Substance Abuse describes the phenomenon of someone who continues to use a “substance” such as alcohol or marijuana, regardless of the negative outcomes of his use.  There are many words to describe a person who abuses substances, among these are:  “addict,”  “chemically dependent,” “alcoholic,” “drug addict” and more.  Regardless of the label, we are talking about the same thing:  a person who continues to use drugs or alcohol despite the negative affects on her life.

Many people drink.  However, there is a difference between someone who does so “abusively” and someone who does not.  Alcohol is a mind-altering substance.  It has the ability to decrease our inhibitions; enhance our mood (making our mood better if it’s already good, or sometimes worse if it’s already bad); and impair our judgment.  For some, alcohol provides a temporary escape from how one ordinarily feels.  For others, alcohol may become a “crutch” to deal with social situations, or everyday life.  For the addict, however, it doesn’t matter what the reason is for using, the outcome is the same:  addiction.

Some people are genetically pre-disposed, or engineered, to become substance abusers.  Research suggests that if you come from a family with genetically-related parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles who abuse drugs or alcohol, you are at higher-risk of becoming a substance abuser than those without a genetic link to substance abusers.

This research also suggests that a person at-risk of substance abuse actually process alcohol differently in their body.  Therefore, it is easier for at-risk people to develop a dependency on alcohol.  

Popular culture has created a negative image of the addict, resulting in stereotypes of the “down and out” or “irresponsible” person.  However, much like most challenges in our society, addiction affects persons of all races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and socio-economic status’.  Addiction does not discriminate.

Symptoms of Substance Abuse include:

  • Someone in your life has expressed concern about your use
  • Require larger amounts to get the same “high”
  • Frequently use or drink more than intended, or at times when planned to not use
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop the use of the substance
  • Spending a lot of time acquiring, thinking about, or taking the substance – or recovering (hangover) from use
  • Use in dangerous situations such as drinking & driving
  • Less time socializing or working in order to spend more time with substance using friends or using alone
  • Legal, financial, family or employment problems related to use
  • Continued use despite resulting problems
  • Blackouts:  not remembering behaviors while drinking

If you fit some or most of these characteristics, it is likely that you have crossed the line between a social user, and a substance abuser.  


If you are reading this and thinking about someone you care about, it is important that you know that addicts tend to gravitate toward people who will make it easy/comfortable to use.  I encourage you to be sure to never make it “okay” or “comfortable” for an addict to use.  For example, don’t say, “you didn’t do anything stupid last night” – if the addict did but can’t remember… they need to know the truth.  When you help an addict stay addicted you are “enabling” them to continue hurting themselves.  Often people who are in relationships with addicts are called “enablers” for this reason.

“Recovery” (or abstinence) from drug/alcohol use is hard.  Most people have trouble admitting it is a problem.  If someone you care about is able to identify his use as a problem, there are a lot of resources available to assist him through recovery.  Once people realize how hard it is to abstain, or stop using their drug of choice,  it is common for these people to convince themselves, and others, that when they admitted they had a “problem” they were wrong, and that they really don’t have a “problem” after all. This is common.  It is called denial.

In order to abstain (not use), it is recommended that there be NO drug or alcohol use at all — meaning, no marijuana or pills, etc… in lieu of alcohol, or vice-versa.  A recovering substance abuser is going to have to make some sacrifices.  

Recovery programs vary significantly.  The most common forms of treatment are as follows, from least-intensive to most-intensive:

  • Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous
  • Individual Counseling 
  • Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) which generally meet 3 times a week for a period of 8 or so weeks, and then require a weekly “aftercare” meeting
  • Day Hospitalization, or a Partial Treatment Program – which generally requires Monday-Friday group meetings for anywhere from 4-6 hours a day
  • Inpatient Hospitalization – this is for the addict who has used an addictive substance that requires medical detoxification (such as an alcoholic who has been drinking large amounts of alcohol daily).  To stop drinking completely may pose significant health risks (such as cardiac arrest) for the severe addict, therefore detoxification is essential for a safe withdrawal from alcohol or other physically addictive substances
  • Residential Treatment – is an extended recovery treatment facility where you actually live.  These may be “Assisted Living” facilities where you can leave for work, and then return in the evenings, or they may be a secured facility where you are there 24 hours a day for 30 days or longer.  These are less common these days.