People who use drugs and alcohol don’t all use them in the same way. Not everyone who uses these substances becomes addicted, though addiction of course must start with some sort of usage. But just because they are not addicted, doesn’t mean they don’t potentially have a problem. When everyone who uses gets piled together, things get muddled. It becomes harder for people to get the help they need, because their problem has not been properly identified.
Problematic drug and alcohol ‘habits’ can more or less be divided into two categories: dependency and addiction. An addiction is extreme. It is compulsive behavior taken to the level where detrimental effects are visible, in terms of the person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. Those that are near and dear to this person are also feeling some of the same effects due to their behavior. In essence, addiction is when someone’s relationship to drugs, alcohol, or any other addictive behavior has become more than just an occasional problem, or a troublesome habit. Addiction is more life-or-death.
On the other hand, dependency is less extreme, but certainly a warning sign that someone may be headed for addiction. Someone who is dependent on a compulsive behavior needs said behavior to fulfill an internal feeling that they cannot otherwise achieve. This is certainly problematic, but not the same situation as addiction. People who are dependent might not need to abstain entirely from drinking or drugs (though if it is illegal, they should), but instead need to develop their decision-making process so that they can make better choices.
As such, some doctors do not want to label everyone who has a drug or alcohol problem as an addict. People can misuse both of those substances and not actually be “addicted,” but instead be “dependent” on them. The stigma of addiction, when combined with some people’s tendency to define their actions based on how they are labeled, makes some health professionals wary of naming a problem specifically.
However, this can create confusion among people who are unsure about how “healthy” their habits are. Take, for example, British drinking culture. Alcohol consumption is ingrained almost as though it is part of the daily routine. While studies suggest that fewer young people are drinking in Britain than in previous years, but that says little about the habits of those who do drink. If someone is having casual drinks at the bar, but doing so every night, do they have a problem?
That is where things get murkier. More than just understanding the difference between dependency and addiction, we collectively have to understand that what constitutes a “dependency” is different for each individual. One can drink over the recommended limit and still, theoretically, not have a dependency, much less an addiction. But when that behavior becomes more out of necessity than choice, it becomes a problem that can potentially be defined as either.
Thus, everyone’s threshold for consumption is different. Each situation is unique. The health effects of drug and alcohol use and abuse are well known, and of course, using them less stands to be better for one’s health, in general. But knowing when it is time to call one’s use of a substance an addiction is still vital. It ensures that person will get the proper treatment before it is too late. The better we can understand the differences in everyone’s relationship to substances and behaviors, the more lives that can be saved.
The sooner we can begin to differentiate between a dependency and an addiction, the better. As with any medical condition, getting the proper treatment is key.