Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned a great deal about addictive substances and addictions. It is a complex and multi-dimensional topic, and people hold many misconceptions about not only the process of addiction, but about the types of people who are addicts. Many people see addiction as a weakness, a character flaw in a person who is not strong enough to cope with life. Some think addicts are selfish people who do not love their family, deliberately choosing an addictive substance over their loved ones.
Stereotypes of addicts are common. The stereotypical drug addict may be a skeletal, hollow-eyed man, arms covered in needle marks, committing B & E’s to support his habit. The stereotypical alcoholic may be the lady down the street who staggers around in a housecoat all day with a wineglass in her hand as her ragged and neglected children run wild in the streets. The stereotypical gambler sits unblinkingly in front of a VLT for hours, feeding his life savings into the machine, wearing Depends to avoid having to even leave the machine to go to the bathroom. Certainly these are extreme examples of what addiction can do to people. In actual fact the majority of addicts are very different from these stereotypes.
Your family doctor could be an addict. Your child’s schoolteacher could be an addict. Your employer or co-worker could be an addict. Your teenager could be an addict. You could be an addict. Most addicts are normal people like you and I, people who live and work alongside us, people who are often highly successful in life. Addicts are not people who are too weak to cope with life, nor are they people who do not love their families. Addicts are people like you and I, people struggling to find their way in life, trying to succeed, trying to be happy. The only difference is that they have become addicted to something that negatively impacts their life in some way. Addiction, however, is shrouded in secrecy. People who are struggling with an addiction, and their family members, often join in a conspiracy of silence to hide the problem.
The reality is, most Canadians use drugs and gamble. Sound surprising? Nine out of ten Canadians use an addictive stimulant that has side effects that include miscarriages, anxiety and depression if used in excess. This drug can cause withdrawal symptoms such as headache and sleep problems. The drug? Caffeine! If you consume caffeine in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, or painkillers – then you use drugs. Did you buy a Super 7 ticket last week? Or maybe played bingo or bought a raffle ticket from the cute kid next door to support his soccer team? Then you gamble, just like 87% of Albertans. Do you smoke or drink? According to AADAC statistics almost 30% of Canadians use nicotine products, and more than 75% use alcohol – two of the most common addictive drugs. But likely you are among the majority and have not become addicted to any of these substances.
Addictions are complex and can involve a multitude of substances. A person can become addicted to virtually anything, whether it is a drug or an activity. The most common addictions in our culture are tobacco, alcohol and gambling. Less common are drug addictions – cocaine, marijuana, club drugs, prescription medicine, etc. Even over-the-counter medications such as Gravol are abused by some. People can also be addicted to the Internet, caffeine, sex, exercise, dieting, video games, certain foods, and much more.
Most of us engage in these activities and enjoy them. We drink coffee each day, buy lottery tickets, surf the Internet, have sex, and go on diets (well, OK we don’t necessarily enjoy dieting, but it has a desirable end result). They are all normal activities, part of our everyday routine, and we see them as things that enhance the quality of our life. But for a minority of people, these activities lead to a harmful addiction. What is the difference between “normal” use and addiction, and how can you tell if you have a problem?
Next week: the signs of addiction
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.