A substance use disorder (SUD) can be categorized as the persistent use of a psychoactive substance despite negative consequences stemming from the use of the substance.
Essentially, somebody with a substance use disorder continues to use drugs and alcohol despite them having an impact on their life. An addict with a substance use disorder may have even attempted to stop using the substance but finds an inability to do so. Based on this description it may seem like it would be obvious to determine if you had a problem with drugs or alcohol. However, it may not be easy as it seems. Usually those closest to an addict will notice changes in their behavior before the addict themselves even realize there is an issue. This is because addiction is a progressive disease that occurs over a length of time. People do not become addicted overnight. Addicts have an amazing ability to use self-deception on a level most people never get to experience. Despite all the signs and people around them pointing to an obvious problem, the addict will deny that such a problem exists or perhaps downplay the severity of it. The act of self-deception and the denial of any problem is an obstacle in the recovery of a person with a substance use disorder. In almost every program of recovery the first step is to admit that a problem exists. Once the addict can get honest with oneself and no longer cling to the lies that they tell themselves and others, then the path to recovery from addiction can begin.
A common thing most people will do early on in their addiction is to use justifications for their using. Such examples of these justifications could be: “I only use occasionally”, “I pay my bills and go to work so I clearly don’t have a problem”, “It’s okay because I have a prescription” and various others. The addicted person may even believe these justifications and see no harm in their using. Deflections are often a common way for addicts to defend their use. Some deflective statements could be: “Well at least I’m not as bad as…”, “Who are you to lecture me with your problems” or “I don’t have a problem, you have the problem”. These are more defensive as a person in the earlier stages of a substance use disorder may see no real actual problem, but they also do not want to discontinue the use of the abuse substance. But how does one get to the point of acknowledging that they have a problem when they cannot see that one even exists?
There are many signs that point to a person having an addiction. Some are subtle, while others are more obvious. Some of the less obvious signs that point towards a person having alcohol or drug related problems are: being late or missing school/work, blowing off social obligations, trouble with law enforcement, a loss of interest in activities you once found pleasurable, no longer caring about your appearance, hostility towards friends and loved ones, sudden depression, and isolating yourself from others. There are other signs which are far more obvious to a substance abuse problem, such as: an inability to stop or remain stopped from using, withdrawal symptoms, overdoses, blackouts, financial losses as a result of buying drugs or alcohol, and OUI’s. Despite some of these indicators, an admission of being an addict can still be difficult. When confronted with possibly having a substance use disorder, a drug/alcohol abuser may respond with “Okay, I may be an addict, but I don’t have a problem” or “I am an addict, but I’m a functioning addict”. Essentially, for an addict, the fact that there is a problem is not always enough. Even if they were to admit to a problem, it does not mean that they are ready to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. The addicted person may recognize they have a substance use disorder but are not yet ready to commit to a treatment program. Some people need to hit a point where the negative consequences of their using outweigh the benefit that they receive from the substance they are abusing.
Another reason it may be hard for a person to admit they are an addict is the stigma surrounding addiction. The stigma around addiction can be harmful since it is a roadblock to seeking treatment and entering a rehab facility. Some of the stigma that surrounds addiction and substance abuse in general are: once an addict, always an addict; relapse is inevitable; addiction is a choice not a disease (despite all the scientific evidence and research to the contrary); and addicts are bad people. Much of the stigma associated with addiction stems from the societal affects associated with drug use. The nature of many substance use disorders results in behavioral issues that stem from a need to obtain the users drug of choice. This in combination with the illegal nature of illicit substances, the demand for a black market, and the ensuing criminal enterprises associated with it result in a societal view that addicts are immoral people.
The reality is that nobody wants to be an addict. Nobody strives to be homeless. Nobody ever wished to alienate the people in their lives. Nobody wants to be in pain. And that is what it comes down to. People use drugs and drink in excess to escape something. Pain. Whether it is a physical, mental or emotional anguish, we as humans seek relief. Some of us turn to drugs as an attempt to escape a feeling we no longer want to feel, and we become addicted to a substance. It is also pain that can help somebody to break free from living an addict lifestyle and finally ask for help.
If you are reading these words and any of this sounds familiar or resonates with you, then you may have a substance use disorder. Help is available. You just need to be willing to receive it. The first step is honesty. Chances are if loved ones are coming to you and bring concerns about your use of drugs or alcohol, they have noticed something you have not been able to see. It can be scary to go without something that has brought you relief. You may be afraid of going into drug or alcohol treatment programs. I can promise you that any shame or fear you have is unwarranted. A life free from the grips of drugs and alcohol is achievable.