What Is Substance Use Disorder

Everyone has had one of those nights where they drink more than they should, maybe in celebration, maybe just hanging out with friends. Does drinking too much one night make them addicted to alcohol? Where is the cut off line between drinking a few a night, and having a substance use disorder, the clinical term for an addiction?

What is an addiction?
Conventional wisdom says that everyone knows someone with an addiction when they see one, but how is addiction, or substance use disorder, really defined.? To put it simply, an addiction is the use of substances or repetitive behaviors that give the person an internal reward or high, and will be used compulsively, even when there are serious consequences for its use. These consequences can include anything from loss of family, to health problems, jail time, or even death.

Notice how nothing was said about their job, how they looked, or other things that we commonly think of when we talk about addiction. A person with a substance use disorder can and often does go unnoticed by their friends and family until their addiction is out of control. All of the assumptions that we make about addiction should go out the window, because not all of them are true. There have frequently been high level company executives that regularly come in to work drunk, yet they can still function well enough that no one notices, or they are given a pass because they can still do their job. That is, until they can’t and the drinking or drugging takes over.

Substance use disorder

If we can’t really describe a person with an addiction by their appearance, then how is someone diagnosed when they finally are willing to get help? A person who can be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, as described by the American Psychiatric Association, will possess a set of symptoms from a list. While all addictions will have the component of the compulsive drug, drinking, or behavioral use, they will all look a little differently. This will depend on the person, and where they are in their substance use.

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The list of possible symptoms for substance use disorder include:
1. Using more of the substance or doing the behavior more than they want to, and longer than wanted.
2. Trying to stop or cut back, but being unable to do that.
3. Spending more and more time trying to get a fix, using, and recovering from their use. This will be interfering with their life in different ways.
4. Cravings or urges to use or drink.
5. Failing at, or struggling in tasks that were normally easy to accomplish. This will include things like poor work performance or failing in school all off a sudden.
6. Continuing to use in spite of the problems it is causing within relationships.
7. Giving up formerly important areas of life in order to use substances. For example, quitting a job, avoiding friends and family or giving up on formerly fun things the person used to do.
8. Using substances even though it is having a visible effect on their health. This would be like drinking still even though they have been diagnosed with cirrhosis.
9. Using even though it is putting you in dangerous situations, like drinking and driving for example.
10. Developing a tolerance for the substance, needing more and more of it to get that same high feeling.
11. Having withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stop using.

Looking at the list, it becomes apparent the more that a person loses, or is put in jeopardy, the worse the substance use really is. The substance use slowly takes the place of everything else, until the person desperately needs help to recover.

What do you do?

While substance use can be scary for the person using, and their friends and family, it is possible to recover from the addiction and live a happy and healthy life again. This may include many different forms of treatment, including: detox to help with the withdrawal process, inpatient treatment to begin to process what happened and find new ways to cope with cravings and life itself, as well as recovery groups where people can talk with others who have already been through the recovery process, or are going through it at the same time. Recovery is a life long battle that needs to be dealt with the help of professionals who can objectively see the problem and find solutions to put you on the right path to a better, stronger self.

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The first step, reaching out for help, is often the hardest. If this reminded you of someone you love, it is never too late to pick up the phone and try to get them help. Remember, recovery is possible, and help is out there for you and the ones you love.

Don’t hesitate to contact an addiction specialist for questions or to book an assessment for yourself or a loved one.

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