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What Are the Dangers of Drugs and Alcohol?

Updated on October 14, 2012
Alcohol, prescription drugs, and street drugs all pose serious short- and long-term risks.
Alcohol, prescription drugs, and street drugs all pose serious short- and long-term risks. | Source

Legal vs. Illegal Drugs

Many people assume that legal drugs, like alcohol and prescription medications, are safer to use than illegal drugs. After all, they're legal!

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) most recently published statistics report that in 2009, 23.5 million Americans aged 12 or older entered rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol abuse. Of those, only one-fourth were for alcohol alone, because a total of about 41% involved alcohol and another drug. (Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2011). The Centers for Disease Control has called prescription drug abuse an epidemic in the U.S.

Although prescription medications and alcohol aren't illegal, they are still powerful chemicals that act upon our brains. They may be even more dangerous than street drugs because their effects sneak up more slowly, society condones their use to some degree, but they still produce devastating consequences in the lives of people who are addicted.

Before I became a Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor in the U.S. Army, I worked as a regular volunteer for a detox facility in Phoenix, where I learned firsthand just how bad an addict's life can become - long before they hit their "rock bottom."

I no longer work in the mental health field, but I still have strong feelings about the way drugs and alcohol affect people's lives. I have seen firsthand what can happen, and you'll read about a few of the exposures I've had. I hope you won't let these effects touch your life.

Short Term Risks & Rewards

As a counselor, I used to explain that drugs and alcohol aren't a problem for the person using them - they are a solution for a problem the person has. A shy man might loosen up enough to be sociable and ask a lady to dance after a few drinks. He is no longer paralyzed to inaction by his fear of rejection, and alcohol provided that solution. The same is true of other drugs. They provide a solution for a perceived problem.

At first, they may be fun to use. They make it easier to develop and maintain social networks - to "belong," so to speak. They connect people, suppress negative thoughts and feelings, and create better feelings in the user temporarily.

Short-term risks may be easy to mitigate:

Hangovers - Withdrawal from alcohol can leave the user feeling physically wiped out, nauseated, and dehydrated. He or she may have an intense headache that lasts for hours, and they may feel sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights. Some people have hangover "cures" that they believe will ease symptoms.

Arrests - When using alcohol, the first thing that changes is a person's inhibitions. The next effect is that their judgment becomes impaired. They may think they're just fine, when in reality their have slower reaction times and are unable to foresee possible consequences for their choices. Drunk driving, underage drinking, and assaults can land them in jail unexpectedly.

Possession of prescription drugs that weren't meant for them or illegal drugs can also get a person arrested. An innocent traffic stop could turn into a legal nightmare just because someone accepted a baggie with two or three painkillers from a friend and had them in the car when they were caught doing five miles over the speed limit.

Dangerous Behaviors - Drugs that relax a user's inhibitions - like alcohol and other depressants - can lead to risky behaviors that produce unintended consequences. Nobody plans to get a sexually transmitted disease, but plenty of people have unprotected sex while under the influence - including people who would normally use protection. Operating heavy machinery or driving is automatically dangerous with most psychoactive drugs. Over 85% of inmates in state prisons were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their arrest.

The so-called club drugs, which are used to heighten the effects of sounds, colors, and the overall social experience, are sometimes slipped into another person's drink (most often, a woman's) to make her defenseless against being raped. In other words, without even choosing to use a drug, a person can face consequences of drug use!

Indeed, inmates who meet the criteria for drug or alcohol abuse or dependence are about twice as likely to have criminal records as non-abusers according to the Department of Justice.

Risky behaviors and poor judgment can result in death to users and non-users. Drunk driving accidents, almost 11,000 of them in 2009, are just one way. Fights and domestic disagreements can turn deadly, and show-off stunts can turn tragic.

Arguments and Fights - People who are under the influence of drugs that lower their inhibitions are more prone to arguments and fights, both with loved ones and strangers. Although certain drugs, like Ecstasy, are known to create a sense of euphoria (feeling good), when they're leaving the body they have a nearly opposite effect and now produce irritability and anxiety.

Long-term Risks of Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Once a drug or alcohol user crosses that imaginary line that marks addiction, the effects have already started showing up in other ways.

Occupation - Alcoholics and drug abusers are often among the smartest, most talented people in the workplace, and maybe even more so in the early stages of disease. However, they may find themselves ineligible for a great position (or fired from one) due to drug test policies. When they are on the job, they may be very invested in hiding their "real" self, so they put in more effort and time to do a good job. As the disease progresses, however, their performance goes downhill. They leave early to get a start on the weekend. They call in on Monday morning because of that damned hangover. They make mistakes on the job. They get fired.

Interpersonal - Addictive personalities share certain behavior traits that hurt their relationships. They become rigid about their expectations of others, yet have plenty of flexibility for explaining away their own shortcomings. They break promises and become unreliable. To protect their addiction, they may unfairly project blame onto the people they love. They spend more than they intended to on their addiction. All of these things lead to ongoing arguments and power struggles that make everyone in the family anxious. Things are really, really good or devastatingly bad, and nobody's certain what the mood will be tomorrow.

They often feel as if there is nobody who really understands them. They may secretly believe that if someone really did get to know the "real" person inside, they would be automatically rejected. This can become a source of "magical" thinking within relationships. Addicts and the people who love them think if they do things "right" then their relationship will be good again, but they discover that no matter how hard they try, they can't find the key to restore it.

Leisure - Users neglect hobbies they once loved and abandon people who once meant the world to them. When addiction gets entrenched, drinking and using stop being fun, but there's nothing left to turn to that will bring pleasure, either. Alcoholics and addicts become very lonely and isolated.

Physical - Different drugs act upon the body and brain in different ways. Short term, stimulants like ecstasy or methamphetamines can raise blood pressure, cause rapid heart rates, and raise body temperature, for instance, while depressants have a nearly opposite effect, causing lethargy and even coma or death. Over the long term, the effects can accumulate and wear down the body's organs permanently. Prolonged drug and alcohol abuse can contribute to impaired thinking, reduced kidney and liver function, and heart or lung problems that endure for months or years after quitting.

Drug and alcohol abuse by pregnant mothers can lead to birth defects, premature delivery, failure to thrive, and low birth weight. In men, certain drugs can cause sterility.

Emotional - Once addiction sets in, users find their quality of life eroding. As it progresses, they feel less in control until eventually, they reach their "rock bottom," the point at which they acknowledge that their lives feel meaningless and unmanageable. Happiness, joy, and satisfaction slowly evaporate from their lives, only to be replaced with guilt, criticism, desperation, bitterness, and negativity. These aren't fleeting moments for an alcoholic or addict. They are a way of life.

Spiritual - Spirituality can be religious, but even atheists and agnostics are spiritual beings in the sense of needing purpose and meaning in their lives. For addicts, their drug of choice becomes the most important purpose they have in life. In their unhappiness and feeling sorry for themselves, they lose the priorities they once valued - family, friends, work, and self.

Too many addicts lose their children and spouses, either literally or figuratively. They may stay married, and their children may be at home, but those relationships are strained at best. In some cases, their family leaves or is taken away from them. The addict is unable to stop the process because the disease has stripped him or her of having control over their addiction. Their drug of choice becomes their god, and they obey - even though they try to resist.

Financial - Addicts rarely recognize the monetary costs of their addiction. They don't add up how much they spent on drugs or alcohol this month, but the cost can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars a week.

Besides losing the opportunity to use that money for other things, addicts sometimes lose their homes or jobs. They may have very high legal bills over a prior arrest or lawsuit that resulted from a mistake they've made.

Insanity and Death - Without treatment, addicts either go insane or they die addicted.

What do you think causes addiction?

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Addiction Has Nothing to Do with Willpower

Some people believe addiction is merely a question of willpower. Others believe it's an allergic response to a triggering substance. Most common among mental health professionals is the belief that it is a physical disease that affects the user's mind, body, and spirit.

Addicts and alcoholics in recovery attest to how hard they tried to stop using, and the seemingly innocent ways they relapsed - often without realizing they were taking steps to use again.

Until we fully understand the reason that one person becomes addicted while another doesn't, I view each drink, each pill, each toke, as a step toward possible addiction. The point at which one person becomes addicted can be different than another addict's experience. Some people have reported feeling the inexplicable urge to drink again and again from the very first time they ever drank alcohol, while other people can drink their entire lives without it causing any problems.

If you've had even one minor problem with alcohol or drugs, but you're continuing to use, consider that you're on that journey. You may or may not be addicted to your drug of choice - but continued use, despite problems, will produce more problems in the future. If you can stop that from happening, then why take these risks? If you can't stop yourself from continuing to take those steps, please visit the links below to get help from people who have been there before.

If you're not sure whether you've had "real" problems or not, just ask yourself if you'd still be eating pizza if you'd experienced the same things that have happened as you've used alcohol or drugs. Then listen to that quiet voice inside. The one that isn't offering explanations.

If you think you could control your use, and you've told people you want to, consider putting yourself to the acid test: Set a limit for your use - whatever you think is reasonable and that won't cause problems for you, and if you EVER go over that amount, admit to yourself that you don't have the control you thought you did and may need help to get it back.

Here's to a happy, productive life: Cheers!

Real Life Horror Stories

The descriptions above can't possibly cover all the possible things that can happen. Both in and out of my direct work with alcoholics and addicts, I've seen horrendous effects that are technically described above, but the specific details demonstrate just how harsh those effects can be. Each of these examples is someone I have personally known:

- A man who, while on a binge, was unable to control his bowel movements and defecated throughout his apartment, using curtains to wipe himself afterward.

- A man who injected hair spray because he couldn't afford beer was nearly comatose when he was brought into detox. Emergency treatment at the hospital was required to revive him.

- A man who entered recovery for alcohol and drug use, only to relapse during his third year. The very day he relapsed, he got into an argument with his wife. He pulled out a butcher knife and cut her throat. She lived and somehow forgave him, but he is still facing numerous charges as I write this.

- A woman who, as a registered nurse, was able to hide her prescription drug addiction for years. After she was caught stealing from her workplace, she got fired. When I picked her up for detox, she was unable to walk and did not remember her own name. Her apartment was filthy, and cat droppings covered the floor. After a week in detox, she looked younger, healthier, and happier.

- A man who exchanged his wedding ring for $20. He wasn't planning on getting divorced, but he couldn't go home while he was drinking.

- A man who didn't notice the vomit on his shirt or the snot in his beard. He'd lost his home and family years before. His mental capacity was severely diminished, whether from his drinking and drugging or because of mental illness, or both. He could not answer simple questions, including "What year is it?" and "Do you know where you are today?"

- An addict told me about the time he was in jail, unable to get drugs or alcohol, so he brewed his own "hooch" using shoe polish as one of the primary ingredients.

- A man who had gotten into recovery agreed to meet some former friends. Although the details never became clear, he was found dead in the park where he agreed to meet them. A picnic table was left on his throat.

- A woman who developed an addiction to methamphetamine the first time she tried it left her already unhappy marriage with no money and no job. She told people she had cancer to explain her erratic behavior and get money and sympathy. She nearly died of an overdose, and her children stopped talking to her. She continues to use and refuses all treatment.

Not one of these people expected to become addicted, and never dreamed they'd find themselves in these situations. Please do whatever it takes to make sure your journey never takes you to places like these!


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