Habits and Behaviors - Substance abuse

Most people who use drugs are seeking an altered state of consciousness. The need to alter consciousness is not a new phenomenon. Historical evidence shows that people of all cultures and eras have experimented with mind-altering substances, both natural and synthetic (human-made or artificial). People who use drugs seek to make the world around them look and feel different. This might mean trying to make a bleak life seem better or simply more interesting.

Drugs often make people feel powerful. That's why taking drugs is called "getting high." Drugs endow a user with a false sense of power that, of course, recedes when the artificial high ends. Addiction occurs when a person compulsively attempts to continue that high by taking a drug over and over again.

People use drugs for many, many reasons. For example, adolescents have reported that they experimented with marijuana to enhance sexuality; to feel more confident; for pleasure and relaxation; to make themselves more comfortable in social situations; to understand themselves better; for acceptance by their peers or to achieve elevated social status; to defy authority; and to expand their minds.

Actor/comedian Chris Farley died as a result of a drug overdose at the age of 33. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)
Actor/comedian Chris Farley died as a result of a drug overdose at the age of 33. (
. Reproduced by permission.)

There are many theories governing an individual's choice to use drugs when others do not. Initial experimentation and addiction are two very different behaviors, though. The reason many people continue to seek out drugs after their first use is, again, an attempt to reproduce the same pleasure and an altered state of consciousness initially achieved the first time a certain drug was used. The second time and each instance thereafter, a user is trying to recapture the intensity of that first experience. Ultimately, these feelings cannot be replicated, and this is where an addiction starts. Drug users in search of that elusive pleasure will continue to search for the feelings inspired by their first time, even if all the consecutive uses affect them adversely; this is particularly dangerous with crack cocaine. (Many drug experts suggest that the initial experience of using crack cocaine is so intense that it takes only one use to kick-start an addiction.) Furthermore, over time, addicts' bodies develop a tolerance for a drug, meaning they will eventually have to take more and more of their drug of choice each time they use in order to achieve the same high.

Addiction counselors and others who work with substance abusers consider drug use and abuse to be a self-destructive behavior. According to this model, the user may not be consciously aware of being deeply depressed and engaging in self-destructive activities. Psychoanalytic counselors (see Chapter 15: Mental Health Therapies) also interpret drug abuse as a form of suicidal behavior. Proponents of psychoanalysis believe that an addict is usually unaware of his or her deep-rooted problems, and the addiction is a symptom of unreleased pain resulting from these buried problems.

Causes of Substance Abuse

There isn't one single cause that lies at the root of drug addiction. This is why drug addiction is so very hard to understand and treat. Several years ago a term called "addictive personality" became very popular in the media. Those in the drug and alcohol field dislike this term because they consider it overly simplistic and unfair to addicts. It implies that drug abusers are to blame for their illness because they have a defective personality. A better term to describe a person's predisposition to drug abuse might be psychological (mind-related) vulnerability. This means that the addict had some prior psychological factor that made a pattern of substance abuse more likely to begin.


Many actors and musicians have waged well-documented battles with addiction, whether it be to drugs or alcohol. Some have come out triumphant, such as Drew Barrymore, who battled alcoholism at a very young age, and Matthew Perry, who triumphed over an addiction to painkillers. Unfortunately, though, many talented individuals have lost their lives to drugs. In the early 1970s, the world of rock-and-roll mourned the overdose deaths of three musical giants, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. In recent years, Shannon Hoon, lead singer of the rock group Blind Melon, died of a heroin overdose. Hollywood has lost its share of beloved performers as well. Actress Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, died in 1969 of an overdose from drugs as did actor River Phoenix in 1995 at the age of 23. In 1997, comedian Chris Farley, age 33, died of a drug overdose as well, following in the footsteps of his own idol, actor/comedian John Belushi, who overdosed in 1982 also at the age of 33.

For example, people who have mood disorders (see Chapter 12: Mental Illness) sometimes self-medicate (make themselves feel better or more in balance) by using drugs. There are a number of personality traits that are thought to be shared by drug abusers (and alcoholics, too). These traits include high emotionality; anxiety; immaturity in relationships; low frustration tolerance; inability to express anger; problems with authority; low self-esteem; perfectionism; compulsiveness; feelings of isolation; sex-role confusion; depression; hostility; and sexual immaturity. Stress is also thought to be a factor contributing to drug abuse. This is not referring to run-of-the-mill, everyday stress from work or school, but the kind of stress that is the result of traumatic experiences, such as the sudden loss of a loved one. Stress in early childhood, such as having been sexually or physically abused, can also lead to drug abuse.

A sense of self is one of the most important factors in the potential for drug addiction. A person with a strong sense of self will have several obvious qualities. One will have a sense of one's own individuality and be aware of talents and a place in the world. Also, one will be able to begin, develop, and complete projects and to coexist comfortably in different types of relationships. Those with a weak sense of self are more likely to seek out drugs as way of giving them a sense of self, which quickly vanishes once the drug wears off.

According to addiction counselors and researchers, preventing substance abuse in kids is more about giving them something to live for and helping them to foster a strong sense of self rather than keeping them away from what is deemed as the dangerous and enticing world of drugs.

Families and Drug Abuse

Family history of drug abuse is another risk factor for potential substance abusers. Some experts theorize that human beings may possess a genetic predisposition to drug dependence. But a poorly functioning family system may contribute to the development of an addiction just as powerfully. Children of alcoholics and drug abusers are more likely to develop their own addictions later in life. However, it remains unclear as to whether this development is a result of nature (inherited biologically) or nurture (environmental factors, such as a person's family relations and social environment).


Injecting drugs (using drugs by shooting them directly in to a vein with a needle) carries an even more deadly threat to the body than administering them in other ways, such as smoking or snorting. Heroin addicts, and others, who shoot drugs and share needles are in one of the highest risk groups for infection with hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV and hepatitis are transferred from person to person via bodily fluids. If the blood from an infected person is transferred to another person via a dirty needle, that person is at great risk for contracting these life-threatening diseases.

Adolescence, specifically, is a time of change and risk. Because teens are just beginning to develop their fragile sense of self, they are more prone to fall victim to drug abuse. This vulnerability is heightened because teens are exploring identity, social skills, and independence. Peer pressure, the need to fit in and be liked, often causes teens to experiment with drugs. If a teen is at a party and everyone around is partying, one might feel compelled to take a drink or smoke cigarettes or use marijuana. Usually these situations do not occur as they do in the movies, where other kids actually pressure their peers; rather, peer pressure tends to work in more subtle ways. If a teen is feeling left out and alone at a party, he or she might believe that joining others in smoking a marijuana cigarette will help in latching onto a group of friends. This is a reflection of teens' needs to feel as though they are part of a group—that they belong.

A teen feeling like the odd one out might even turn to doing drugs in private as a way to escape the pain of loneliness. Since drugs and alcohol are often easily available to teens, and avoiding contact with them is often difficult, many teens will have encounters with substance abuse either with themselves or someone they know. Willpower and a strong sense of self seem to be the only things that keep people, in general, away from the trap of substance abuse and addiction.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

The Content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of Content found on the Website.