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Drug Addiction: Pills, Painkillers, and the Illegal Stuff

By Genevieve Cunningham

Drug Addiction

Euphoria. Shameless. Intervention. Three different television shows, three different networks, all centered on one main topic: drug addiction and its effects.

According to the American Addiction Center, 19.7 million Americans aged 12 and older suffered from a substance abuse disorder in 2017. Today’s numbers are likely even higher, especially with the ongoing opioid crisis. Drug addiction is a serious concern.

In today’s world, it’s not just about drugs, but about certain drugs. Sure, all drugs are detrimental to our health, but there are certain substances, both legal and illegal, that seem to be wreaking more havoc than others. What are these substances? Who is vulnerable to their effects? And when we come across someone who is drowning in the world of addiction, how do we help them come up for air?

Who is Most Likely to Suffer?

Addiction doesn’t play favorites. It can affect anyone -- all ages, all genders, all backgrounds. It affects the young, the old, and everyone in-between. Although some research suggests that addiction hits economically disadvantaged neighborhoods harder, it can even affect high achieving individuals, as is evidenced by these celebrities who have been plagued by addiction in the past.

These are only a few of the outspoken celebrities who have been personally affected by addiction. There are others who are vocal about their struggles, more who aren’t vocal at all, and plenty of regular Joes who suffer from similar addictions. It’s everywhere, running rampant and destroying lives all around us.

Further research suggests that addiction is more likely to affect those who have family members also suffering from addiction. In this way, it can become a cycle. Whether that cycle happens because of genetics or environment, no one is quite sure, but the evidence suggests that it may be a little of both.

The Illegal Stuff

When most people think of addiction, they think of illegal substances. They think of buying drugs on the street, stereotypical drug abusers, and other images that we see in movies and media. It’s true that the world of substance abuse can look this way. The most commonly used and abused illegal substances include:

  • Marijuana - Though legal in some states, marijuana is still illegal on a federal level. Despite this, almost 20 percent of drug users have used or currently use marijuana.
  • Opioids - Approximately 25 percent of drug users illegally use opioids, namely prescription pills or heroin.
  • Stimulants - Almost 2 percent of drug users abuse cocaine, another 2.5 percent uses methamphetamines, and another almost 2 percent abuses prescription stimulants.
  • Hallucinogens - Approximately 1 percent of drug users turn to hallucinogens such as LSD.

When we’re young and hear advice and campaigns about avoiding drugs, these are the drugs we imagine. These are the well-known substances that come with an automatic negative stigma. But not all drugs are so easy to spot. Some kinds of addiction sneak up on us. They infiltrate our lives before we even know what hit us.

The Legal Stuff

Although illegal drugs are dangerous, it’s the legal substances that have become one of the biggest problems in America. The opioid epidemic is truly a crisis. Opioids were responsible for more than 80,000 deaths in 2021, which was approximately 75 percent of all overdoses. Besides these drugs being incredibly addictive, the bigger issue is that they can be found through legal means. Yes, they can be found on the street, but they can also be prescribed by a doctor. Many people who become addicted to opioids or other over-the-counter or prescription drugs never intended it. Some of the most commonly misused legal substances include:

  • Over-the-counter drugs -It’s possible for people to abuse simple over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and even cough syrup. Most of the time this happens due to an increase in tolerance and not necessarily because the person is looking for a “high.”
  • Painkillers - Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, Morphine, and even Fentanyl are painkillers used to treat medical pain in a patient. When in the right hands -- a doctor’s -- they can be an incredible tool to help people heal. When abused, these substances become incredibly dangerous.
  • Stimulants - Adderall and its lesser cousin, Ritalin, are two of the most abused substances in today’s world. For those who need it, these drugs calm the body and mind and allow for focus. For those who don’t, it serves as a stimulant in the same way as an illegal form of methamphetamine.
  • Benzodiazepine - This class of drugs, commonly called “benzos,” is good for relaxing the user. They are commonly prescribed to people with anxiety or those who suffer from muscle spasms. These might include Valium, Xanax, and Ativan.
  • Alcohol - It wouldn’t be a thorough list without naming the most commonly abused legal substance: Alcohol. Struggling with alcohol is so common, it’s almost seen as normal. For people aged 12 years and older, alcohol abuse disorder affects approximately 30 million people. Alcohol is easy to acquire, addictive, and can be a temporary fix for all kinds of other disorders -- anxiety, depression, and even physical pain. This is why it’s so easy to become dependent on alcohol, and for this dependency to become an ongoing problem.

Popularity of Drugs and Addiction

One of the biggest problems with fighting substance abuse is the popularity of drugs. We’re not walking around trying to convince people to develop drug problems, but as a society, we talk about drugs a lot. And while awareness is good, it also makes the topic more familiar. The more familiar something is, the less fearful we become of it. It’s a delicate balance between having enough information and making it all too comfortable.

Besides hearing about drugs in general discussion, it’s also a notable topic in the media. Movies, shows, literature. It’s everywhere. Even when the drug's effects are described in detail, the drugs are seemingly glorified by these popular shows. We become addicted to the drama.

Sometimes, literature or media about drugs seems to do some good in the world. Barry Meier, a former New York Times journalist, wrote a book that inspired a new Netflix series, Painkiller. While this certainly puts drugs and drug abuse right in our faces, his research and exposure to the masses has led to changes in federal law.

What We Can Do for Help

If you know someone struggling with substance abuse, you may be tempted to help them on your own. As an inexperienced individual, the best help you can offer is the following.

  • Support - If you’re not a current or former addict, rest assured that you really don’t understand the scope of the problem. Don’t offer advice. Just offer support and love in the best way that you can.
  • Don’t enable - Enabling includes making excuses for someone, giving them money, or helping them hide a problem. Set boundaries and stick to them. Although it may feel difficult in the moment, this is one of the most helpful things you can do to help a person suffering from addiction.
  • Provide real help - There’s unlikely anything you can do, on your own, to help an addict. But you can offer professional help. Guide the person toward mental or physical professional help. Counselors and therapists, general practitioners, and addiction treatment centers are all great places to start. You can even provide them with a simple number to call (like the SAMHSA’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP) when they are ready to ask for help.

Addiction is all-consuming. It grabs us, pulls us under the surface, and threatens to drown us. And in far too many cases, it’s successful. Pills, painkillers, and drugs in general are nothing to play with. But you are not alone, and if you’re willing to ask, someone will reach down and pull you from the depths. Life preservers are waiting. Just reach out and grab hold.

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