Drugs and alcohol figure prominently in our collective cultural and social life. Nearly 90% of adults drink alcohol, and almost half have used marijuana at some point. Mind-altering substances have played a role in religious rituals, coming of age ceremonies, and public events for centuries of human history. There’s even evidence that, when given the chance, our chimpanzee relatives seek out potentially addictive substances. While any use of drugs or alcohol renders you vulnerable to addiction, there’s no denying that there’s a fundamental difference between addiction and recreational use. When you’re in the throes of addiction, though, the line isn’t always clear. Knowing the difference can help you get help as early as possible.
Understanding Recreational Drug and Alcohol Use
When you were a child, your parents might have told you that a single use of drugs or alcohol was sufficient to get you addicted. While using drugs isn’t necessarily healthy or good, it’s unlikely that you’ll become addicted the first time you use a substance. Recreational users use drugs or alcohol because they want to, not because they have to. While there’s not always a clear dividing line between recreational and addictive use, recreational users typically share many of the following traits in common:
- They use substances around other people, during times of happiness or celebration.
- Substances serve as a social lubricant, not an escape from pain or daily life.
- They are able to moderate their use of drugs or alcohol, stopping their use if they become ill or too inebriated.
- They don’t spend much time thinking about the next time they’ll get to use drugs or alcohol.
- Drug or alcohol use is only a periodic occurrence, not something that happens every day or on a recurring basis.
- They are able to go long stretches of time – months or even years – without using drugs or alcohol at all.
- They don’t engage in dangerous behaviors to get drugs or alcohol or to conceal their use.
When Does It Become Addiction?
Addiction often develops slowly, over many weeks or months. Most addicts don’t have a single moment at which they become an addict. Instead, they progressively develop more and more symptoms of addiction until the addiction begins to dominate their lives. Some common signs that you’re an addict and not a recreational user include:
- Secretive use of drugs or alcohol, or using drugs or alcohol when you are sad or alone.
- Being unable to stop using drugs or alcohol.
- Behaving in dangerous or hurtful ways when you’re drunk or high.
- Endangering yourself or others to get or use drugs or alcohol.
- Being unable to go long periods of time without using alcohol or drugs.
- Experiencing physical or psychological symptoms of withdrawal when you stop or attempt to stop using drugs or alcohol.
- Relying on drugs or alcohol to feel “normal.”
- Using drugs or alcohol in a way that is outside normal social use. For example, you might smoke marijuana multiple times each day rather than just at a party with friends. Or you might drink yourself to sleep every night rather than enjoying a single glass of wine with a co-worker.