One of the most difficult things to do in recovery, and the first important hurdle, is to admit that there is a problem.  No one likes to think that they may be an addict.  There’s a stigma attached.  Addiction is the homeless man living under the bridge, we think.  Addiction is an affliction of the weak, the mentally unstable, it’s a character flaw.  It’s not me.  Addiction is someone else’s problem, we tell ourselves.

The truth is, substance abuse affects many men and women of all socioeconomic levels.  One who admits they have a problem will find themselves among millions of individuals of all stripes and colors who have taken an honest assessment of themselves and decided to address their behavior.

But what constitutes problem drug or alcohol use?  For most, partaking in drugs or alcohol begins in social settings, it’s experimental.  But for many, over time, use can escalate into a problem.  How do we know when recreational use becomes addiction?  What are the signs and symptoms that one might be developing a substance abuse problem?

When we abuse substances, we develop a tolerance to them.  One of the first telling signs of addiction is increased tolerance.  Over time, the problem user may need larger doses of drugs or alcohol to achieve the desired effect.  They may find that one drink or one pill just doesn’t do it anymore.  They may seek out situations where ample amounts of their drug of choice will be available.

The problem user may also become physically dependent.  They may feel that they need the drug on a regular basis, even once or many times per day.  They may develop intense cravings for the drug.  They may stockpile a supply of the drug so that it’s always on hand when needed.  They may experience withdrawal when they can’t get enough or run out of supply.  Symptoms of withdrawal include shaking, sweating, anxiety, depression and more.  This is a physical addiction, the body comes to rely on the substance on a physiological level.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”  The scientific community long ago concluded that addiction is a disease, based in part on the fact that addiction can be hereditary, a condition that is passed down from one generation to the next.  It’s not uncommon to hear an alcoholic, for instance, express that he was raised by alcoholics or that alcoholism runs in his family.  This indicates that some of us are predisposed to addiction.

In terms of symptoms of substance abuse, the key word in the definition is “compulsive.”  The addict is compelled to use in the face of glaring evidence of harm.  The addict will persist in drinking or using over and over again despite repeated negative consequences.  This behavior eventually results in a life that Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous describe as “unmanageable.”

Symptoms of an unmanageable life include, spending money on drugs or alcohol even though you can’t afford to.  The addict might also fail to meet obligations and work duties, despite damaged relationships and lost jobs.  They might also shy away from social activities, losing contact with friends.  They might engage in activities that they wouldn’t otherwise, like stealing to procure money for drugs, or engaging in risky behaviors like unprotected sex, the sharing of needles, or driving under the influence.  Addicts might persist in using despite serious health problems.  They spend an increasing amount of time and energy securing their drug of choice, to the detriment of a happy, healthy life.

Many addicts report trying to stop drugs or alcohol with limited success.  This is why the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a “relapsing brain disease.”  Just when life seems to become manageable again, the addict will relapse to destructive behavior, facilitating a cycle of hope and despair.  Some addicts won’t seek help until they hit “bottom,” a place of such anguish and decrepitude that to sink any lower might mean insanity or death.

If you or a loved one exhibits symptoms and signs of substance abuse, there is no shame in seeking help.  Millions of others just like you have tackled the same serious realization and come out the other side to a life of hope rather than despair.  The stigma that once surrounded addiction has been dispelled by decades of serious research.  Addiction is a disease for which there is help.


Mayo Clinic –
National Institute on Drug Abuse –
Alcoholics Anonymous –
Narcotics Anonymous –