Am I addicted to drugs… or simply self-medicating?

Are you using drugs for pain or heartache? You are not alone. Here, we look at the social stigma of using drugs in order to self-medicate the problems that lie beneath the surface. Then, we invite your questions or comments at the end.

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Do you take drugs or drink in order to dull internal pain or heartache? You are not alone!

Here, we look at the social stigma of using drugs in order to self-medicate the problems that lie beneath the surface. We hope to re-frame the condition of addiction to help you gain some momentum in your addiction recovery. Then, we invite your questions or comments at the end.

Mental health conditions compel drug use

Drug addiction is more often than not cast in negative light. For the addict under this spotlight, self-confidence shrivels and chances of seeking professional care plummets. It is important to remember the person before the drugs, and that those with a substance abuse problem are using in an attempt to self-medicate an acute, untreated, underlying mental health condition.

Instead of labeling and ostracizing, a reduction in societal stigma and increase in compassion and understanding would foster treatment-seeking behavior – and perhaps more effective, expeditious recovery.

Drug addict or self-medicating?

The term ‘drug addict’ brings with it nasty interpretation.

An addict shooting up. A criminal robbing the innocent. A degenerate selling drugs…A bad person.

Or, perhaps, a “less-than” person.

Sadly, and especially with media coverage, the focus is on the drugs, the user while on the drugs – and not the person, the peer, the human being.

And, after support groups, rehabs, jail – the substance abuser may too begin to view him or herself as less than, making recovery even more difficult and something unattainable.

A Symptom of An Underlying, Untreated Ailment

Not always, but more often than not… it’s been my experience that trauma lies at the heart of addiction. After a decade of drug abuse myself, I’ve come to realize most people with drug problems are simply using to cope.

Anxiety, depression, ADD, bipolar, PTSD, emotional baggage – the list goes on. And those who are treated for such conditions, may in fact be treated for a misdiagnosis, since continued substance abuse “muddies the waters” and makes accurate diagnoses near impossible.

Q: A question I ask recovering addicts: “If you were content and felt your best on a daily basis, would you still want to use drugs the way you do now, or have in the past?”

A: A common answer in response: “I mean, probably not – but I doubt I’ll ever feel that good on my own, so… Yeah, the temptation is always going to be there; I can’t say… but probably not.”

People DON’T want to use drugs!

I’m a strong believer in using to self-medicate. Sure, a rush of dopamine feels good – but after all the years of abuse, the fleeting (often barely momentary, if even present) enjoyment is far overshadowed by guilt, shame and the certainty of my problems still being there – and soon to be amplified – after coming down.

If needed, let’s create a less embarrassing label

When labeled an “addict”, the substance abuser is hit with a triple whammy:

a) Mental health conditions are all in your head
b) Mental illness means you’re absolutely crazy
c) Drug addicts are inferior and will never change

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone I was using with say they would see a psychiatrist- except that their family doesn’t believe in “shrinks” and would hate to hear of money was being wasted on “all that.” And I can”t tell you how many users I”ve heard say “that medicine” simply doesn’t work. But this (substance) does – that THIS is my medicine.

Even further, I can’t tell you how many people discontinue psychiatric treatment after failed trial and error periods, or after a bad reaction to a particular medicine, anti-depressant or mood stabilizer. -I myself, with over one hundred (100~) days clean, went back to using after a horrible, three-day period of extreme jitteriness, no sleep, and bizarre, rapid thinking from trying a new antipsychotic.

Getting meds right is a process, and that, coupled with embarrassment, judgment and skepticism, makes NOT relapsing that much harder.

Research shows addiction is linked to mental health

Very few people (I’m assuming) wake up one day with the desire to have an out-of-control substance abuse problem. Whether ignited by a doctor’s prescription, or during a party with some friends, addiction begins with the realization or discovery that altered life is “better” than unaltered life.

Yes – some people have addictive personalties and perhaps even biological predispositions to addiction, but the drive to escape caused by mental trauma starts the cycle and keeps it going.

  • According to a study performed by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), with a subject group of 17,000 people, past trauma during childhood or adolescence increase the chances of adult alcoholism by 500% – and IV drug use by 4,600%.
  • According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, who formulated the self-medication hypothesis (SMH) over 40 years of research, addicted people: Medicat[e] their immense psychological pain. [P]ersonality deficits coalesce into […] a lack of emotional regulation. These patients are not able to know, tolerate or express their feelings.
  • And finally, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders” have substance abuse problems

Societal Stigma and Continued Professional Treatment

What transpires under the influence may warrant raised eyebrows and finger-pointing, to say the least. But what we must realize is that a PERSON with a history of substance abuse is a PERSON in need of professional care.

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions and negativity attributed to drug use and addiction prevent proper treatment. And while helpful for accountability and connection, support groups may inadvertently discourage treatment, since medicines may be prescribed – and “a drug is a drug is a drug.”

And where does this leave the addict?

Self-medicating does help manage and reduce some mental health issues or emotional trauma, in the short run. Long-term, however, self-medication often worsens conditions and amplifies unregulated emotions, while keeping the user stuck in a cycle of addiction and unable to move forward in life.

And what can non-addicts do to help?

If a friend or loved one you know is struggling with substance abuse, I encourage you to – as difficult as it may be – avoid blaming, demeaning or attacking. Your anger, frustration or disappointment may certainly be warranted. But such a response only further reinforces the less than, inferior – you are negatively different – labels which push substance abusers away and can significantly decrease likelihood of treatment. Greater social change and openness about drug use and addictions [means] society is becoming more compassionate towards those with addictions.

Understanding and compassion is exactly what is needed.

For me, the enormous pain and emotional distress I’ve put my family through is deserving of utter rejection. Yet without the continual support of my family, I wouldn’t be here right now to write you this message.

A drug addict may not value his or her life. Show that you do, so he or she will.

Are you self-medicating now? We can help!

Are you concerned about someone you know whose substance abuse is out of control? Are you able to talk with this person, to encourage professional treatment? How are you handing the situation, and what can be done to increase chances of sobriety and success?

Please leave your thoughts, comments and experiences below – so others can know they’re not alone, provide insight, and share their stories in response. Hope is never lost! Our addiction specialists will also respond with advice and encouragement for your specific situation, and can point you in the right direction for help.

Reference Sources: Psychology Today
The Fix
American Medical Association



About the author is a new blog about addiction seeking to reshape opinion and reduce stigma. It's run by a recovering addict in his late twenties who stumbles with the occasional relapse. Perhaps in time, he'll show his face. You can find him at The Addictid Blog and on his I Am Addictid Twitter handle.
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