Addiction: Cunning, baffling and polarising


By Lorraine Wood, co-founder and executive director of South Pacific Private

In our contemporary Australian culture, drug addiction means different things to different people.

A politician may tell you that addiction is a self-inflicted problem, while members of the general community may say it is about people taking drugs for the sake of it.

Historically, there has been immense confusion as to what addictive disorders are, with many conflicting views, proposed explanation and philosophies.

The nature of addiction has been explored from many different professional and scientific standpoints, and there is a lot of truth in explanations that come from social learning theory, social science, psychiatry and epidemiology.

However, what has been lacking is a coherent synthesis of what we know about these disorders and what people with the disorders experience.

There is widespread use of illegal drugs in communities right across the nation, and in all strata of society, and there are varying degrees of availability, criminality and associated harms that relate to the specific drugs.

Some of the most common drug addictions include: Cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines/ice, prescription drugs and alcohol. Each of these drugs has associated common misperceptions about the potential harm resulting from their use and each creates their own set of problems and negative consequences.

While there are many similarities about each person’s pathway into addiction, there are also significant differences in the way the drug/substance weaves its way into someone’s world and eventually becomes the dominant focus in their life.

Stages of Addiction

Experimentation – Often begins during the teenage years.

Habitual patterning – The process of developing patterns of drug use which become normalised in your life, for example getting “high” or “stoned” with friends every weekend.

Dependency – The process of becoming dependent on using the drug of choice to manage some aspects of life.

Causes of Addiction

At one level addiction is simple to understand. It starts with the repeated use of a substance which has particular effects on the brain and mind.

At first, substance use is rarely a solitary activity. In all human societies, alcohol consumption, for example, is most likely to occur in a group setting, particularly among friends and peers.

There are, therefore, important social and cultural influences on the uptake of a particular substance – be it alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, ecstasy tablets, coca leaf or betel nut.

The field of behavioural psychology has contributed a lot to our understanding of how repetitive patterns of substance use can develop.

The most widely accepted theory is social learning theory which states a repetitive behaviour, such as drinking, occurs by a person observing or experiencing a certain behaviour and its positives and negatives. This is a cognitive process and it is influenced by the personal and social environment.

Positive observations and experiences are likely to encourage consumption, while negative and adverse experiences will likely discourage further use or use beyond certain limits.

These explanations contribute to our understanding of how repetitive substance use can start and become a pattern or habit. However, addiction is so much more than this.

During addiction, the use of a particular substance increasingly occupies centre stage in that person’s life. It continues even despite harmful consequences, whereas sociological and behavioural psychology explanations would suggest that substance use would be sensitive to harmful consequences and would be reined in at that point. With addiction, this does not happen.

Signs of drug addiction

Increasing tolerance – Needing to use increasing amounts of the drug to feel the same effects.

Impaired control – Lacking the ability to limit the amount that you use even when they have made a conscious decision to restrict their drug use.

Physical dependence – Experiencing intense cravings for the drug and withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shakes, and anxiety when not using. The withdrawal symptoms vary significantly depending on the drug, the degree of habitual use and individual characteristics.

Identification of Addiction

There is regular or habitual use – Characterised by using your drug of choice on a daily or near daily basis accompanied by the signs and symptoms below.

There is binge or “bender”, or “heavy episodic drug use” – Patterns of drug taking behaviour, showing episodes of heavy drug use, often with periods of drug free days or weeks between.

The road to recovery from drug addiction is a very personal journey and it is likely to be more successful when underlying causes and environmental factors are addressed at the same time as a patient stops using.

Addiction is a cunning, baffling and deadly disease and is most effectively treated in a therapeutic environment supported by addiction specialist health professionals.

Withdrawing from a chemical addiction can be challenging, uncomfortable and even dangerous when attempting it alone. For this reason a professionally supervised detox is strongly recommended.


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