What exactly is the difference between an alcoholic and a drug addict? Is there really a difference as far as the brain is concerned? What about the recovery options? Do they require vastly different approaches to recovery? What about cross addiction? Can you be a recovering alcoholic and still use marijuana each day?
Let’s take a deeper look at some of these questions and see what we can learn.
Alcohol is a drug, period
First of all, alcohol is a drug. It is not like a drug, it is not similar to drugs, it actually is a drug. Many drugs come in liquid form or can be found in a liquid form, and alcohol is one of them. It is a drug.
It is amazing how many people do not really get this. The reason seems to be cultural. Our society has brainwashed us to put alcohol as separate from other drugs for some reason. We will say “alcohol and drugs” instead of just lumping them both together with the understanding that alcohol is just another drug. Why do we do that? It has to do with what is considered to be socially acceptable in our world. Alcohol has an established history of casual and social use so it is much more accepted. Therefore people do not tend to think of it as being a real drug. This is a simplification but I think it still gets at the truth.
In recovery, Narcotics Anonymous has a great saying and piece of advice when they write: “We cannot afford to be confused about this….alcohol is a drug, period.” If you are not an alcoholic or an addict then you can afford to be confused about it all day long, but if you are struggling to recover then you cannot afford this mistake. You must be clear on the fact that alcohol is just another drug.
When I first was getting the idea that I had a serious problem with alcohol and drugs, my solution was to self medicate of course. I did not want to face the reality that I might need to become totally abstinent from all drugs because that thought was just too much to bare. It was overwhelming for me to imagine giving up everything all at once. So my first feeble attempt at quitting drinking involved something known in recovery circles as “the marijuana maintenance program.” This is where you quit drinking but you smoke marijuana all the time in order to self medicate. It has been tried by many people in the past and I am sure that it will be tried many times in the future as well.
The reason that this is so common is because it is an easy solution for the struggling alcoholic. Who really wants to give up everything? It is too scary, too overwhelming. And marijuana seems like the more harmless of the two drugs (not nearly as dangerous as alcohol, right?) so people tend to use it as a crutch. So they are simply switching one drug (alcohol) for another. They are trying to replace their drug of choice with a different addiction.
You can imagine what the results of this are. It sounds like a great theory to the addict who is stuck in their addiction. But the reality is that it never turns out well. Trying to self medicate with a different drug that is not even your real drug of choice is very frustrating. It starts out OK, because you will not have built up much of a tolerance to the new drug, and it will work very well in the short run. But in the long run your tolerance will shift rather quickly and you will find yourself not able to really medicate as well. And this will drive you back to your drug of choice. Then you will be hooked on two different substances and you will likely be combining them at that point in order to try to medicate yourself properly. It simply spirals out of control.
Alcohol is a drug, just like any other drug. We need to remember that if we are going to overcome our addiction.
Self medicating our feelings with various chemicals
One of the key characteristics of drug addiction and alcoholism is that eventually we are medicating our feelings.
This is hard for many people to even admit, that they are medicating their unwanted and negative emotions.
Addiction rarely starts out this way. But this is how it nearly always ends up. In the end we come to rely on our drug of choice in order to medicate away unwanted emotions. Fear, anger, frustration, boredom, and unwanted stress are all sources of this.
We teach ourselves over time to rely on our drug of choice in order to manage these negative feelings. If we have a bad day then we rely on our drug of choice to deal with it. If we have an emotional fight with a close friend or family member then we rely on our drug of choice to help us deal with that emotional state.
This is what really drives our addiction. If we get clean and sober suddenly and we try to deal with negative emotions and stress then we need to find new outlets and coping techniques. If we don’t do something different then we will just get overwhelmed without our drug of choice. We will not be able to handle the negative emotions unless we learn a new way to process them and deal with them.
Your drug of choice is simply what you prefer to use in order to medicate these feelings. Some people may not believe that a different drug could work for them and do what they want it to do, but they are generally wrong about this. Drugs are drugs. For example, I met a person in treatment once who believed that he was a drug addict but not an alcoholic. He stuck by this argument and he was convinced that alcohol did not affect him badly, and that it was no big deal, and that he could take it or leave it. Cocaine was his only real problem.
Years later after he had left treatment he came back and told us all a story. He had been wrong about alcohol. He did not realize it but taking a casual drink here and there eventually caught up with him. And really, how could it not? Alcohol leads your brain to complete oblivion if you keep putting it into your system. In other words, you can medicate any condition, either physical or mental if you put enough alcohol in your system. Eventually you pass out and experience total oblivion; total nothingness. This is what people in pain want. Not just physical pain but also emotional pain as well. They want oblivion. So the drug addict who thinks that they are immune to alcohol addiction do not understand the situation, in my opinion (and in my experience). The truth is that anyone can medicate themselves to complete oblivion if they keep putting enough alcohol into their system.
The same is true of other addictive drugs. You may think that you are immune to marijuana in terms of addiction because your real drug of choice is alcohol. Well, the same thing is true of marijuana as well: if you use enough of it all at once then you can medicate away nearly any amount of emotional pain in your life. People may not realize this at first or they may be comparing the effect of the drug to alcohol and so they do not believe that it can be addictive. But these substances can be addictive if you use them in order to self medicate with and substitute one for another.
In fact, the exact drug or substance that you are medicating with is beside the point. The real issue is that you are running away from your problems and not dealing with reality.
I met a guy once in treatment who was addicted to GHB. GHB is the “date rape drug,” it is what you slip into a drink in order to make someone black out. He actually started out with alcohol but found this drug to be more efficient and more effective. Instead of having to drink all night long in order to reach oblivion he could just take a tiny quantity of GHB and get to the same “place.”
So the problem is not really the alcohol. The problem is that this person is running away from reality. They are avoiding stress and negativity in their life by escaping with chemicals. Which drug they use is not the core issue. It doesn’t really matter if they drink a bottle of cheap liquor or if they use a single dose of GHB. Both of these result in the same thing: They are escaping reality so that they don’t have to deal with their problems.
In recovery, the solution is all that matters
If you are stuck in addiction then it might be worth your time to argue about the different drugs and how they all compare to each other and which one gives you the most buzz with the least amount of side effects, and so on.
In recovery, none of that stuff matters. All that matters are solutions. How are you going to deal with life today now that you are not putting chemicals into your body?
There is a phenomenon when someone gets clean and sober and they are not working any sort of recovery program. We label such a condition as dry drunk syndrome. The person has stopped putting chemicals into their body but they have not started to change their life in any sort of meaningful way either. They are not working on recovery. All they are doing is abstaining from drugs and alcohol.
This is not enough to sustain recovery. If the person is truly addicted then they will need more help than this.
In very early recovery, the drug of choice is important. This is because we relate to each other in recovery and we need to feel like we are not alone. This is especially important for someone who just got clean and sober.
So if you take someone who has 3 days clean and sober, put them in treatment, then ask them to relate to the other people who are in rehab with them. At that point, drug of choice matters and makes a difference. Take someone who is alcoholic and put them in a rehab with 20 other crack addicts. Can the alcoholic relate?
In theory they should be able to do so, because all that matters is the solution. All that matters is that we all self medicated out feelings away by putting a chemical into our bodies. In that sense, alcohol and crack are really no different, and the recovery process will be identical.
But in the real world it does not work that way, because the person who just got clean and sober needs to relate to other people to know that they are doing the right thing. They need to know that they are not alone, that they are not going crazy. And so it actually is important that you can relate to others in early recovery. This is why your drug of choice makes a tiny bit of difference in early recovery. Because you need to get past that first two weeks of recovery when you think that you are going crazy. If you are an alcoholic and you are surrounded by many drug addicts and none of them are addicted to alcohol then this process will be more difficult for you.
Now realize that:
1) After two weeks or so, this no longer matters. It is just in very early recovery that you may have trouble relating to others who did not use your exact drug of choice. After a few weeks then you realize that we are all in this together, and that addicts and alcoholics are all the same (just with different chemical preferences). But none of that matters because now you are looking forward and focusing on the solution. How are you going to maintain sobriety? The exact drug that you used no longer matters.
2) Most rehab situations have a good mix of addicts and alcoholics. You should not have any problems feeling unique or singled out.
3) You should practice focusing on the similarities among you and your peers rather than the differences. When you notice similarities then you learn and you grow. When you focus on what is different then you are basically shutting down the learning part of your brain.
So in very early recovery it is normal to want to relate closely to others at the level of “the problem.” That means that one crack addict will relate well to another crack addict, and neither of them will relate as well to someone who abuses only alcohol. But in the end none of that will matter, after they move past these differences and start focusing on the solution and building a new life in recovery.
In very early recovery those differences matter. People can find it difficult to relate sometimes, and this is very important. One of the big reasons that people go to AA meetings is so that they can identify with other alcoholics and simply know that they are not alone in their struggle. If you are at this point in your recovery process then it might make a difference what drug of choice everyone is talking about. This is why such a thing as “cocaine anonymous” exists. Is it really necessary? Not in terms of the solution, no. AA works just fine for any drug, as does NA. The principles of recovery and the solution are always the same. The differentiation is for the newcomer who needs help identifying with others. If you walk into an AA meeting and you cannot identify with anyone and you feel totally out of place, are you really going to stick around and find recovery? Probably not. This is why there can be a need for differentiation. It is to help the newcomer identify.
How to seek out help and turn your life around
One thing that you should know about addiction recovery is that the process of the solution is much the same, regardless of your drug of choice. As far as I can observe the process looks like this:
1) Moving past denial. Accepting the fact that you have a serious problem.
2) Accepting the fact that you need serious help. That you cannot solve your problem by yourself.
3) Asking for help from other people. Taking their advice and actually listening to them.
4) Going to rehab and flushing out your system physically. Abstinence is the baseline for recovery. Deciding to abstain rather than to try to moderate and control it.
5) Taking advice and suggestions from others in recovery who are already living a clean and sober life. Killing your ego.
6) Taking massive action. Putting suggestions into practice. Living the concepts you are learning about.
7) Rebuilding your life from the ground up. Reinventing yourself with personal growth. Pursuing both internal and external growth in your life.
8) Pushing yourself to pursue greater health from a holistic standpoint. Raising self esteem. Valuing your life more and more. Building success on top of success. Personal growth.
This is the process of recovery from addiction as I have experienced it. I am sure that others would probably change small details here and there but this is the basic idea behind it.
Some people probably believe that you can “cure” an addiction by simply going to rehab. Go to treatment, come home, and avoid your drug of choice. If only it were that simple!
Of course if that works for you then I have nothing but happiness for you. Me, I had to do it the hard way. I had to try to substitute one drug for another. I had to try to figure it all out myself, and keep spiraling out of control until I was completely miserable. I had to bang my head into the wall for a few years before I realized that I was even in denial.
So if you want to turn your life around then my suggestion to you is to focus on breaking through your denial. If you look at the process outlined above then that is the starting point. I tried twice to skip ahead to the fourth point in the process and just go right to rehab before I was truly ready. This did not work. Instead, you need to get past your denial and get to the point where you will do anything in order to change. Once you reach that point then you will be much more likely to succeed in your recovery.
In the long run, drugs are just drugs, and it doesn’t really matter which one you are addicted to. The solution brings us all together.
What about you, have you been able to move past your addiction and get help from other addicts and alcoholics? Does it matter what drug someone is addicted to if you just want their help in recovery? What are your thoughts on this? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!