Addiction

Note: This graphic (in the Gallery) is about substance use specifically but addiction can be about other behaviours, like gambling, pornography, gaming, Internet use, etc.

Definition

The word “addiction” gets thrown around a lot, and is often used incorrectly. People use the word “addiction” or other addiction-related language to describe things that are “out of control” or “extreme”, or to talk about things that they really, really like. Examples: “I’m addicted to this new App…” or “I have a chocolate addiction” or “I’m having Netflix withdrawal ” or “I’m a Bookaholic”

Actual addiction is a complicated mental illness that has a profound impact on a person’s life. It’s when a person is enslaved to something that is psychologically and/or physically habit-forming.

Addiction is a tough thing to pinpoint, so attempts have been made to figure out an easy way to define it. One way people try and identify whether something is an addiction or not is to look for the “Four Cs”:

  • Craving
  • Loss of Control of amount or frequency of use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Use continues despite Consequences.

To define addiction according to the Four Cs, you’d be looking for all of these behaviours. That means that if a person only fits some of these criteria, they might not be “addicted”. For instance, someone who gets a headache after skipping their afternoon tea break isn’t necessarily “addicted” to tea, even though they’re having a craving/withdrawal symptom.

The other complicated thing about addiction is that it’s not just about drugs or alcohol. Addiction can describe all sorts of behaviours, like problem gambling, compulsive use of pornography or excessive gaming or Internet use.  If you can apply the “Four Cs” to behaviours like this, it might be an addiction.

Understanding addiction can be complicated. People and their behaviours don’t usually fit neatly into a “category”. The world is not divided into “healthy people” vs. “addicts”. Instead, it might help to look addiction as part of a “spectrum” or sliding scale.

Effects

The effects of addiction are going to vary according to what a person is addicted to. Addiction to substances will cause a wide range of physical and emotional health issues, but so does addiction to things like gambling, gaming, pornography etc. Also, keep in mind that although we use these three examples (gambling, gaming, and pornography) frequently, addiction can describe a wide variety of problematic behaviors.

When someone has an addiction, it can affect every aspect of their life (see image in slideshow).

Resource issues: People who have an addiction can experience serious issues with money, housing, employment and school.

  • Example: gambling compulsively leads to money loss, substance addiction means spending money on drugs, etc.
  • Money problems can be connected to a whole host of other issues, like housing, school, food security, employment, mental health, goals, hobbies, legal issues, etc.

Relationship issues: Regardless of what the focus of the addiction is, it can cause serious issues with family and friends.

  • It can be hard to cope with seeing a loved one have an addiction and feel powerless to do anything about it.
  • Addictions can cause resentment, avoidance, betrayal, anger, worry, shame, sadness, isolation and guilt for all involved.
  • Strained relationships can complicate recovery, support, emotional wellbeing etc.

Physical and mental health issues: Addiction is often linked to mental and physical health issues or illnesses.

  • People struggling with a mental health issue turn to coping strategies (ex.: substances) which lead to addiction
  • Addiction can lead to emotional distress and turmoil, and cause things like anxiety, depression and stress-related problems such as poor sleep, ulcers, bowel problems, headaches and muscle pains.
  • Addiction to substances can cause more immediate health issues, which vary widely depending on the type of addiction.
  • People who have an addiction are at a higher risk of suicide than those who do not struggle with addiction. 
Signs and Symptoms

What would be some signs that someone is struggling with addiction? One way people try and identify whether something is an addiction or not is to look for the “Four Cs”:

  • Craving
  • Loss of Control of amount or frequency of use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Use continues despite Consequences.

To define addiction according to the Four Cs, you’d be looking for all of these behaviours. That means that if a person only fits some of these criteria, they might not be “addicted”. For instance, someone who gets a headache after skipping their afternoon tea break isn’t necessarily “addicted” to tea, even though they’re having a craving/withdrawal symptom.

Here are some behaviours that might indicate that someone is struggling with addictive behaviours:

  • Gaining a thrill from the behaviour/substance (in addition to other symptoms)
  • Taking increasingly bigger risks to keep up the habit
  • Preoccupation with the behaviour/substance
  • Frequently talking about and reliving past experiences with the behaviour/substance
  • The behaviour/substance is used as a way to escape problems or feelings of helplessness, guilt or depression
  • Concealing or lying about the behaviour/use of substances
  • Feeling guilt or remorse about the behaviour/use of substances
  • Borrowing money or stealing to engage in the behaviour/get access to substances
  • Failed efforts to cut back
  • Compulsive behaviour related to the behavior/substance, even when there are negative consequences
  • Not doing activities once enjoyed
  • Moodiness, anxiety, angry outbursts, giddiness or hyperactivity
  • Changes in eating/sleeping patterns
  • Changes in relationships with family and friends
  • Leaving old friend group to hang out with new friends connected with the addictive behaviour (example: hanging out with others who use substances)
  • Trouble attending school or work
  • Changes in appearance or level of self-care
  • Physical symptoms (with substance use: tooth decay, sores in nose/mouth, breathing/coughing issues, marks/sores, weight loss/gain etc.)
  • Irritable, ill or feeling withdrawal when not using substances or engaging in the behaviour
  • Abandoning responsibilities
Myths

Myth: Doing something regularly or in excess means you are an “addict”.

Fact: Addiction is a lot more complicated than that. The world is not divided into “those who don’t use” and “addicts”. Addiction is not measured by what the behaviour/drug is, or how much or how often it’s being used. It’s more helpful to think of addiction in terms of how it's affecting your health and life. If there’s craving, a loss of control, a compulsion and the behaviour continues despite consequences, it might be an addiction.

Myth: Addiction is a choice. People who “can’t stop” their behaviour are just lacking in willpower.

Fact: Lots of people choose to use substances, gamble, spend time gaming etc. but not everyone develops an addiction. Addiction is not a choice and is caused by a lot of complicated factors, including genetics, mental health issues, environmental factors etc. Recovering from an addiction is possible, but it is a process and includes long-term support. Relapse is common for those attempting to recover from an addiction.  Quitting on one’s own is rare and judging someone for not being able to do so can make them feel shame and guilt that can make the problem worse.

Myth: Many people relapse, so treatment obviously does not work.

Fact: Like any other medical treatment, addiction treatment cannot guarantee lifelong recovery. Relapse is often a part of the recovery process. Most people who have an addiction require long term treatment and, in many cases, repeated treatments are necessary. The first few months after treatment are when people are at the biggest risk of relapse. Youth in particular can struggle with relapse because they often have to return to their homes/environments where the use was happening in the first place and have less options for “starting fresh” because of this. Despite these challenges, people can, and do, make full recoveries from addiction.

Myth: Addiction is for life.

Fact: Recovery from addiction can be ongoing. Many who have struggled with addiction need continued support and coping strategies to avoid relapse, but this does not mean that addiction is “forever”. Some may struggle for years to overcome an addiction, but many more people manage to put the past behind them and lead productive lives.

Myth: You need to be religious in order to overcome an addiction.

Fact: Some treatment groups and strategies are faith-based, and they work for a lot of people. However, getting help doesn’t require you to believe in God or subscribe to any organized religion. It might help, however, to believe in humanity, family, community, and the good aspects of yourself – beliefs/supports that can help you to overcome your addiction.

Myth: You have to hit 'rock bottom' before you commit to getting better.

Fact: If we wait until a person "bottoms out," it could be too late to help them. Every person has a different "bottom." This could mean anything from losing an important relationship, to losing a job or dropping out of school, to doing something that interferes with your ability to parent or reach a goal, to getting arrested, to ending up homeless. It’s not like the worse you have it, the better your chances are at recovering. Waiting to see what “bottom” looks like for you is not going to make it easier to recover from an addiction. 

Help

Addiction is treatable. If a person’s pattern of behaviours/use of substances is interfering with physical health, relationships, and/or the ability to live a comfortable life, it’s time to talk to someone. That someone could be a friend you trust, a teacher, your family doctor, a crisis line, or counsellor. You don’t have to wait until things get really “bad” before seeking help.

If it is a friend you are concerned about, they may resist help or not even recognize that they need it. Someone who has an addiction may not recognize that they have a problem or deny having an issue. They might need you to make the first step.

If you feel like you need to talk to a friend about their potential addiction, here are some tips that might help:

  • Wait for a time when they are not high or drunk or engaging in whatever the potential addiction is.
  • Pick a place and time that is calm and neutral to talk with them.
  • Be prepared to give solid examples as to why you are concerned about their behaviour.
  • Come prepared with some suggestions of resources for them.
  • If you are willing or able, decide to stop putting yourself into situations where you are normalizing or enabling your friend's behaviour (example: If substance use is the concern, don’t invite them out to the bar with you).
  • If you feel comfortable, talk to an adult you trust or find helpful, or other people in your friend's life who are concerned for some support.

As always, if you feel like your friend might hurt him/herself or someone else, it’s time to call emergency services.  

Visit our Help Section to find out how to get help for yourself or a friend.

Treatment

People who seek treatment for addiction can do so in a number of ways. Treatment could include:

  • Group therapy or meetings (like 12-step programs Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, etc.)
  • Counselling
  • Peer support
  • Medical intervention (to address critical or immediate physical health issues that have happened because of substance use)
  • Detox: A safe place where medical professionals help someone through the physical symptoms of withdrawal (right after someone stops using and the drugs are clearing from their system)
  • Spending time in a hospital or other in treatment centre
  • Medication (to manage cravings or ease withdrawal)
  • Family and social support or intervention
  • A combination of all of the above

More and more treatment centres have developed programs specific to addictions like gambling, gaming, Internet, pornography, etc. Depending on the addiction, treatment might be available in your area to target specific issues.

Treatment for addiction might be geared toward what a person's goals are. For example, some people might have the goal to completely stop, and for others a more gradual approach is needed to help people decrease their use bit by bit.

Addiction can also be complicated by other mental health concerns. Treatment strategies may also include addressing these issues as well as the addictions issue.

Family members of someone who has an addiction may participate in therapy or support groups, or benefit from learning about it and ways to support their loved one at home.

Every story is different, and sometimes people need to try different types of supports before they find the right plan for them.

A person living with an addiction, like any other person, will benefit from maintaining wellness and having good supports in their life. 

Support

Trying to support someone that an addiction can be extremely challenging. Here are some tips that might help:

  • Learn about addiction and the signs of it.
  • A lot of social situations might be centered around behaviours/triggers for people’s addiction. Example: Many parties include alcohol, some events include gambling, etc. Try and hang out with your friend in environments that will be free of triggers.
  • You may think your friend's behaviour is risky or problematic, but they might not see it that way. If you are really worried about it speak up and let them know that you care about them and want to be supportive.
  • Even if you've done things in the past to encourage/enable the addiction with this person, it's still ok for you to say something. For example, you might have used substances or gambled with your friend before, and now feel weird about telling them you’re worried about their behaviour. Not everyone experiences substance use, gambling, gaming etc. the same way, and some may be more likely to develop an addiction than others.
  • Be prepared to stop enabling behaviour. This means not “helping” them to live comfortably with their addiction. Example: Don’t cover for them at school or work, don’t give them money to help their behaviour, don’t participate in their behaviour with them etc. This is harder than it sounds, and could cause an angry response or affect your relationship, but may be necessary in order to help your friend get better.
  • If you have been hurt, inconvenienced or put at risk because of someone else's substance use, you might feel angry or frustrated with them. It's good to own that, and speak to them only if you feel calm and ready.
  • Encourage professional help for your friend when needed (see Help Section)
  • If your friend is in the hospital/rehab, go and visit them if you are able. The hospital may be scary and overwhelming for them and a friendly face can help. Make sure to ask about visitor rules first.
  • If you worry that your friend is relapsing into unhealthy behaviours, let them know you are worried about them and encourage them to check in with their doctor or family. If you’re really worried about their health and safety, tell an adult you trust.
  • Treatment is a process. Relapse is common. Be aware of this and try to be supportive as your friend adjusts.
  • Be a sounding board. Listening without judgement and without trying to “fix” their problems can be incredibly helpful.
  • Ask your friend how else you can help. It may be as easy as just providing a distraction, asking them to do simple, relaxing things with you (like hanging out, watching a movie, etc.).
  • Set some boundaries for yourself, and take care. You can’t help someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it.
  • Sometimes, if the situation is becoming unhealthy for you, it’s okay to walk away. You are under no obligation to “save” your friend or continue trying to help them if they are resistant, hostile or affecting your ability to live your own life. You can be supportive, but in the end, you can’t make someone’s decisions for them, and you need to put your health and safety first.

See the Help Section for more info about helping a friend and self care. 

More on mindyourmind.ca

Interactive tools:

7 Strategies for Facing your Internet/TV Addiction: A blog by Leo Babauta, creator and writer of Zen Habits

Everyone Drinks: A blog by Tommy about recovery in a world where social drinking is the norm

Resources

To learn more about substance use, check out Mental Health: A to Z Substance Use on mytoolkit.ca

Ontario – call ConnexOntario to find out where there are mental health supports in your community. They have information directly related to Problem Gambling and Substance Use.

Crisis – in any situation where someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or a local crisis line.

Please see the Help Section for more information and resources.

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