“The problem isn’t just too much to drink; it is the fact that alcohol addiction happens before our very eyes, even under the conditions of success. And we don’t recognize it. That’s what is scary. Our son was killing himself in our presence, over several years’ time, and we didn’t see it.”
~Chris and Toren Volkmann, From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking
Alcohol is the most-used addictive substance in the world. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 86% of American adults drink alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Of special relevance, 66% are current drinkers, averaging 4 drinks per week.
An Erroneous Double Standard?
But this creates a problem – many of the same parents who would be horrified if their children admitted to using illicit drugs like heroin or methamphetamines are not too concerned when they find out that their teenager drinks alcohol.
“I drank when I was their age. It’s no big deal…”
“But it’s only booze…”
“At least it’s not (meth, pills, cocaine, etc.)”
Alcoholism IS Addiction
In contrast, Dr. John Sharp, a faculty member with the medical schools at both Harvard and UCLA, says, “Alcoholism is an addiction – it’s just one type of addiction. When you break out the specific things that someone who is suffering from alcoholism contends with…they are no different from any other type of addict.”
Due to their own misconception, many parents of teenagers who abuse alcohol are relieved that their children aren’t “drug addicts”. On the contrary, BOTH problems are two manifestations of the same disease of addiction, more properly referred to as a substance abuse disorder.
Why Drug Addiction and Alcoholism Are the Same
Because both conditions affect the reward circuitry of the brain, it reinforces the perception that drinking alcohol and/or using drugs is a positive behavior.
Put another way, the addiction motivates the person to stay addicted.
And, as the disease progresses from experimentation to abuse to dependence to addiction, each disorder causes medically-diagnosable symptoms.
Furthermore, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as:
- An inability to Abstain from use –the person loses the ability to control the frequency of use or the amount consumed
- A disruption in Behavioral control–the person becomes unable to control their actions
- A powerful and growing Craving for drugs and/or alcohol –the person becomes obsessed with acquiring and using with drugs/alcohol and will compulsively engage in substance-seeking behaviors
- A Diminished ability to recognize the consequences of their addicted actions – usually, the person will strongly deny that they even HAVE a problem
- – A blunted Emotional response–the disease progresses until the person is motivated to seek treatment. In the case of teenagers, this motivation is almost always external – parents, the court system, etc.
Dr. Sharp continues, saying, “I think it’s fair to say you can apply those aspects to both drug users and alcoholics.”
The Factors That Contribute to and Cause Drug Addiction and Alcoholism are the Same
There are several factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a substance abuse disorder:
- Genetic predisposition
- Home environment
- Age of initiation of use
- Personal drug/drinking habits
- Abuse/Addictive potential of the specific substance
- Co-occurring emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD
However, while these factors raise the likelihood of future problems,, they are independent of the specific substance that used. This demonstrates that addiction is LESS about the substance of choice and MORE about the compulsion and the resulting negative impact.
Consequently, this is summed up nicely by Dr. Reef Karim, a double board-certified psychiatrist, addiction medicine physician, and host of Broken Minds on the Discovery Channel, who says, “What’s the difference between alcohol and addiction? WORDS…”
By recognizing that teenage substance abuse is not the same as the disease faced by adults, Teensavers Treatment Centers TRANSFORMS LIVES, and is the go-to resource for Orange County teenagers and families in crisis.
By Albert Fontenot