. But these stereotypes are often not accurate. Stereotypes often make it harder to recover. People don’t want to be associated with things that they see as immoral.
The reality of substance users is that they are regular people, just like everyone else. But unlike healthy people who deal with their emotional problems through outlets like therapy, meditation, and counseling, substance abusers are those who have discovered an alternative and destructive way to mask their negative feelings. The problem with stereotyping is that it undermines an addict’s incentive to ask for help when they need it. Substance abusers don’t want to be seen as deviant, immoral or having “failed” in some fundamental way; they still care about how they are perceived, all of which reduces their incentive to ask for help.
Overcoming the negative stigma of drugs is particularly tricky in our society. Ever since ill-informed public policymakers made it a criminal offense to take some drugs in the middle of the 20th century, the entire culture has changed to rationalize the public position. Government officials claim the legal right to use violent force against those who voluntarily take drugs, arresting and imprisoning them for doing something that is otherwise a personal choice. The justification for this level of violence is that drug abuse has knock-on effects on other people in society, but the principal victims of any abuse are the people who take drugs themselves.
To make public policy seem moral, societal attitudes towards drugs have changed. No longer are they viewed as something merely to be avoided, but something that is against the law, “immoral” and deeply offensive to the fabric of society. Rather than eliminating drug use, these policies isolate people suffering from addiction even further, forcing the whole enterprise underground.
The problem extends to practically all areas of life. Doctors will often not treat somebody who has a history of drug addiction. Drug addicts are seen as a “lost cause” and treating them is viewed as a waste of resources that could be spent on people who haven’t taken the so-called “immoral” decision to take drugs.
Likewise, employers routinely refuse to hire people with a history of drugs and fire those who start abusing during their employment. Unsurprisingly, employers don’t want people working for them who break the law and who may act negligently because of their substance use disorders. But part of their decision-making is driven by stigma; companies that continue to hire drug addicts could be viewed as encouraging such behavior. And that’s something that the vast majority of people don’t want. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.
It’s no wonder then that people who abuse drugs often feel shame. The shame that they feel comes from a society which views drug abuse not as a health problem, but an indication of moral decline.
Many people who take drugs are not able to articulate the fundamental conflation society makes between doing something unhealthy and immoral. People eat pizza, go to the Heart Attack Grill, and drive their vehicles without wearing their seatbelts, yet we don’t call these behaviors immoral, even though they are measurably and demonstrably linked to worse health outcomes. The same should be true of drug use: it’s a physical health issue precipitated by preceding mental health problems. But the average drug user doesn’t have the moral clarity of mind to stand up against the bigotry of existing law and views of the people around them.
The Shame And Embarrassment Of Drug Addiction
Perhaps the worst part of living with drug addiction is the drive to hide one’s need for drugs. Many drug addicts see it as a mark of personal failure that they have to use substances to assuage their emotional turmoil, rather than dealing with it head-on like healthy people are supposed to. Being addicted to drugs is a sign that you are not strong enough to cope with whatever life throws your way; that you do not have the mental fortitude to tackle problems independently; and that you need a chemical crutch to see you through.
As you can imagine, these views are destructive, both to the happiness of the addict, and their willingness to get better. Many addicts come to the belief that they are a hopelessly lost cause, that society has abandoned them, and that people will judge them negatively if they come forward in need of help.
In many ways, the hysterical opposition and prohibition of addictive drugs make the problem of substance addiction worse. Not only must a person confess that they need dangerous substances to survive their emotional lives, but they must also, in many cases, admit to breaking the law. Criminality carries its own stigma – with the vast majority of people failing to assess whether existing laws conform to rational moral standards critically. (Anti-homosexuality laws are another excellent example of this).
A person who breaks the law is automatically seen as “bad” or “an offender” or “a crook” without any rational appraisal of whether or not the law itself is moral. People take the lazy option, preferring the safe ground of believing that the society that they live in is virtuous and that millions of people in jail on drug-related offenses are not imprisoned on spurious grounds. (Most of the population of US prisons is made of up people involved in buying or selling banned substances).
Do not underestimate the extent that drug users will go to avoid the shame and embarrassment of their addiction. Not only will most addicts take drugs in the privacy of their own homes, often alone, but many will avoid talking about their recovery too, including any stints in rehab. An addict must live with the knowledge that they were one of those people the culture views as having failed or being a down-and-out. It’s a horrible emotional position to find oneself and, ironically, can make it more likely that a person will resume their destructive habits following treatment.
Life As an Addict & The Hurdles Of Withdrawal
Although we’ve discussed many of the hurdles of drug addiction, it’s worth going through them one by one to be more concrete about what they are and what a person experiences in life as an addict.
- Fear of not being able to relax. People who are addicted to drugs, particularly alcohol, worry that they will never be able to relax – to switch off negative feelings and enjoy the moment. Life as an addict without this pleasure can often seem worse than facing the consequences of substance abuse.
- Denial. People will often deny that they have a dependence on drugs to avoid the shame and embarrassment of admitting that they need them to function.
- Normalization. Many people with substance abuse disorder live in communities of people addicted to the same drugs. It’s easier to continue a habit if all your friends are doing it too.
- Fear of future social situations. Everybody who uses drugs wants to believe that they do so recreationally: it’s for pleasure, not the relief of pain. But going entirely sober means telling friends and acquaintances that you can’t engage in drug use at all, thereby admitting that you had a problem.
- Fear of life not being fun. Finally, it should not be underestimated how much fun drugs can bring while they’re exerting their effect on a person’s biology. A person may worry that their life will lack the dizzying highs that they get while on drugs and that it will be boring. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Life as an addict is very different from how people imagine. Teachers, parents, and health care providers have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and opioid addiction. Now that you’ve read this article, you should understand the perspective of the drug user and have a better insight into their experience, both while they are in the throes of addiction, and during their addiction recovery journey.
MAT (medication-assisted treatment) is the only scientifically proven treatment for OUD (opioid use disorder), and that’s a fact that can be deadly to ignore. If you need help, reach out to us today. Whether you need someone to talk with, or need immediate treatment for drugs and alcohol, we’re here for you.
If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.