The Devastation of American Drug Addiction
The drug and opioid epidemic is one of our country’s most burdensome challenges being faced in the present. It is something that the United States is struggling to resolve efficiently. In 2016, 42,000 Americans died from abuse of opioids, such as fentanyl, heroin, and prescription drugs (Ingraham). Each of these individuals were a mother or father, a son or daughter, or a friend (Pathos). Yet, even as the primary killer of people under the age of 50, drug addiction is still considered a “taboo” topic. The truth is, addiction affects every aspect of the drug-user’s life: their brain functions, their relationships, their personality (Pattern 3). Addiction in America compromises the well-being of the individual, relationship dynamics, and society, and does not have a clear solution.
Those who have not experienced addiction could not possibly understand the frustration, heartache, and worry that comes to everyone involved. There are certain criteria someone must meet in order to be clinically diagnosed as an addict, not just a drug user. One definition characterizes addiction as “...a disease that affects a person's brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a...drug ” (Mayo Clinic). Statistically, every American will encounter a person with a drug addiction at some point, and with addiction becoming more prevalent, society should obtain a basic understanding of how addiction affects a drug-user.
To understand addiction, one must consider the changes the brain goes through as a result of drug use. The sought-after “high”, a sensation achieved through drug consumption, is caused by the brain’s generation of large amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that causes us to feel happiness. Heroin, for example, has the ability to trick the brain into using the compound as a neurotransmitter. Cocaine, on the other hand, forces the brain to stop recycling dopamine after its release, therefore producing the high while also enforcing the repetition of the drug use (Addiction Education Society).
The release of the dopamine allows the “reward effect” to occur in the cerebral cortex, the emotion center of the brain — the same feeling as “a monetary reward...or a satisfying meal”, but on a larger scale (Harvard Health Publishing). The speed of the dopamine release correlates to how quickly one develops the addiction (Harvard Health Publishing). At a certain stage in the addiction, the drugs start to feel less euphoric, as the brain begins to produce less dopamine. Drugs chemically alter the brain from the first use, and the first high is almost always considered to be the best.
Therefore, the brain continues to chase the feeling of those first few highs, causing the person to continually feed the addiction as his or her tolerance builds, taking increasing amounts of the drug each time. This dangerous chase often leads to death through overdose, where the body cannot process and remove the drug from the body efficiently enough, causing the organs to shut down.
In addition to the brain, other physical parts of the body begin to function differently after taking drugs. When the body becomes completely dependant on a substance, the organs lose efficiency and function. On top of brain damage, lethargy, and attention/memory problems, the immune system becomes extremely weak when exposed to drugs, depending on how the nervous system reacts. The heart and liver are also put into significant danger, where heart and liver disease or failure can ensue.
Recurring bouts of dehydration, muscle breakdown, and increased body temperature due to drug use contribute to an increased chance of kidney failure, especially among heroin users (Brande). Nausea and stomach pain can occur, causing weight loss and appetite changes (Gateway Foundation). This is why a stereotypical addict is portrayed as frail and gaunt. Opioids that are injected, such as heroin, are especially dangerous because they contribute to the spread of HIV. Addiction become so intense that people with drug addictions tend to ignore the physical deterioration of their health because the “high” is so euphoric.
A external change that shows itself immediately is a change in personality. Since the brain is being fundamentally altered, a change of personality is inescapable. The brain makes drugs the center of focus. Therefore, this contributes to a blurred line between right and wrong. The addiction becomes so strong that many addicts, in their most desperate moments, can resort to stealing and lying in order to obtain their substance. Drugs become the priority over everything else that would have been the most important — such as work, school, family, and finances (Pattern 6). Oftentimes, drugs can appear to make a person happier, more social, or more spontaneous; but, these effects are temporary (Pattern 1a).
When an addict goes through withdrawal, he or she can become aggressive, paranoid, and depressed. Substance abuse also can make users more erratic, which means they are willing to take risks or make dangerous choices, especially when it comes to obtaining more drugs. Although some drugs are stimulating, other drugs, like prescription pills, numb the emotions instead. Johnny, a teenage boy interviewed after his problems with Xanax addiction, told The Guardian that when he attempted to detox from the drug, he felt “depressed and physically sick” (Marsh). Some of these effects can be reversed and unlearned, but many are permanent or continue to affect the addict for the rest of his or her life, therefore altering personality.
Addiction is all around us. Hundreds of celebrities and public figures have shared their experiences with addiction. Demi Lovato, a well-renowned singer and actress, has struggled with drug addiction for years (Apposition). This past summer, she overdosed on oxycontin (which some believe was laced with fentanyl) in her Los Angeles home. Luckily, paramedics were able to save her through the use of naloxone, better known as Narcan, a medicine that reverses the effects of narcotics (People).
Although Lovato was apparently sober for years before this, relapse is common when it comes to substance abuse; 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse while in attempt to obtain complete sobriety (Ashwood Recovery) (Pattern 1b). This shows that addiction is indifferent towards who it victimizes. Other notable celebrities that have overdosed on drugs include Prince, Whitney Houston, and Heath Ledger. Unfortunately, many of the reputations and legacies of famous addicts are tarnished by their addiction struggles.
Even so, it seems that drug use is normalized in many movies and songs. In almost every genre, allusions to the euphoria that drugs bring can be found. This doesn’t make these songs and movies bad or inappropriate, per se, but we do need to consider the truthfulness behind it. Our media has become so immersed in addiction that we don’t even think anything of it anymore. We are almost infatuated with it, as Americans crave shows like Breaking Bad or Narcos, and idolize movies like Trainspotting or Scarface—all of which depict addiction through a cinematic lens, simultaneously undermining the horrible cycle of addiction. When the media makes projects including drug use, a more honest description should be utilized.
For instance, Matty Healy, the lead singer of a band called The 1975, revealed in 2018 that he had recently spent time in a rehabilitation center for his heroin addiction. Although a few of the band’s earlier songs were obviously about drug usage, many of their “love” songs are actually about his poisonous relationship with heroin. For example, their song ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’ includes the lyrics “All I do is sit and think about you / If I knew what you’d do / Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes / It’s not living if it’s not with you”. This suggests that addiction becomes engraved into our subconscious as we sing along to the lyrics without realizing the subliminal meaning behind them. It also portrays the way in which addiction takes control of the brain, to the point where it becomes personified in the mind of the user as a friend.
Although this idea can prove to be entertaining and even artistic in the media, it is not so glamorous in reality.
One of the least glamorous aspects of addiction is the devastation on a family or relationship dynamic. It is crucial that the people around an addict encourage him or her to seek professional help in addition to providing emotional support. Significant sums of family savings can be depleted from the expense of purchasing drugs. Because of the aggression and irritability caused by drugs, relationships often go south. This can result in domestic abuse or violence and mistrust. Children living in a household where drug addiction is normalized may also be more subject to addiction down the road.
However, the harm that drugs have towards relationships is not always crystal clear. This is portrayed in a co-dependent or an enabling relationship. The family member or partner who is willing to do anything for the drug user will enable their addiction by providing money or by acting as a constant caretaker (Holloway). Because the codependent person feels responsible for their loved one’s substance issues, they do not set boundaries and put their own needs last. This is, obviously, difficult to admit and resolve. It is a draining position to be in, as the caregiver wants to help the drug user without hurting their feelings or by forcing the user to get help they do not want. Although the codependent person has the best intentions, enabling an addict is possibly the worst thing one could do for the addict’s health.
On the largest scale, addiction is something that harms nationwide society.
It hurts companies and other types of workplaces. “70 percent of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed” (NCADD). This causes problems such as loss of productivity and therefore a decrease in monetary income for the business. It also endangers other coworkers. “One-third of all employees are aware of illegal drug sale in the workplace” (Patterson). Many companies have taken steps to attempt to prevent this, but it is difficult to completely eliminate, as drug-users almost always desperately keep their substance abuse secret. Within the past three years, workplace overdoses have increased by 32 percent (Tucker). In a country like America that has a significant focus on work, we need our workers to be healthy and safe.
Addiction can also make it harder for reformed addicts to find a job, since many companies are weary to hire people who have been involved with drugs, in fear of relapses or endangerment to the company. Addicts often experience this social rejection, especially if he or she has a prior criminal record for drug involvement. The disease derails his or her entire life, and many sacrifices must be made in to get back on track.
Drug addiction also affects society through the War on Drugs, a movement created by President Nixon to decrease the potential of more addiction by cracking down on drug use. America is attempting to find an effective way to lower the rates of addiction and drugs coming into the country, but this is time-consuming and expensive. Some ideas that have been proposed and explored include more severe punishments for drug dealers, increased military surveillance to stop drugs from entering the country, or even supervised injection centers for addicts to get their fix within a sanitary, controlled area.
Altogether, since the beginning of the movement in 1971, the country has spent an estimate of one trillion dollars to combat drug abuse, especially through enforcement, even for possession of a small amount of a drug. This has also created tensions between the United States and South American countries like Mexico and Colombia, where a large portion of the drugs are smuggled from. Frankly, the precautions America have taken seem to be going to waste, as someone dies from opioid addiction every 16 minutes in the United States (Pearl). Fighting drug use and dealing is not preventing addiction from occurring. Most Americans, regardless of political party, seem to agree that the War on Drugs is failing.
With so much drug addiction, the criminal justice system has heavily enforced drug laws. In 2016, 456,000 people were incarcerated for a drug law violation. More men and women are in jail for drug violations more than any other crime. A majority of these violations were for possession. Yet, according to statistics, only 11 percent of these inmates are receiving treatment sufficient to help their addiction (The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights). This has led to controversy over the justice system’s conduct towards prisoners. Should illegal drug addiction be treated more as a disease or illness rather than a crime (Rhetorical question)? No matter where one falls on the spectrum of answers to that question, it is only right that prison treatment programs should be more widely offered in order to assist inmates in getting back in the right direction.
“Criminalization tends to drive people who use drugs underground, making it less likely that they will get care” (Human Rights Watch). This indirectly causes even more violence and crime. Prevention of arrest should also be prompted so that addicts can avoid incarceration altogether, since many times addiction is not efficiently resolved in prison.
A positive outcome that has arrived in response to the drug epidemic is resources for sobriety. This includes treatment centers, support groups, therapy, and medications. There are thousands of rehabilitation centers in America, and right now we need them more than ever. Many of these facilities are created through the contributions of former addicts themselves, which provides a more intimate and calming environment for those seeking help, in knowing that sobriety is attainable. While some centers can be expensive, there are countless financial aid opportunities to make the care more accessible for everyone.
Alcoholics Anonymous seems to be the most well-known of these resources, because it is free. During Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the group often follows a twelve step process, consisting of actions such as admitting one’s problem, creating a relationship with a higher power (such as God or the universe), and conscientiously making a plan to recover (Parenthesis). However, many people struggling with dependence and addiction do not want to admit they have a problem and refuse to seek treatment. According to studies, only 10.9% of those who need specialized treatment actually go to receive it (American Addiction Center). Addicts should be encouraged to seek help in order to salvage their life, happiness, and health.
We’ve all been told countless times throughout childhood and adolescence to “just say no” to drugs. Although this is a beneficial ideal in theory, realistically, this logic is flawed. What starts for many Americans as a simple ill-made choice morphs into a fragile balance between life and death. It is no longer is a choice. Addiction does not discriminate and may not look identical for many different people (Litote). Forecasts say that 500,000 Americans will die from opioid overdose within the next decade, and we are getting nearer and nearer to this number each day (Blau) (Logos).
That is why it is vital for each of us to know how addiction affects American life. Addiction is a bully, a villain, and a gruesome disease that destroys lives (Personification). It harms physical health, relationships, society and the economy...to name just a few (Ellipsis). Despite the warnings and education we receive about the dangers of drugs and the resultant drug addiction, in this day and age our society both normalizes and glorifies the use of substances to enhance life.
Therefore, repeated exposure and desensitization to the horrors of addiction contribute to younger individuals believing it is “cool” to succumb to that lifestyle. Based on these conclusions, it is impossible to completely eradicate drug addiction because of our exposure through the media or through our families that makes it seem like opening the window through drug use is normal. It will be a never ending cycle.