It is often difficult for people to recognise that they have become dependent on or addicted to alcohol or drugs. They may see it as a temporary situation because they are in physical pain or because they are dealing with grief or loss. Recognising there is a problem is the first step to dealing with a dependence or addiction.
Asking for help when you first suspect you have a problem is important so that you can get support to make changes early. If you think you have an addiction, speak to your local doctor or call DirectLine on 1800 888 236 as soon as possible.
Difference between dependence and addiction
Becoming dependent on alcohol or drugs means you rely on a substance to feel good or to cope with everyday life. Your body adapts to it, needing more and more of it to get the same effect (called tolerance). Your body develops specific physical or mental symptoms if you stop using the substance abruptly (called withdrawal). This can happen with many types of drugs when they are used for a long time – even prescription medication.
Just because you are physically dependent on alcohol or a drug, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are addicted, but often the two go together.
People who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs continue to use it despite the harmful consequences. They find it difficult to stop using, which can often significantly impact and disrupt their lives – failure to meet work, social or family obligations, as well as health problems.
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between dependence and addiction. With prescription medication, a person may need more and more because their medical problem is getting worse, or because their body is becoming used to the medication, so its effect is lessened. This is sometimes categorised as dependence rather than addiction.
Early stages of dependence and addiction
Many alcohol and drug addictions start with experimental use in social situations and often at a young age. Some drugs have a higher risk associated with their use and cause dependency more quickly than others.
Some signs that you may have an alcohol or drug problem are:
- changed eating or sleeping habits
- caring less about your appearance
- spending more time with people who drink excessively or use drugs
- missing appointments, classes or work commitments
- losing interest in activities that you used to love
- getting in trouble in school, at work or with the law
- getting into more arguments with family and friends
- friends or family asking you if you have a substance abuse problem
- relying on drugs or alcohol to have fun or relax
- having blackouts
- drinking or using drugs when you are alone
- keeping secrets from friends or family
- finding you need more and more of the substance to get the same feeling.
Often it is family and friends who first recognise that a person they care about has an alcohol or drug problem. They may have noticed them acting differently – being withdrawn, always tired, increasingly hostile or easily upset. They may ask the person straight out if they have a problem.
If that happens to you, listening to what they have to say and asking yourself if they are right is a positive first step.
Recognising an alcohol and drug problem
There is no particular type of person who becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs. It can happen to anyone.
What starts as occasional use of a drug or one prescription of pain-relieving medication, for example, can get out of control as time passes. You may find you need bigger doses to get the same feeling or to lessen the pain. Eventually, you may depend on the drug to feel good or to get through your day.
Other signs that you are becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs include:
- having intense urges for the substance – this could be once a day or several times a day
- needing more of a substance to get the same effect
- fixating about making sure you have a constant supply of the substance
- spending money on the substance, even when you cannot afford it
- cutting back on social or other activities
- not meeting your work, family or study responsibilities
- lying to people about your alcohol or drug use when they ask
- doing illegal things so you can get the substance, such as stealing
- taking risks such as driving when you are under the influence of the substance
- trying but failing to stop using the substance
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop taking the substance.
Quitting alcohol or drugs
Quitting alcohol or drugs is hard to do because repeated alcohol or drug use makes the body more dependent and changes the brain. Brain scans of people who have an addiction often show changes in the areas of the brain that help you learn and remember, make good decisions and control yourself.
For this reason, many people find they cannot stop by themselves. The best thing you can do is to talk to someone you trust so you do not have to deal with your problem alone.
Getting help for alcohol or drug dependence or addiction
If you think that you or someone close to you has a drug or alcohol problem, speak first with your local doctor or call DirectLine on 1800 888 236. DirectLine is a 24-hour-a-day information and advice line that is free, anonymous and confidential. You can talk to a professional counsellor who is experienced in alcohol and drug-related matters, and they can start you on the right track to recovery.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
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