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When a Habit Becomes an Addiction

If there’s one thing we know in healthcare it’s this: The sooner we can act against illness or injury, the better the outcomes are likely to be. That’s why we vaccinate our children, visit the dentist, and get mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, and flu shots. And that’s why it’s worth understanding what the path to drug or alcohol addiction looks like. Ideally, we want to be able to act on addiction before it causes irrevocable damage.

So, what is addiction, beyond a habit? Dr. Nicole Schramm-Sapyta puts it plainly in a Duke University School of Medicine HeadScratchers podcast: “A habit is something we do out of convenience. We do it without thinking, and it makes things easier for us; an addiction is something that we do over and over again, despite causing harm to our lives.” The National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) adds that addiction is characterized by long-lasting changes in the brain, calling it “the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders – a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.” No one can predict when an individual will cross that addiction threshold – biology, environment, other factors can influence just how much repeated misuse it takes, but when you start seeing consequences, it’s time to act.

The consequences to addiction are numerous, but what we’re looking for runs along threads or themes.  In our outpatient substance use disorder programs at El Camino Health Scrivner Center for Mental Health & Addiction Services, here are some of the examples we see:


Negative Impact on Daily Life

We have roles to play, whether as a student, a parent, or professionally.  Addiction interrupts those roles, often to the point where students drop out of school, parents check-out on their duties, or work responsibilities suffer or are lost. The costs are tangible (such as lost tuition dollars or income) and emotional, as addiction not only affects relationships, but leads to low self-worth and feelings of frustration and shame for the addict.

Increased Use

No one sets out to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. In fact, many of us began using in our youth when we thought we were indestructible, and increased use over time. In addition to a change in use and increased tolerance, other signs may be easier to see. Are we spending more money on the substance itself, or on “accessories,” from barware to hand blown glass pipes? Have we dropped or switched activities, interests, or friend groups that encourage further use? Are substances used to celebrate success, or soothe disappointment? Do we use substances because it’s appropriate and expected, such as having a beer at a ball game? Have others shared their concern for our well-being? Do we feel sick if we try to stop? (Withdrawal is a serious component of the addiction disease and needs to be managed medically.)

Isolation and Hiding

Substance use often starts out socially, and as a way of soothing social anxiety. In many cultures, alcohol is acceptable as a “social lubricant.” As use turns to addiction, it often becomes a solitary act. Addiction program patients often share stories of hiding alcohol, pills, or cannabis to use in private. Socializing with friends or loved ones changes to a stressful experience as others around them become worried or embarrassed. And the COVID-19 pandemic has created increased opportunities for concealed use as many people shelter-in-place alone. More and more people have turned to substances to soothe loneliness or anxiety, and addiction thrives in solitude.

Compromised Health and Safety

Addiction tends to put us in dangerous predicaments. Blacking out, risky sexual behavior, and injuries are common individual outcomes of overuse. We commonly see compounded health impacts such as high blood pressure or heart arrhythmias, as well as confusion or “brain fog.” Many individuals end up in emergency care after a substance has been laced.   Withdrawal is a cause for serious health concern, including symptoms such as nausea, chills, shakiness, sweating, vomiting, anxiety and more when the substance is discontinued. Withdrawals can be life-threatening and require immediate medical care, but when it comes to addiction, we often make excuses to ignore our health at the time when we need care the most.

The consequences of addiction should be concerning, but they don’t have to be frightening. And, with treatment for this illness, there’s hope. El Camino Health provides two outpatient addiction services: an evening chemical dependency program, and a program for individuals experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition and a substance use disorder (dual diagnosis). Talk to your doctor, or contact the Mental Health and Addiction Services team at El Camino Health for further information at 650-988-8468.

This article was written by the Outpatient Addiction Services Team as the Scrivner Center for Mental Health & Addiction Services


This article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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