Addiction: How Do You Know If or When You Need Help?

Q & A with addiction counselor and author Brenda J. Iliff, MA

Q: Where's the line between drinking too much and being addicted?

A: That's a great question. It really depends, plus it's pretty complicated. A simple answer is that if it's causing problems in your life and you keep doing it, you may want to look at it. It's not necessarily about how much or how often you drink or use drugs, but what it does to you. There is so much to consider including age, gender, what the drug is combined with (alcohol and other drugs), physical condition (e.g., liver concerns, brain development), and other factors. Have you tried unsuccessfully to control your use? Do you find yourself sneaking or hiding your use? These are all important considerations.

Q: Is addiction an actual medical diagnosis?

A: Yes, addiction—or substance dependence—is defined in medical terms as a primary, progressive, and chronic disease. Primary means it isn't necessarily caused by something else. Progressive means it will get worse over time, and chronic means it's a lifelong condition—it doesn't go away. In fact, it can be fatal and sometimes is. However, recovery can and does happen! There are many different diagnoses around addiction. Most are specific to the actual chemical used. Again, it gets pretty complicated to distinguish between abuse and addiction, so it is important to consult a trained professional who really knows addiction.

Q: What are some of the hallmark signs of addiction?

A: It's typical to see loss of control. People attempt to cut back or control how much or how often they drink or use. Continued use despite problems, needing to use more to get desired effects (tolerance), hiding and sneaking, and preoccupation, or planning life around using, are other signs. Many times others see the signs before the addicted person. In fact, that's one of the signs for many; they don't see it but others do. We call it denial.

Q: What's the first step in finding help?

A: Education is important. A wide range of informal and formal resources and options is available, depending on your particular life situation and extenuating circumstances. If you're ready to get help, a good place to start is with an assessment. You can conduct a free and confidential self-screening online at aboutmydrinking.org, and, if recommended, meet with your physician or an addiction professional for an evaluation. Many times it's the people who love the person with the problem who assist them in finding help. If that's your situation, you can also visit aboutmydrinking.org to conduct a free and confidential screening on behalf of your loved one. Other key sources for credible information and help include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Services at aa.org
  • Narcotics Anonymous World Services at na.org
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at samhsa.gov
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse at drugabuse.gov

Most importantly, don't lose hope. Addiction is a devastating disease, but recovery is possible. There is help. There is hope.


Brenda IliffBrenda J. Iliff is the executive director of Hazelden in Naples, Florida, a part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. She has more than 20 years of experience in the addiction field, as both a clinician and health care executive, and is the author of A Woman's Guide to Recovery.
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