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Drug abuse begins with ‘fun’ experience but usually results in agony, tragedy


It’s a question that modern society ponders practically every day. Why do successful, intelligent people get hooked on drugs? The popular musician, the favorite actor, the great athlete … doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc., who delve into drug use tend to have a common denominator in that they each began an early ascent to get to the top of their respective fields, then find themselves fighting for their lives when their demons eventually engineer their downward spiral. Such accounts of drug addiciton are suggested by Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist, developmental psychologist and a former drug addict.

Most everyone can compile a quick list of favorite celebrities whose lives ended far too soon because of the incessant need to administer drugs into their bloodstream. Most experts agree that people will first experiment with drugs because of curiosity. They want to have a good time, and because relatives or friends are doing it, they figure it must be okay. Many people will resort to drug use to relieve stress or anxiety. Others have been injured or have recurring medical problems that require temporary use of pain killers. Some people are able to use recreational drugs without ever experiencing negative consequences or addiction. Lewis and colleagues suggest that for most people, substance abuse can cause problems at work, home, school and in relationships. Trouble is, the user may not immediately recognize that his/her life is falling apart and may become ensnared in a tragic decent that often results in early death.

Long list of celebrity overdoses

The modern list of celebrity deaths (and overdoses) is painfully abundant (i.e. Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Hank Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, John Belushi, David Ruffin, Jerry Garcia, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman … and now a recovering Lamar Odom), which demonstrates that drug addiction does not discriminate by race or sex. It doesn’t matter if you were born into wealth and privilege (e.g. members of the Kennedy family) or reared in the ghetto or barrio, the common result of drug addition eventually places all users into a pool of misery, tragedy and, if not addressed soon by the addict, certain death.

Organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Narcotics Anonymous and a host of others nationwide contend that vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person. Genes, mental health, family and social environment all play a role. There are some tangible risk factors, however, that may play a part in who gets hooked and who doesn’t. Sometimes it is a family history of addiction, whether this be alcohol or narcotics.

Childhood abuse, neglect or other traumatic experiences often influence the potential drug abuser as early as the teen years. Mental disorders such as depression and anxiety play a significant factor. The NIDA reports that an early use of drugs—whether these be prescribed by a physician or those acquired as the result of schoolyard peer pressure—can also be factored into addiction as a person gets older.

Compulsion is cornerstone of addiction

Fatal drug overdoses have risen in the past 15 years. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 38,350 fatal drug overdoses in one year, more than double the 16,900 reported in 1999. CDC statistics indicated that there are 120 Americans who succumb from a drug overdose each day with the organization confirming in 2012 that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that an estimated 24.6 million Americans 12 years and older—or 9.4 percent of the population—reported using an illicit drug within the past month.

Behavioral addictions—whether they be gambling, hypersexualized behavior, internet addictions, or eating disorders—are not new. “If there is a common denominator underlying substance and behavioral addictions, both in people’s [actions] and in their brain mechanics, then ‘compulsion’ is the cornerstone,” said Marc Lewis, Ph.D., in a 2013 article prepared for Psychology Today. Lewis said neither drugs nor alcohol exacerbate the most common type of behavioral disorder. The biggest problem, he explained, is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—the people who for example wash their hands 50 times a day—but when this disorder appears in people who may have a so-called “addictive personality,” they are reportedly the prime candidates to become hooked on narcotics, because they believe they cannot concentrate nor function properly without being, somehow, under the influence.

Cocaine, heroin, meth are ‘serial’ killers

Lewis referred to a scientific experiment conducted by an associate who attached an electric meter to patients hooked on drugs and found that these persons may also suffer from OCD. The scientist used a button-pressing task in which the “reward” is turning off a mild electric shock. After training on the task the reward is withdrawn and from that time on pressing the button accomplishes nothing. Yet persons addicted to cocaine and methamphetamine kept pressing the button. Sober persons did not. Those who used drugs continued to press the button and told researchers they “felt” the urge to do so even if there was no reward available. Basically, Lewis’ colleague found that addicted persons performed the [unnecessary] task in order to avoid any believed “punishment” or negative consequences for not doing something (i.e. resuming intoxication).

Cocaine and methamphetamine users demonstrated a host of similarities during the experiment. Over time, the reactions of these persons revealed that “reward dysfunction” (a condition that begins with anxiety but ends with a behavior problem) in fact encourages addiction. “These individuals were found to engage in behavior that is no longer rewarding and very difficult to turn off,” Lewis explained. “Like the ‘hoarder’ who suffers from OCD, people suffering from substance addiction become obsessed with a routine or ‘reward’ that, sadly, diminishes in satisfaction each time they fall under the influence.” Studies of rats enticed with a reward of a tiny piece of crack cocaine found practically all of them dead—in one session—after repeatedly returning to press a lever that distributed the drug.

Education, wealth don’t shield addict

This experiment tends to align with many others conducted through the years which have confirmed that substance abuse is a chronic brain disorder. It is a disease. As well, people with substance abuse disorders are often shamed, blamed and criticized for their conditions because their dependency is reportedly “self induced.” Sometimes a person may not seek help because admitting a weakness would mean facing such judgment.

Celebrities do have an option (and the financial resources) for treatment programs to help regain their sobriety, but federal and local governments largely underfund treatment programs for most addicts, according to the website SoberNation, and jail people for drug use.

Experts contend that being educated and/or wealthy does not necessarily shield anyone from the effects of substance abuse. Wealth can make it easier to enter treatment and access other resources for recovery, but it could also prolong addiction because—often a controlling factor among celebrity tragedies—a seemingly unlimited supply of ready cash can often speed the individual’s decline into what may appear to be “hopeless” addiction.

“Research has convincingly shown that serious addiction is a chronic, relapsing medical illness similar to hypertension or Type 2 diabetes,” said Thomas McLellan, founder of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. “And like so many other chronic illnesses, addiction, too, is an acquired illness. Repeated unhealthy behaviors ultimately bring about a disease that is very difficult to self-control. A person can kick drugs, but you must seek professional treatment and establish a strong support group among family and friends.”

The ‘sensation seekers’ fall victim

The website conducted research last year and found that people generally take drugs to feel good (i.e. “sensation seekers” or anyone wanting to experiment with feeling high or different). Sometimes it is the desire to feel “better” about their lot in life that makes people self-medicate to cope with difficult problems or situations. Most of the time, according to the study, what was once an early recreational activity on weekends turns into an abusive pattern. Once entering into the abusive cycle, an addict will have a more difficult time stopping—even if he/she wants to. They find themselves mentally “chasing” a high, even if the body says “that’s enough.” Addiction can take on a life of its own because the abuser continually will turn to drugs or alcohol in times of mental anguish and stress. The study concluded that at this point substance abuse is primarily used as a coping mechanism.

Lazlo Jaress, a program development coordinator with the national advocacy group Faces and Voices of Recovery, emphasizes compassion for the person behind the tragedy. He said that celebrity status or professional success in general are not qualifiers that prevent the “early experimenter” from devolving into the common addict often witnessed on America’s inner-city streets.

“Just because someone has found success, fame and wealth does not mean they will have a ‘magic bullet’ for dealing with their substance abuse,” Jaress said. “Addiction does not discriminate and recovery is different because each person is unique.”

Drugs are equal opportunity killer

Americans tend to categorize many social discussions in terms of skin color. So when it comes to drug abuse, who uses more—Blacks or Whites? A survey conducted in 2011 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggested that 20 percent of White Americans have used cocaine, compared with 10 percent of Blacks and Latinos. Higher percentages of Whites have tried hallucinogens like LSD and marijuana, pain relievers like OxyContin and stimulants like methamphetamine. Crack was reportedly more popular among Blacks than Whites, but not by much. Jail time  is usually associated with chronic drug abuse—no matter what the race—and the Bureau of Justice Statistics added to the survey findings to reveal that of the 225,242 people who were serving time in state prisons for dug offenses in 2011, Blacks comprised 45 percent and Whites made up 30 percent.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a ground-breaking report on marijuana arrests in the United States. Across the U.S., Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as Whites to get busted for pot possession, even though Whites got stoned at slightly higher levels.

New research conducted in 2012 at Duke University suggested that Blacks are actually less likely to use drugs and are less prone to substance abuse disorders compared to Whites, Latinos, Native Indians and persons of mixed race. Dan Blazer, a professor of psychiatry at the North Carolina campus and one of the organizers of study, said they conducted the research to alert people about the burden of drug problems and also to show that ideas about exactly who is traditionally believed to have these problems may not always be true.

Years to get hooked … years to recover

“There’s a perception among many individuals that African Americans as a group—regardless of socioeconomic status—tend to abuse or use drugs at a higher rate but [our study] does not support that,” Blazer said. The study used data from 72,561 youth interviewed for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Researchers controlled for variables like socioeconomic status rates because severe drug problems tended to be greater among poor people. Despite this, Native Indian youth fared worst, with 15 percent having a substance abuse disorder, compared to 9.2 percent for people of mixed racial heritage, 9 percent for Whites, 7.7 percent for Latinos, 5 percent for Blacks and 3.5 percent for Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Researchers don’t know why rates for the Native Indian population were so elevated, but the category for substance use disorders included alcoholism, a disorder for which this group is known to be at high risk.

Addiction is a complicated affliction, affecting people of all ages, intelligence levels, social status and backgrounds. No expert to date has determined exactly what causes some people to be more prone to addiction than others, but it is usually a mix of many factors, from family backgrounds, genetics, environment, stress and personality traits. Americans are reportedly dying because of drug addiction more frequently than ever before, in part because of NIDA findings reveal that only one in 10 persons with a substance abuse problem receives the help they need. If you, a family member or friend believe that you are addicted to drugs, alcohol or any obsessive compulsive disorder, help is available through a variety of services in practically every town in America.

It can sometimes take years for a person to recognize their addiction—and often an equal number of years of steady recovery—but all experts contend that recovery can only happen if the individual in question takes the first, meaningful step toward sobriety and infinitely better quality of life.