This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Addiction is an issue that impacts almost everyone in some way. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism/addiction since January 2008. During that time, I’ve gone through ups and downs but have fortunately managed to stay sober. I’ll be answering a reader-submitted question about recovery every other week (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available.
This week, I’m talking about addiction’s shades of gray—if being addicted to one substance means you’ll be addicted to all of them, and if anyone ever grows out addiction altogether.
Is it possible to grow out of addiction? And if you are addicted to one substance, are you necessarily going to be addicted to all substances? I know people who used to have a cocaine problem and now abstain from drugs but drink moderately. I’m thinking about quitting drinking but my sober friends say that also means I need to quit smoking pot. I’m not a heavy pot smoker at all, but I do smoke sometimes. I’m not quite ready to say I’m an addict, but if I am addicted to alcohol, does that mean I will also be addicted to marijuana?
Sometimes the questions that seem the most straightforward have the most complicated answers. This is one of those questions. Some people will answer this question differently but, well, you asked me, so you get my answer. Explaining this requires a little background information, but I’ll try to keep it brief.
In the most recent version of the DSM (the manual that all psychologists use to make a diagnosis, etc.) the term “addiction” was changed to “substance use disorder.” This revision was made to acknowledge the reality that people can go through periods of exhibiting signs of addiction to a substance without necessarily being Addicted To All Things Forever. The notion that once an addict, always an addict, is born from the accepted-but-controversial disease theory of addiction. I’m not going to go into the various theories behind addiction and my thoughts on them, but suffice it to say, addiction is not a zero-sum game for everyone. There are people who exhibit behaviors consistent with a substance use disorder and are later able to use that substance or other substances in moderation. A number of studies have demonstrated that, in the United States, substance use increases in late teens and into an individual’s 20s, and then later decreases. Anyone who has spent time on a college campus can likely attest to this. Still other studies have noted that some substance users who initially decrease their substance use after a period of time might increase their use again later.
There’s a real danger to assuming that because many people use substances heavily for a period of time without falling into a full blown addiction, that it is always possible to avoid addiction. I am a living example of this. In college, I was absolutely among the heaviest drinkers of my friends, but I prided myself on not doing “hard” drugs and hid behind the fact that binge drinking was a regular part of life for all of us. After we graduated, however, most of my friends didn’t continue to drink and use as they had in college. They got jobs, had active social lives, and sooner or later, started behaving like non-substance dependent adults. I, on the other hand, pushed my foot even harder on the gas.
Why were so many of my other friends able to stop when I wasn’t? There are myriad factors: genetics, the age at which I started drinking and a history of depression. But even that’s not a definitive answer. Just as two people can smoke for the same number of years and only one gets lung cancer, there are endless variables in these calculations.
Some people might grow out of binge drinking, others become alcoholics; some people might have a problem with alcohol but not pot, while others will need to stay away from mind-altering substances altogether. There are so many factors that determine how a person responds to substances that almost any result is possible. The question then becomes, what is likely and how should you, Wondering, proceed?
Why do we use abuse substances? For me, it was to get out of my head—to have a numbing buffer between me and the rest of the world. I loved that feeling so much that I started to be afraid of it going away. So I kept drinking to maintain that unreality and by the time I realized it was a problem, I couldn’t stop. Alcohol may have been my “drug of choice”; but it’s not the only substance that can separate me from reality. And when you boil it down, that’s what my addiction was. I was addicted to the separation of reality from myself. Which is why I need to be incredibly careful when I encounter substances that offer me that same high*.
There’s no doubt that marijuana also offers that getting out of your head, surreal experience. It may not be as physiologically addictive as something like cocaine, but if not being firmly inside your own head is the goal, any substance that does that is a potential danger. So while you may not be “addicted” to marijuana, if you quit drinking, I think quitting marijuana as well would at least help you understand what it means to you, and why you smoke it. I think it would be helpful to your understanding of where you are with your substance use if you stopped smoking pot. It doesn’t have to be forever. Give yourself a chance to gauge, soberly, how and why you are using substances the way you are. A therapist with a background in addiction recovery can be especially helpful here.
You may discover that you are the type of person who can use one substance in moderation but not another. You may realize that you can’t, or that you don’t want to risk it. But the only way to know for sure is if you give yourself the chance to figure it out, sober.
Good luck, Wondering, keep asking yourself the important questions.
*There’s an important caveat here, I’m talking specifically about the recreational use of drugs. There are a number of medications that I am prescribed (antidepressants, for example) that one could argue influence my perception of reality but a) they don’t have the kind of immediate high that was so appealing and b) my doctor knows I’m a recovering alcoholic and we have very frank discussions about what I should and shouldn’t be prescribed. As a result, I’m comfortable taking what she recommends.
Paste contributor Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor of Anxy Magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and The Establishment. Every other week she will answer one recovery/addiction related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Email questions to email@example.com with Ask Katie in the subject. By emailing, you are agreeing to let Paste publish your email. Emails may be edited for length.