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What is addiction?

An addiction is where you don’t have control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.

People may use the words substance abuse, dependence or addiction to talk about problems related to alcohol and drug use. The word substance can mean alcohol, drugs or both.

When your use of alcohol or other drugs start to cause problems in your life, or you are unable to stop, it can seriously damage your health, your work life and relationships.

Becoming dependent on alcohol or other drugs means you rely on taking these to feel good, feel normal, or to cope with everyday life.

Anyone can be affected by alcohol or drug dependence.

Although most people use alcohol or drugs socially or to relax, some people use them as a way to block out, forget or cope with difficult things like unemployment, money worries, stress, work and emotional pressures that are currently affecting them or traumatic things that have previously happened to them.

Signs of a problem with alcohol or drug use

If you have a problem with alcohol and drug use, you might notice:

In your body (physical signs)

  • intense urges to drink alcohol or take drugs – this could be once a day or several times a day

  • changed eating or sleeping habits

  • blackouts or vomiting after taking too much alcohol or drugs

In your feelings (emotional signs)

  • losing interest in activities that you used to love

  • caring less about your appearance

  • relying on drugs or alcohol to have fun or relax

  • finding you need to take more drugs or alcohol to get the same feeling.

In the way you act (behavioural signs)

  • spending money on alcohol and drugs, even when you cannot afford it

  • not being able to carry out your responsibilities at work, with family or with your study

  • doing things that are illegal so you can get the substance, such as stealing

  • drinking or using drugs when you are alone

  • taking risks such as driving when you are under the influence of the substance

  • trying to stop using alcohol or drugs and not being able to.

In your relationships (social signs)

  • keeping secrets from friends or family

  • getting into more arguments with family and friends

  • friends or family asking you if you use alcohol or other drugs

  • lying to people about your alcohol or drug use when they ask

  • cutting back on social or other activities

It’s not always easy to notice when you have become dependent on a substance. Often, your family and friends might notice changes in you first. These may include being withdrawn, tired, annoyed or more easily upset. They may have tried to talk to you about using alcohol or other drugs.

What can I do about my drug or alcohol problem?

Addiction is a common problem, and help is available. Addiction can be treated and there are lots of ways you can get help. You can talk to your GP (doctor) or get in touch with organisations that work specifically with people who have addictions.

If you are concerned about your use, you can call the alcohol drug helpline on 0800 787 797 for free confidential information, help and support.

If a family member or friend tries to talk to you about it, you might feel threatened or criticised. Try to remember that they’re trying to look out for your wellbeing. A positive first step would be to listen, reflect, and be honest with yourself about what they are saying.

Where can I get further support?