A person experiencing a problem with alcohol might reach for a golden bottle of tequila, splash some in a heavy glass and wake up hours later wondering where the night went.
A person experiencing a problem with drugs might reach for a paper and crunch some weed into shake before rolling a sweet-smelling joint, or pop a Vicodin or two or three, just as Hugh Laurie’s iconic character Doctor House did – way too often.
What is the difference? Is being addicted to alcohol different from being addicted to another drug? Or perhaps we should begin with another question: Is alcohol a drug?
Is Alcohol a Drug?
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIH) answers this question succinctly, by placing alcohol, alphabetically, at the top of its published list of “Drugs of Abuse.” And the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependency (NCADD) concurs: This is the title of an article featured on the landing page of their website: The REAL story about alcohol and other drugs.
Still, in our culture we have isolated alcohol from other drugs, usually referring to “alcohol and drugs,” giving “alcohol” a special status, and, lest we forget, alcohol is legal, while most other drugs are not.
Are there differences between being addicted to alcohol and being addicted to a drug of another kind? Sure – though, at the end of the long day, all addictions have more in common than what distinguishes them from each other.
How do Addictions to Alcohol and Other Drugs Differ?
The word “drugs” in the above subheading is doing a lot of work, referring to marijuana, painkillers, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, stimulants, inhalants and sleeping pills. And not all drugs are equal: Heroin users have described being high as being “covered in a warm blanket, where worries are gone” while cocaine users describe euphoria, an inflated confidence in themselves and a desire to be with others.
But regardless of the characteristics that differentiate drugs from each other, for our immediate purposes, we are considering these groups as two: alcohol and other drugs, as used in common speech.
Alcohol is Legal
Americans of the designated age in their state have been able to legally buy alcohol since 1933 when prohibition was lifted, and, culturally, being addicted to a legal substance is more acceptable than being addicted to an illegal one. We joke about having too many margaritas; we do not joke about deciding to roll up our sleeve and inject heroin.
It is our cultural attitude toward alcohol, as well as its legal availability, that has likely contributed to the fact that more Americans are addicted to alcohol than any other drug – over 18 million of us are addicted to alcohol, with 4.2 million of us being addicted to our next most popular drug – marijuana.
And it can feel different to be addicted to a legal substance than to be addicted to an illicit one.
The Strength of Stigmas
The social stigma attached to addiction tends to be stronger when the substance one is addicted to is illegal: It has been documented, for example, that most people who work in the healthcare industry have negative views of people who use illegal drugs, which obviously affects the treatment they offer.
The stigma around illicit drug use can also affect one’s sense of worth, especially when we consider that a predisposition to low self-esteem is contributing factor to alcohol and drug abuse, taking illegal drugs, and being labeled as “less” by society, can easily exacerbate an existing problem.
The Physicality of Addiction
When discussing illegal drugs as a common group and comparing this group to alcohol, we can point to some differences in how the addiction changes our physical body:
The more serious effects of alcohol abuse, in terms of its physical effects on our bodies, are depression, high blood pressure, ulcers, alcoholic hepatitis, damage to the heart, liver, pancreas and immune system, comas, strokes and certain cancers.
The more serious effects of drug abuse, again, in terms of its physical effects on our bodies, are overdoses, violent or accidental death, organ failures due to accumulated toxicity and getting a disease, like HIV, while addicted.
Though the physical wakes left by alcohol and drugs differ, it is crucial to understand addiction in terms of its total cost to human beings. The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs rates drugs, including alcohol, according to the level of harm they do us, as whole human beings, and alcohol rates as the most dangerous substance, at a 72 on their developed scale, while Ecstasy, for example, rates a 9. But it is their similarities, and not their differences, that the addicted person feels most closely, whether it is pain pills or vodka that soothes their inner turmoil.
Addictive Substances Make Us Feel Fabulous for a Short Time While Slowly Eroding Who We Are
Alcohol and other drugs are the same in this most important of ways. They make us feel something that we really want to feel before addiction sets in – and it is in accepting who we are, staring down our fears and working through our traumas and crooked ways of thinking that we become the human beings we were meant to be, free of addiction.
Addictive substances can change our lives in fundamental ways: They can cause us to be cruel to people we love, to lose jobs that we really want, to spend money that we don’t have, to damage our physical bodies and more. Addiction is less about which substance you crave than why you crave it.
At Beachside Rehab, we know what it is to feel absolutely alone while feeling powerless, held in the grip of an addictive substance. Our holistic treatment approach focuses on the individual and their addiction, how it came to be, and how it can be overcome.
It all starts with being honest with yourself: It is courageous to admit that you have an addiction. And it is liberating when you realize that you really can get better. Call Beachside today at 888-743-0048 to find out how we can help you overcome your addiction, together.