Drug addiction is a multifaceted issue that cannot be fixed by simply not using drugs. The chemicals in substances, by nature, affect the brain's ability to process and interpret information, so clear signs of damage (e.g. an eroding nose septum or irregular heartbeat) might not even matter to a drug abuser while they're using.
Furthermore, a person's drug use is often supported by suppliers, friends, or even family members, so ending drug abuse involves more than just not using. In seeking treatment, each person must determine what kind of help they need, and where is best for them to get it.
The process of rehabilitation is neither short nor easy. However, the rewards and outcomes of successful and lasting recovery are irreplaceable: you get your life back. Those who go through rehab and come out the other side often emerge as more self-actualized adults, able to handle challenges in their lives without drug and alcohol addiction. They are also happier and healthier, able to pursue their dreams and form solid relationships.
What are illicit drugs?
Illicit drugs are drugs the federal government have classified as illegal to make, distribute (sell), or use. They are generally considered to be the most dangerous of all categories of drugs when it comes to addiction.
The vast majority of illicit drugs put the user in some kind of altered state. Some produce states of euphoria and relaxation, others have psychedelic effects, and others stimulate the nervous system, giving a person tremendous energy and inducing a state of excitement.
These drugs include:
- Cocaine, crack cocaine
- Methamphetamine (crystal meth)
- Hallucinogens (LSD (acid), magic mushrooms, PCP)
- Inhalants (aerosols, nitrites)
- MDMA (ecstasy/molly)
Most illicit drugs are extremely addictive and come with serious health risks, even when only a small amount is taken.
How do you know if you're addicted to an illicit drug?
The majority of people try using drugs for the first time as teenagers. In 2013, over half of new illicit drug users were under the age of 18.
Illicit drug use and ensuing drug addiction often starts with experimentation. The person uses a substance like heroin or cocaine because their friends are doing it, or simply because they're curious about it. They can quickly become addicted, since the physical and/or mental effects of the drug are so powerful.
Most of the time, repeated use leads to a person building up a tolerance. This means you need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. With drugs as addictive as heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth, it's often common that everything else in the person's life is put on hold in lieu of getting more of the drug. The drug addiction itself becomes all-consuming and often affects every area of the person's life, often negatively.
In addition to building up a tolerance, signs of illicit drug addiction include:
- Glassy or bloodshot eyes
- Runny nose or sniffling
- Sudden behavior changes, including withdrawing from family and friends
- Sudden and rapid mood swings and/or aggressive behavior
- No longer caring about interests or activities (sports, hobbies, etc.)
- Dramatic changes in sleep patterns (i.e. staying up all night and sleeping all day)
- School, career, legal, and/or financial problems due to the drug use, including arrest or job loss or school suspension/expulsion
- Health problems, but continued use of the drug despite physical risks
More specific signs of abuse include:
Methamphetamine (crystal meth) and cocaine
- Being "wired" – not sleeping for days or weeks
- Extreme appetite loss and weight loss
- Sweating, shaking, dizziness, and blurred vision
- Extreme talkativeness and delusions of grandeur (inflated sense of power)
- Paranoia, depression, hallucinations, and aggression
- Euphoria, including a dreamlike state
- Nausea, vomiting, scratching
- Loss of appetite, constipation
- Slurred speech
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts to hide arms
- Loss of appetite
- Clenched teeth, muscle cramps, nausea
- Chills and sweating
- Overheating of the body, which can be fatal
Psychedelics/Hallucinogens (LSD (acid), magic mushrooms)
- Distorted sense of time and space
- Hallucinations, confusion, and paranoia
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dilated pupils, discolored skin
- Panic, anxiety, and delusions of grandeur (inflated sense of power)
- Fear, paranoia, anxiety
- Having trouble thinking, talking, and remembering things
- Bizarre and sometimes violent or behavior (including suicide)
- Total numbness, including not feeling pain until after drug wears off
- Flushed skin, sweating, and dizziness
- Giggling, sense of euphoria, giggling
- Headaches and fainting
- If used long-term: slurred speech, memory loss, hearing loss, loss of sense of smell, and brain damage
What are the risks of illicit drug addiction?
Risks of illegal drug addiction range from short-term to long-term effects. Physically, drug addicts may experience immediate adverse impacts on health, such as those outlined above.
Other risks include getting "bad" versions of the drug. Particularly if someone is getting drugs from unreliable sources, certain substances may be "cut" (mixed) with other substances, making them even more dangerous. For example, some ecstasy tablets have been known to have been cut with rat poison or crushed glass, making users very sick, instigating a psychotic episode, or even causing fatalities.
Another risk associated with illegal drug addiction is their long-term impact. The impact of certain drugs compounds over time, particularly as the brain and body are exposed to even higher rates of the substance as a user has forms a tolerance. For example, the effects of long-term use of inhalants include emotional instability, inability to reason (think clearly), tremors, and brain atrophy. Sometimes these effects can be managed or even reversed with detox and therapy (including diet changes). In other cases, brain damage is irreversible.
Finally, drug overdose is a very real and very dangerous risk associated with drug addiction. Approximately 27 million people in the U.S. used illegal drugs in 2014. From 2001 to 2014, the number of deaths due to heroin addiction alone rose by 6x. There was a 42% increase in cocaine addiction fatalities in the same period.
If you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction, get help. And remember that addiction is no one's fault. No one is "bad" or "wrong" for having formed a drug addiction. They don't need to be shamed; they need help.
What is rehab?
Rehab, or rehabilitation, is the step-by-step process by which someone conquers addiction. Depending on the severity of the addiction, rehab often starts at an inpatient actual drug and alcohol rehab center, where the first step involves medical detox.
Detox is what the body goes through when it eliminates all the toxins associated with substance abuse. Inpatient drug and alcohol rehab programs are equipped to take people safely through the process, which can be deadly if not done properly. The body must be taken off drugs like heroin, prescription opioids, and crystal meth slowly, in order to stay safe. Without the right medical supervision, detox and withdrawal symptoms can prove fatal, especially if the substance abuse was ongoing and long-term.
When it comes to rehab, it's also important to note that some people will need dual diagnosis treatment centers. A dual diagnosis simply means another health condition is present (in addition to addiction). This can include mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. If other mental health conditions coexist alongside addiction, it's critical to get the right care and treatment at a dual diagnosis treatment center.
After detox, the majority of drug and alcohol rehab programs take people through different kinds of therapies. Most rehab facilities offer individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and behavioral therapy, which often includes practical skills for avoiding relapse, making long term sobriety possible.
In addition to meeting with licensed rehab experts who specialize in addiction treatment, rehab offers the opportunity to connect with others overcoming the challenge of addiction. In group therapy, people share their struggles with drug addiction in a safe and compassionate environment, as well as personal issues that may have led to their addiction in the first place.
A number of recovering drug and alcohol addicts report that group therapy is one of the most impactful parts of rehab, as it allows for increased awareness, both personally and universally. It allows for the understanding that others face similar struggles, and that addiction doesn't have to be faced alone. A good drug and alcohol rehab program will leave patients feeling human connection in a truly compassionate environment.
Looking towards the future
Addiction is at once dangerous, frightening, seductive, and confusing. It can feel endless and overwhelming, both for addicts and their loved ones. Drug and alcohol addiction can destroy one's physical health, sabotage close relationships, and cause money problems, as well as issues at school or at work.
Fortunately, going to rehab and drug treatment centers has proven effective for millions, and it can work for you, too. At its core, drug rehab is a chance to start over. It's the opportunity to take back control of your life and not only stop the cycle of addiction, but to grow into a better and more resilient version of yourself.
If you or a loved one needs help, know you're not alone. Others have been through the same challenges and prevailed, often reporting that rehab and recovery made them stronger, wiser, and more capable. The right support is available, and it can be the beginning of a new life – a life of joy and fulfillment.