How Do I Know If I Am An Addict?
I found the answer to this question in the most bizarre way possible. I was travelling alone in Colombia, and I attended the breakfast electro festival in Medellin. It was crazy. 6,000 people, hot Latinas, rollercoasters, and cocaine everywhere. A weird spectacle. I already was a couple of weeks in Colombia, and I drank and partied every opportunity I had. It was great. Or at least this was what I told myself at that time. I was in bad shape. My body and spirit were weak, and I began to walk on my last pair of legs. I was driven by the fear of missing out and the addiction of more—sensation seeking at its best. I was running away from my responsibilities, my university, and my obligations. Or in short, I was running away from myself.
It finally came crashing down when I met two travelling hipsters who suggested that a great way to enjoy my last weekend in Medellin was to try ecstasy for the first time. I thought this was a great idea, try everything once, right?!
Well, I had no idea how to dose the drug, and since I am a big guy, the guys suggested that I take everything at once. For 30 minutes, I did not feel any effect. Then suddenly, boom. Within the next few minutes, I stumbled into the worst trip of my life. I still remember searching desperately with my eyes for my buddy. I could not talk properly anymore, but he saw the h.e.l.p letters written all over my face. I then managed to stutter out some words after which he finally took me to the ambulance tent. I still remember trying to explain to the Colombian nurse in my broken Spanish that I had an overdose of ecstasy and that I need water.
She, of course, did not understand. It was a hilariously weird situation. She finally asked me “are you ok, mister?”
I said that I am not.
That I need help.
In this very moment, I was done glamorising my excesses around the world.
I was by no means ok, and I had gotten myself in this mess, so maybe I should get help to get out of it.
I ran out of lies to tell myself, and places to escape to.
I lied to myself that I was ok, that this was fun, that I had a blast, that I needed no help, and finally, I was honest again.
The epiphany that the entirety of planet earth is not enough to outrun yourself is a frightening feeling.
Addiction and substance abuse feel like a prison that you take with you everywhere you go.
I was alone on the other side of the world in an ambulance tent, and I was no longer able to live in denial.
I was giggling, unable to cope with the situation, this must be rock bottom, right?
It felt like a breakdown.
What it really was, was a breakthrough.
I wrote this piece because there are many people dear to me who are in desperate need of such a breakthrough, a liberation from their own self-destructive character.
I choose to write today’s article because people left and right from me are suffering from addiction, and are not even aware of it. Diagnosis is always the first step. You cannot fight an enemy that you cannot see.
Escaping from your pain creates more pain.
So how do you know if you are an addict?
This question is something only you can answer. Many tests give us a pretty good idea if our behaviour is addictive.
I am not a big fan of these tests. It all comes to another question, in my opinion; is your life controlled or dominated by a drug?
Is the drug that you are using getting in the way of you doing the things you genuinely want to do?
Most commonalities of all addictions include health problems, failure to meet your responsibilities at work or home, impaired control, social impairment, and risky sexual behaviour.
It is so hard to wake up from an addictive mindset because addicts create an entire world around themselves where their behaviour is normal.
A sick world.
This is why it is so hard to spot addictive behaviour at first because often, you are not violating the code of conduct of your environment.
In general, addicts and people who are using build a happiness trap around them.
A circle that gives them joy, coping, excitement, connection, and validation but is driven by a drug that at the end, will leave you in a worse state you entered in.
A circle of deterioration.
It does not matter if you snort it, drink it, inject it, smoke it, or put it up your ass.
All drugs are painkillers.
So we need to stop asking why a person is weak and uses, and start to ask, “what is it that this person is grieving about”?
Where is all the pain coming from, and can we help to ease this pain in a good way.
The first sign that you might be addicted is how big of a space is that your addicted behaviour or drug is taking in your life. When you meet your friends, is alcohol always present?
If your drug of choice is taking up a big part of your life, that is a red flag.
How much are you doing other things?
If you are using more and more time for your addictive behaviour, it is essential to know that we only have 24 hours. This means that to sustain your addictive lifestyle, you need to carve out time from other areas of your life. Maybe you do not go to the gym as much as usual; you neglect your university or job, or other parts of your social life.
The unconscious decision to live a life of addiction is, at the same, a decision to not have time for positive and healthy activities. When was the last time that you had a weekend where you came back healthier and happier and more energetic? Time is limited, be very aware of what you do because it determines what you do not do.
The second sign that you might be addicted is that your drug or addictive behaviour is getting in the way of your life, the things you genuinely want to do and your relationships. Maybe you want to get in shape, and you never get yourself to work out because you are too weak from your weekly excess. Are things that used to be important for you like certain hobbies, not as important anymore? Did you give up on some personal goals? Are you ignoring some of your responsibilities because of your addiction?
And, the most critical question: are you getting better or are you getting worse?
If you feel that your addiction is getting in the way of your motivation, this is a huge red flag.
Who are the five people you spend the most time with? Are they all addictive personalities? If so, this can give you valuable information about what kind of social system you are living in. Again, addicts create a system around themselves in which their behaviour is normal. So, you need to critically evaluate not only your behaviour but the norm of your social environment. Sometimes it is not you who is sick, but you live in an environment that is dominated by addiction and deterioration.
Ask yourself: If you do not change anything in your life, where will you be in three years, socially, health-wise, career-wise? If you do not stop your undesired behaviour, what will it eventually cost you?
The third sign that you might be an addict is Prevalence.
Do you find yourself doing the addictive behaviour more and longer than you originally planned? This is typical, I am going to have only two beers, and then you end up getting smashed till the night is over.
When you look at the 365 days of the year, how many days is your addictive behaviour present in the form of you using, or you dealing and feeling with the consequences (hangover, for example)?
Addiction is in the business of more. Your body adjusts to the drug, and with time, you need larger and larger doses to reach your preferred high. Is your addictive pattern changing other habits? Maybe it is hurting your eating habits, sleep rhythm, or your appearance. Did somebody tell you lately that you do not look as fresh as usual? Is your bank account bleeding because of your residual excesses?
Are you making excuses for it? Maybe you say this is just the way I am? If your addictive pattern is becoming more impossible to hide, it is time to talk to someone.
Another sign that you may be an addict is you having risky behaviour. Is your addictive behaviour hurting you socially, financially, career-wise, or even health-wise? Maybe you are having unprotected sex when you are high, or you cheat on your loved one, or you get in trouble with the law because you drove home from the party drunk?
Those are all big red flags. If your current way of going through life is putting your health, your education, your dreams, your job, and your social connections at risk, you may need to re-evaluate if you have a problem or not.
What about your psychology? Anxiety, depression, memory problems, and difficulties with concentration can all be side effects of an addictive pattern.
Nobody wants to be an addict. If you feel that you have something to hide, that you are ashamed of your behaviour, you should talk to someone.
The fifth sign that you might be an addict is that you have withdrawal symptoms. Any time a drug is absent, the withdrawal symptoms kick in. This can vary depending on the kind of addiction that you have. Still, if you have physical symptoms like restlessness, resentfulness, or being highly irritatable or defensive, it can be because you are in withdrawal. If you often deal with withdrawal symptoms, like fatigue, or headaches, your body is telling you that he is not ok.
Do you often say to yourself that you are going to quit or reduce your addictive behaviour, only to do the same the next weekend, maybe even more?
This is the classic symptom of ”I can stop any time if I want to, but right now is not the time for it“.
Have you ever tried to reduce the behaviour that you feel is addictive, only to see that your attempt was fruitless?
A big red flag is the feeling of not being in control. Kind of like a person who stops making New Year’s resolutions because they are not going to follow through anyway.
This is a big red flag. It means that a behaviour or substance is controlling you. This can be you being a slave to your impulses, your pleasures, your anxieties, your fears, or your preferences. You are beneath rational reason and reasonable judgment. It all comes down to the most honest question, do you believe, from the bottom of your hearth, that this behaviour or substance is impacting the quality and health of your life negatively?
You only have one life; do you wish to live it like an addict?
You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. A reliable way, in my opinion, to check if you are having troubles with a substance or addictive behaviour is to stop looking at yourself for a second and investigate your social environment. How normal is it to use in your circle? How many of your friends take drugs or have the same pattern you think you have?
Addiction is incredibly hard to spot because often, it is not seen as abnormal behaviour. In our culture (Germany), it is, for example, not abnormal to get out every weekend and get so shitfaced that you cannot remember half of your night. When we think of addiction, we still think of the classical heroin addict, who lives, eats, and breathes to get their next shot.
Alcohol was fathered in that we do not consider it dangerous or toxic anymore. It is not a drug; it is a drink. We drink alcohol in Germany when we celebrate a birthday; it is a psychological reward that we have conditioned to associate with something good. New Year’s, birthdays, soccer games, coming home from work, and Christmas, alcohol is a celebratory drug at almost all occasions.
It is normal in Germany when we have a soccer game that everybody gets a beer. Imagine a stadium full of 40,000 people all doing a little bit of cocaine. The idea is weird, but this is actually what is happening. A society that drugs itself daily.
I am not against drugs; I am against behaviour that gets in the way of people doing what they really want to do.
Evaluate and deconstruct your social circle. Where do you usually meet? Is it at the bar? At the club? Or in the library, or at the gym?
The reward of addiction is, in most cases, immediate fun, reinforcement, connectedness, and happiness.
What happens if you go cold turkey right now? If you do not do alcohol for 3 months? How will your friends react if you meet? Will you be the odd man out?
We are all players in a social system.
We need to be self-aware and expose the system that we live in for what it really is. This is the hard part about making steps towards sobriety, for example. The realisation that your entire circle is held together by a drug, that you are all part of the wheel of self-destruction. If this is the case, you need to escape or create a balance in your circle by adding more and more healthy people to your world, so it becomes abnormal again if you intoxicate yourself regularly. This will be the hardest part because you need to leave people behind who you love.
Here are a few red flags that the Disorder Manual 5 lists as criteria to potentially diagnose a Substance Use Disorder.
Substance Use Disorders span a wide variety of problems arising from substance use and cover 11 different criteria. To be diagnosed with the disorder, you must display at least 2 of the following 11 symptoms within a year. (2)
- Consuming more alcohol or other substance than originally planned.
- Worrying about stopping or consistently failed efforts to control one’s use.
- Spending a large amount of time using drugs/alcohol or doing whatever is needed to obtain them.
- Use of the substance results in failure to “fulfil major role obligations” such as at home, work, or school.
- “Craving” the substance (alcohol or drug).
- Continuing the use of a substance despite health problems caused or worsened by it. This can be in the domain of mental health (psychological problems may include depressed mood, sleep disturbance, anxiety, or “blackouts”) or physical health.
- Continuing the use of a substance despite its having negative effects on relationships with others (for example, using even though it leads to fights or despite people’s objecting to it).
- Repeated use of the substance in a dangerous situation (for example, when having to operate heavy machinery or when driving a car).
- Giving up or reducing activities in a person’s life because of the drug/alcohol use.
- Building up a tolerance to the alcohol or drug. Tolerance is defined by the DSM-5 as “either needing to use noticeably larger amounts over time to get the desired effect or noticing less of an effect over time after repeated use of the same amount”.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping use. Withdrawal symptoms typically include, according to the DSM-5: “anxiety, irritability, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, hand tremor, or seizures in the case of alcohol”.
These criteria are not meant to label you, I simply named them because they should give you food for thought so that you become better at spotting patterns and red flags in your behaviour.
Diagnosis always comes first. Nobody can fight an enemy that they cannot see.
Questions To Ask Yourself If You Suggest That You Might Think You Have An Addiction(1)
- Do you feel a compulsion to consume drugs or alcohol to get through the day?
- Do you crave alcohol or drugs at a specific time every day?
- Have you ever sought medical attention because of your drug or alcohol use?
- Has anyone ever suggested you quit or cut back on drinking or taking drugs?
- Have you made promises to control drinking or using drugs, and broken them?
- Have you tried multiple times to stop using without success?
- Has your performance at school, work, or home been affected by your drug and alcohol consumption?
- Is your drinking or drug use jeopardising your job or business?
- Has your drinking or drug use interfered or caused problems with personal relationships?
- Has drinking or drug use led to financial difficulties?
- Have you become less ambitious or productive since drinking or using drugs?
- Do you always think about the next time you can drink alcohol or take drugs?
- Have you suffered from memory loss after using drugs or alcohol?
- Are you able to drink or use more drugs now without feeling the repercussions, compared to when you first started?
- Do you experience withdrawal symptoms after a period of time when you have not consumed drugs or alcohol?
- Do you go to extensive lengths to obtain drugs or alcohol?
- Do you remain intoxicated for several days at a time?
- Do you say or do things while intoxicated you later regret when sober?
- Is your drinking or drug use a means to escape worries or troubles?
- Do you drink or use drugs alone?
- Do you drink or use drugs because you are shy with other people?
- Do you drink or use drugs to build self-confidence?
- Are you experiencing sleeping problems due to drinking or drugs?
- Are you hanging out with old drinking or drug buddies you knew before rehab?
- Do you experience distress, anxiety, depression, restlessness, or feelings of aggression when you do not drink or use drugs?
If you have answered yes a couple of times, then it maybe should give you food for thought to talk to a friend and hear they honest opinion if they think you might are risking your health long term.
By the age of 40, most people would have said I led a happy and successful life. I was married with teenage children, had a well-paid professional job, and was actively pursuing hobbies in my free time.
But, behind the façade things were far from right.
My adolescent years had been unhappy ones, though I would keep it all to myself – the loneliness, oversensitivity, bullying, low self-esteem, and a desperate desire to be seen as successful by others.
As a student and later at work, there were times when I found myself drinking too much and making a fool of myself, but I thought everyone did that sometimes. In my 20s and 30s, as the demands and responsibilities of adult life increased, the occasions when I drank too much became more regular, and when I had been drinking I lost my inhibitions, and my sexual behaviour became increasingly promiscuous.
I Did Not Want To Hear That I Should Stop Drinking
I realised that things were out of control and sought help through my GP and various counsellors. But, I did not want to hear what they told me – that the solution for me involved stopping drinking. I could not imagine my life without a drink and the escape it gave me. I wanted to believe that I could control my drinking and associated behaviour, despite all of the evidence that I could not.
My wife and children suffered enormously, I missed work through sickness, I had periods of memory loss after drinking, and I felt increasingly hopeless. Attempts to stop drinking provided brief periods of respite, but they always failed, and the drinking, uncontrolled behaviour, and my sense of shame and despair spiralled out of control.
Turning to Priory for Support
I found myself at the Priory after attempting suicide while under the influence of alcohol. I was diagnosed with alcohol addiction, sex and love addiction, and unresolved childhood trauma. To start with, I was not convinced about sex and love addiction, and just thought I did some bad things after drinking too much. But, I did accept that if I continued doing what I had been doing, it would cost me my life.
Initially, I found it confusing, wondering what I was supposed to say in the group therapy sessions, and puzzled by some of the language, the rules, and procedures. But the mist soon cleared. I had imagined the Priory as a place for the rich and famous, but what I found was people from all walks of life, whose lives – like mine – were being destroyed by an addiction of one kind or another.
For the first time, I found I was able, to be honest and open with my peers and the therapists about my addiction and its consequences. The programme introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programmes, where I met people leading happy and successful lives in recovery. I had always dismissed AA, but now I wondered what I could learn from the people I met.
My Recovery Journey
As well as gaining a better understanding of myself and my addiction, the Priory gave me a set of tools and strategies for sustaining my recovery in the outside world. At the heart of the Priory’s approach is the importance of addicts supporting each other in recovery. I found the weekly Aftercare sessions with other patients, who had been through the Addiction Treatment Programme immensely valuable. I supplemented these with one to one therapy with an addiction therapist recommended by the Priory.
I have been in recovery for over two years now, and my outlook on life has changed completely. I am at peace with myself and those around me in a way I never thought possible. Life has its ups and downs, but I take it as it comes without trying to escape from the world or myself by reaching for a drink. I no longer feel the need to drink and take pleasure in living each day for what it has to offer.
If I have one piece of advice for anyone struggling with substance or behavioural addiction, it is to ask for help.
I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom”.
― Edgar Allan Poe
The human brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Although it may weigh less than 3 pounds, it somewhat mysteriously controls both your thoughts and the physiological processes that keep you alive. Drugs and alcohol change the way you feel by altering the chemicals that keep your brain working smoothly.
Let us get into the science of things. When you first use drugs, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine that makes you feel euphoric and want more of the drug. After all, it is only natural to want more of the thing that makes you feel good, right?
Over time, your mind gets so used to the extra dopamine that you cannot function normally without it. Everything about you will begin to change, including your personality, memory, and bodily processes that you might currently take for granted.
Drug and alcohol use impacts nearly every part of your body from your heart to your bowels. Substance abuse can lead to abnormal heart rates and heart attacks, and injecting drugs can result in collapsed veins and infections in your heart valves.
Some drugs can also stop your bones from growing correctly, while others result in severe muscle cramping and general weakness. Using drugs over a long period of time will also eventually damage your kidneys and your liver.
When you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you may forget to engage in safe sex practices. Having unprotected sex increases your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Sharing the needles used to inject certain drugs can give you diseases like hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV. You can also spread common colds, the flu, and mono from sharing pipes and bongs.
Drug and alcohol abuse not only has adverse effects on your health, but it can also have legal consequences that you will have to deal with for the rest of your life. Many employers require that you take a drug test before offering you a job—many of them even conduct random drug tests even after you become an employee. Refusing to give up drugs could end up making you unemployed, which comes with even more issues.
Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol can lead to a suspended driver’s license, usually for 6 months to 2 years. You will also need to pay hefty fines, and may even spend some time in jail.
Drugs and alcohol are expensive, especially when you are using a lot and continuously. Substance abuse also impacts your productivity and success at work and in school. The time spent searching for, using, and recuperating from drugs can be better spent learning new skills to advance your career.
The legal issues tied to drug use will increase your bills as well. Your car and health insurance rates may increase, and you will have to find a way to pay for arrest warrants, DUIs, and legal counsel.
Injuries and Death
If you use drugs and alcohol, you are more likely to experience physical injury or be involved in car accidents. Even worse, you also have an increased risk of death through both suicide and homicide.
These drug-related deaths are on the rise, doubling since the early 1980s. Alcohol specifically, results in 5.2 million accidental injuries, and 1.8 million deaths each year. It is estimated that 1 out of every 4 deaths is caused by drugs and alcohol, according to the World Health Organisation.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Drugs, Brains, and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse.
- New Jersey State Bar Association. (n. d.). Legal Consequences of Substance Abuse.
- World Health Organization. (2007). Alcohol and Injury.
Call to Action
- Ask ten friends if they think you have an addictive pattern.
- Write down five things your addiction has cost you in the past.
- Take out a calendar, and mark every day you performed the addictive behaviour, or where you had to deal with the consequence of the addictive behaviour (hangover for example).
- Make a list of all the friends who you have, and how many of them are struggling with addiction.
- Write down ten benefits that you will gain if you will lose the addiction.
- Imagine you have a child; would you be ok with that child having the same life as you are having right now? Would you allow them to consume, for example, on the same level that you are consuming right now?
- What will this behaviour cost you in the next year/3 years/5 years/20 years?