Is Physical Dependence a Sure Sign of Drug Addiction or Alcoholism?

Is Physical Dependence a Sure Sign of Drug Addiction or Alcoholism?


Some people want to know if physical dependence is a sure sign of drug addiction or alcoholism.  The answer is that it is a strong warning indicator, but mere dependence does not necessarily make someone an addict for life.

For example, say that you take a person who is not a drug addict and never has been.  Say you force feed them an addictive medication every day for the next 6 months.  Will their body become physically dependent on the medicine?  You bet it will.  Stop it abruptly and they will experience withdrawal symptoms.  This indicates physical dependence.  But will that person turn into a classic addict, and start making sacrifices in order to get more of the drug?  Not necessarily.  If the person had any sort of alcoholism or drug addiction in their background, then they almost certainly would start craving the drug, and thus become fully addicted to it.  But anyone who was previously “normal” would not necessarily become a hard core drug addict at this point.

Now with that said, anyone who achieves a level of physical dependence with any substance is certainly playing with fire.  Just because you might not get fully addicted for life does not mean that you should want to get to a level of dependence.  Nobody wants to be addicted.  Nobody wants to have to rely on a substance just so that they can feel normal.

This is the trap of nicotine addiction.  Smoking cigarettes is a good example of physical dependence which develops into a real addiction.  It is interesting that people can get addicted to nicotine but not become cross addicted to, say, alcohol.  In other words, just because someone is heavily addicted to nicotine, this does not mean that they will easily become addicted to other drugs, such as alcohol.

However, notice that this equation changes a bit when you are talking about illicit drugs and alcohol as a whole.  The phenomenon of cross addiction becomes much more prevalent when you get away from nicotine and consider “harder drugs,” including alcohol.  For example, if someone is addicted to heroin, can they enjoy a beer every now and then once they get cleaned up from the heroin?  Traditional recovery circles would suggest “no,” they cannot successfully do that.  Eventually, if they continue to drink–even if it is just “here and there”–it will eventually lead them back to their drug of choice.  Why does this happen?  It happens because the beer is medication.  They are still self medicating.  Maybe they are having a good day, maybe they are having a bad day, but when they take a drink of beer, it changes their mood.  It medicates the addict.  Maybe they hate beer, maybe they say that they hate the buzz, and that they hate feeling drunk.  No difference.  No matter.  It still medicates them.  If you drink enough beer you cannot feel your feelings, you dismiss your emotions, and this can be a wonderful freedom for a drug addict.  Cross addiction will happen to just about any addict, even if they think they are immune to it.

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So if you become physically dependent on a substance, this may or may not mean that you are a full blown addict.  If you are an addict, then chances are extremely high that you are potentially addicted to all addictive substances, such as alcohol, prescription painkillers,  anxiety medications, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other street drugs.  If you are addicted to one substance then you should stay away from all of those.  If you experience physical dependence but are not fully addicted, then you also know what substance to stay away from in the future.


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