Those who have never had issues with drugs or alcohol can find themselves struggling to understand what leads a person — perhaps someone they care about — to be drawn to substance use.
There is no single answer. Instead, there are a variety of reasons people use drugs and alcohol. Among a few of the most common are these:
We see drug and alcohol use portrayed in movies and on TV. We hear it glorified in songs. We are warned away from it by parents and school DARE programs. Put it all together and it adds up to the sense that drugs and alcohol must really be something extraordinary. The temptation to try them, just to see what they’re like, can be extreme, especially to the young, who are wired to take risks and seek out new experiences.
The problem is, drugs can indeed be just as amazing as advertised. But continued use damages the brain’s ability to feel pleasure from the substance or from other things that once gave joy. The person can end up chasing a high that can never be recaptured and using drugs not to feel good but to keep from feeling bad.
If your social circle accepts drug or alcohol use as the norm there’s little doubt you will too. It’s why parents worry so much about who their kids are hanging out with. They know the pressure to fit it can be extreme, even when it’s not overt. Simply the feeling of sticking out can be enough to make a person do things they’d never try on their own.
People who are prescribed drugs, especially opioid painkillers, after an injury or surgery often discover they like the way it makes them feel. When they have healed and the time comes to stop taking the drugs, they may rationalize continuing them.
The trouble here is multifold: Painkillers can paradoxically increase pain sensitivity with continued use, an effect called hyperalgesia. The drugs are also highly addictive, and when the prescription finally runs out, the person may turn to illicit pill sources or even to another opioid like heroin to fill the void. (Our national opioid addiction epidemic stands as proof.)
Another problem: Users of the drugs may believe they are still hurting from the original injury and need to continue taking their medication when what they are really experiencing is the pain of withdrawal when they try to stop — and that makes them take more painkillers. A vicious cycle is then launched.
For some, drug use is an attempt to self-medicate away the distress that can come from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Rather than seeking a high, they are seeking a sense of normalcy. Substance use, however, inevitably ends up making mental health issues worse, and treating one successfully requires addressing the other as well.
Those with trauma in their past — experiences such as childhood neglect, sexual assault, wartime experiences, betrayal from a loved one, loss — may turn to drugs or alcohol to quiet painful memories. Substances are also used to cope with more everyday emotions such as stress and frustration. The problem with this solution, of course, is that the relief is temporary, and more and more of the substance will be needed to get the same effect. In time, the person may end up simply adding one more problem to their life — addiction.
No matter what leads a person to alcohol or drug abuse, what is clear is that some people, for reasons believed to stem from genetics and environmental factors, are much more likely to have problems with substances than others. If you or someone you know is one of them, don’t delay in reaching out for professional help and support. The sooner problems are addressed, the sooner they are overcome.