Addiction: What You Need to Know

Becky hasn’t been herself lately. She started drinking a year ago, but now she’s experimenting with other drugs—and her friends barely remember what she was like before she started getting high. She still goes to school and her grades are okay, so she can’t be an addict…right?

What is addiction?

You might say you’re “addicted” to grabbing a bag of cheese puffs after school, but if you can skip the store because you’re in a rush, you probably just love snacks. Addiction actually causes a person to crave a substance to the point that it’s no longer their choice. So if you go from casually smoking pot at a party every now and then to cutting school to get high — you could be developing an addiction.

Addiction is a disease.

Over time, drugs or other addictive substances will actually change your brain. Eventually, your brain needs the drug just to feel “normal,” which is why addiction can be so hard to beat.

Addiction is chronic.

“Chronic” means that something happens over and over again. So when you have a chronic brain disease like addiction, you have it for life, even if you aren’t still using the substance you’re addicted to.

Addiction is relapsing.

For example, you may know someone who hasn’t had a sip of alcohol in 10 years, but still calls him or herself an alcoholic. That’s because they still have the addiction to alcohol, even if they aren’t drinking. And if they were to relapse (start drinking again), it would be hard for them to stop.

Who is affected by addiction?

“Addiction” may sound hardcore, but it actually affects teenagers more often than you might think. One study even found that 46% of all high school students currently use addictive substances — and that 1 in 3 of those users meets the criteria for addiction. Addiction affects all types of people — of any personality, genetic background, gender, race, age, or belief. In fact, counter to the oft-repeated view that Jews don’t drink, 12% of the Jewish population is affected by addiction.

What’s the difference between addiction and substance abuse?

Substance abuse is when you use potentially harmful substances, but haven’t developed a dependency on them. You could experiment with addictive substances (like if you try your friend’s pain medication after they get their wisdom teeth taken out), and not necessarily become addicted. The more times you abuse a substance, however, the more likely it is to lead to an addiction.

What can you become addicted to?

Addiction isn’t just for scary-sounding drugs. You can become addicted to all sorts of things if you use them more often or differently than intended:
Alcohol
Cigarettes/nicotine
Types of food (like sugar)
Medication (even if it’s prescribed by a doctor!)
Marijuana
Activities like video games, exercise, or gambling
Illegal drugs (like heroin, cocaine, or meth)

How do you know if you might have an addiction?

When you’re addicted to a substance, it’s no longer used “for fun” or “to have a good time,” and it’s not your choice whether to use it or not.

When you’re physically addicted (your body needs it). Your body might develop a tolerance to the substance. That means you need to use more to get the same effects (maybe the first time you had a beer you felt tipsy, but now you need three to feel the same way). You might feel withdrawal symptoms if you stop using, such as:
Shaking
Digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Sweating
Racing heart
Irritability
Headaches

When you’re psychologically addicted, your brain thinks that it needs the substance and would do almost anything to get it. You may do things out of character for you, such as:
Feel like you must partake, either every day or multiple times per day
Feel a strong desire or craving for the substance
Steal or borrow money to afford the substance
Blow off things that used to be important to you, like sports or clubs, in order to get high
Drive under the influence, even though you know it’s dangerous
Try to stop but be unable to quit the habit entirely
Feel you must keep your usage a secret

How do you know if a friend might have an addiction?

There are several signs or symptoms of addiction, such as:
Physical symptoms:
Weight loss or gain
Needing more of a substance to get the same effect (see “tolerance” above)
Physical reaction to being separated from the substance (see “withdrawal” above)

Behavioral symptoms:
Missing school or other activities
A sudden drop in grades or performance
Getting too much or too little sleep
Losing touch with friends, or prioritizing the substance over friends
Financial issues or always asking for money
Only wanting to talk about drugs or partying
Looking for or purchasing drugs (For example, rummaging through the medicine cabinet after using the restroom in someone’s home)

Psychological symptoms:
Being irritable or easily angered
Getting worse at dealing with stress
Loss of interest in activities or people that don’t involve the substance
“Minimizing” or lying about how much or often they use the substance
Blaming others for their substance abuse

What do you do if you think you or a friend might have an addiction?

Addiction can be extremely difficult, or almost impossible, to overcome without help. See our “How to Get Help” page for more information on how to help yourself or a friend overcome addiction.

Special thanks to our experts:
Patricia Cintra Franco Schram MD, Specialist in Addiction Medicine and Developmental and Behavior Pediatrics, Instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and clinician at the ASAP (Adolescent Substance Abuse Program) Boston Children’s Hospital
•Joe Gonzalez, LCSW and CEO and owner of TRI center Inc., a substance abuse treatment center in NYC

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