What Does Prescription Pill Addiction Look Like?

Am I Addicted to Prescription Pills?

This is the question everyone wants answered. There is so much confusion about what addiction is and when it’s time to get help. Whether thinking about themselves or a loved one, people ask:

  • Is this just a phase?
  • Is there something wrong with me or my loved one? Is something wrong in the brain or with my/their genes?
  • My doctor/dentist gave me my meds and my dose. How can following their advice lead me into addiction?
  • What’s the difference between addiction and a bad habit?
  • How do I know if myself or my loved one is addicted?

These questions are super common. After all, 70% of the US drinks alcohol and roughly 50% of all people that went through high school in the 60’s and 70’s smoked marijuana at least once. Most of those people did not end up addicted. Most of us can think back to a time where we drank too much or maybe even got high and did something stupid, but we moved on from that phase. So how can we tell if it’s more than a phase and is “real addiction”?

When it comes to prescription pills, we see the same thing. 25% of all women in the US have been prescribed some kind of medication. Most high school and college athletes get prescribed opioid painkillers after a serious injury. Over 16 million teens and adults have been prescribed Ritalin or Adderall (which is almost chemically identical to meth). You assume medical professionals are prescribing them because they’re safe.

How Do I Know If It’s Addiction?

The important point that most people don’t understand about addiction is that it’s not an either/or situation. There is a progression from experimentation to abusive use to addiction. The problem is that, as someone goes further and further down the path of pill abuse, they are that much more likely to end up addicted.

Think about it like any hobby or favorite past time, sports for example. You probably know a lot of people that watch football on Sundays. Then there are those people that really get into their team and pay good money for tickets and live games. Then you know those people that have tons of paraphernalia, will pay thousands of dollars for autographed jerseys and season tickets, and, if you’re a Packer fan from Wisconsin, even go to games in the freezing cold in just underwear and body paint.

Prescription pills and other drugs are exactly the same. People just start out experimenting. Then some of them get really into it and become heavier users. Others go even deeper and get into harder drugs like heroin and may even lie, cheat, and steal to support their habit.

So when we talk about addiction, we’re looking at 2 things:

1) Is use of prescription pills a problem already or is it starting to become a problem? There are specific signs to look for to identify whether or not someone is going down a dangerous path:

  • They change. The way they interact with people, like family and friends, they once cared for begins to change. They may become manipulative or even steal to support their habit.
  • They lose interest in life goals like family, career, school, etc.
  • The pill or drug use is causing problems. They have broken relationships, divorces, get fired, flunk out of school, etc.
  • They spend more time doing drugs than other activities they used to love.
  • They can’t stop. They say they want to or say they can control their use, but, every time, they end up taking too much and things spiral out of control yet again.

The important thing is not to worry about whether it’s “really addiction” or not, it’s determining if that person is having problems in their life. If they are, it’s time to get help. Which leads us to our next point.

2)  There is a continuum from experimentation to abuse to addiction and people might need help at any part in that continuum. Think about it. Would you rather catch cancer in stage 1 or stage 4? If it’s stage 4, you’re probably going to die. Most people would prefer to catch it in stage 1, when the chance of curing it through treatment is very high.

Addiction is the same. The earlier you get people help, the easier it is and the less damage has been done. Before someone loses their job, their marriage, their education, or even their life is the best time to help someone get into treatment.

Am I Broken Forever? Is Addiction Genetic or the Result of Something Broken in My Brain?

Notice we didn’t mention anything about a person’s brain or their genes. To date, there has been no evidence that points to a particular gene or anything in the brain that leads to addiction. If you compare the genes or the brains of people struggling with addiction to those of people who aren’t, you cannot find any specific differences.  This is great news because it means that there isn’t something permanently wrong with those struggling with addiction. It can be fixed (as millions of people in recovery today can tell you).

In fact, what brain scans have shown us is that the brain changes over time through heavier and heavier use, meaning, while the brain isn’t different to begin with, it starts to become different over time.

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How Do Prescription Pills and Other Drugs Affect the Brain?

In this way, biology interacts with addiction. As someone starts using more and more of a drug, their brain starts to wire differently, focusing on the drug more and more. Think about it like any normal activity, saying studying math. Math might be hard for someone, but, if they study and study, they’ll get better and be able to pass the test. If they do really well in math, they might even decide to become an accountant or engineer because our brain likes doing things it’s good at.

Your brain on drugs works the same way. As you use more and more drugs, your brain gets “really good at taking drugs.” Going back to our sports analogy, someone getting into baseball cards keeps buying more and more. Our sport or drug enthusiast will spend a lot of time and money acquiring more cards, or more drug experiences. It’s quite normal.

This is one reason why most people don’t become addicted to opioid painkillers. They only take them for a week, maybe two, which isn’t long enough to start rewiring the brain to build bad habits. But longer use, especially with drugs like Ritalin or Adderall, that are used for extended periods of time, even years, can create reliance leading to addiction.

The challenge with illicit drugs or even prescription drugs regularly taken beyond prescribed doses is that, unlike sports cards or math, they have chemical effects on your brain that can encourage poor judgment and often impede your ability to make good decisions. This is especially true when more than the recommended dose of a prescription pill is taken. Many abusers of these pills will crush them up or take large quantities in order to experience a high. So it’s much easier to spiral into drug addiction than it is to spiral into a sports card addiction (though, believe it or not, the latter happens as well, just not nearly as often).

Your Brain Has the Power to Change (for the Better)!

While drug addiction can certainly be scary, the good news is that, just like your brain changes when using drugs, it’ll change again when you stop taking them. Not right away, of course. Building new habits takes a long time as your brain has to build up new connections and prune away the old ones. The minimum length of time needed to change an old habit or start a new one is 28 days. Addiction happened over a long period of time, so recovery requires a significant investment of time to reverse it as well.

People don’t have brains or genes that are permanently “broken.” They have the power to change as so many millions in recovery before them have.

Now, that’s certainly not to say it’s easy.

Think about the last time you tried to start a diet or begin to exercise regularly. Wasn’t easy, was it? And, if you’re like most people, you probably gave up before achieving your goal on the first try.

Thinking about how hard that was, imagine trying to change a habit of drug use and addiction where the drug is ALSO making it harder to change. Your brain has become used to the drug and wants it that much more, there are often very painful physical withdrawal symptoms, and, to top it all off, you’re not thinking very clearly when taking the drugs.

This all makes it really, really hard to change.

When People Can’t Do It on Their Own, They Hire Experts and Professionals

When people find it hard to exercise regularly or keep a healthy diet, they’ll often get a trainer, coach, or at least an accountability partner. It’s pretty normal, right? We don’t know how to do it ourselves, so we hire an expert to help us. These are just everyday tasks we often need help with.

When it comes to more difficult tasks, like math, becoming an Olympic gymnast, or conquering our depression, we go to an expert. We don’t know about you, but we’ve never heard of an Olympic gymnast that was self-taught. We’ve also rarely met people that conquered their depression without a counselor or therapist.

Addiction is exactly the same. Occasionally, people can do it on their own, but most people can’t. If they could do it on their own, they already would have, right? This is why people go to treatment centers and counseling programs.

And, let’s be clear, help from a licensed professional is very different than going to an AA or NA meeting. These meetings are full of wonderful people trying to help each other, but they’re rarely, if ever, led by a licensed professional, someone experienced in working with individuals who can’t do it on their own.

Need to talk to someone about alcohol use? We can help.

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Addiction Is Often a Symptom of a Much Deeper Issue

Another issue many people have is that they have underlying mental health issues. Addiction is rarely the root cause of a problem. It’s often only a symptom of a much deeper problem. This is why so many people drink, take prescription pills normally, or even try marijuana and never get addicted. When you have an underlying mental health issue like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or trauma, you are 5 to 10 times more likely to become addicted!

Licensed therapists like Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) are experienced at treating both addiction and the underlying mental health issues causing it. That’s why you always want to look for a dual diagnosis (sometimes called a co-occurring disorder) program.

This is a big reason why people go away to an addiction treatment program and then continue to relapse over and over after they get out. The program might have tried to treat the addiction WITHOUT treating the underlying issues causing the problem. That’s why finding a dual diagnosis program with actual, licensed, master’s level therapists is so important.

Life Skills and Your Environment are Absolutely Critical to Success in Recovery

Many people, particularly young adults that get addicted to prescription pills and other drugs are lacking in basic life skills. We have many men come into our program who don’t know how to do laundry, cook for themselves, or go shopping, much less find employment or succeed at university.

Those who struggle to do everyday life tasks, find gainful employment, or succeed in school are much, much more likely to use and abuse drugs.

This is why life skills training is such an important part of the recovery process.

Additionally, the old adage that you are the 5 people you hang out with the most is absolutely true. If you hang out with LA Rams fans, you’re probably a Rams fan. If you hang out with professionals, you’re probably a professional yourself. If you hang out with drug users, you’re going to use drugs.

So part of recovery is learning life skills and then consciously choosing who to hang out with and where to hang out. A good recovery program will teach people about the importance of making the right choices.

It’s also a reason why free meeting groups like AA or NA can be so beneficial after treatment. These groups might not be run by licensed professionals who can help someone really struggling, but they definitely provide the social supports of like-minded individuals committed to recovery and sobriety.

So, to review:

  • Addiction is not an either/or situation. It’s a problem that starts small and can grow into something very large. The earlier it gets treated, the better. Stage 1 is much, much easier to treat than Stage 4.
  • Recovery is possible and millions get into recovery each year. It’s not about chemical imbalances or bad genes, though biology has a part to play. It’s about working with professionals to overcome any challenges, build new skills, and learn how to rewire your brain to form positive lifelong habits that don’t require drugs.
  • Addiction is often a symptom of a deeper issue and, if that underlying issue isn’t addressed in treatment, the addiction issue will resume soon after finishing the program. Working with licensed professionals trained in mental health AND addiction is critical.
  • One’s social group and environment is extremely important. A good program will help someone learn how to find and make different kinds of friends, find employment, budget, and succeed in school.

Get Help for an Addiction

Prescription pill addiction has ruined many lives. However, a quality, dual diagnosis rehab center, with compassionate, licensed clinicians, can help turn things around. Our addiction treatment programs help men recover in a peaceful environment. The natural environment up in the mountains about an hour outside of LA, and the option to have private rooms in one of our cabins, give men the space they need to reconnect with nature and themselves free from the distraction of busy city life (and far away from friends who use, drugs, and dealers).

Oftentimes, it’s not just struggling with prescription pill abuse, but underlying issues of past trauma, mental health, or just a stressful life that drive substance abuse and addiction problems. For this reason, we have all licensed counselors trained in dual diagnosis – a treatment method used to address both addiction and underlying issues at the same time to help one achieve lasting recovery.

At Serenity Lodge, our understanding and kind professionals want to help you or the important man in your life get back on the right track. Call us today at (866) 755-9043.

Need to talk to someone about alcohol use? We can help.

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