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How Do Drug and Alcohol Addictions Begin?

by Demarco Moore

December 1, 2022
a teenage girl cries for help from a traumatic home life that could lead to her turning to drugs or alcohol

Drug and alcohol addiction are complex and polarizing subjects that society often characterizes with negative stereotypes rather than getting to the bottom of why people turn to substance use. You might’ve heard someone say that addiction runs in the family, or that people choose to become addicted. The truth is much more complex. What science proves is that addiction is a disease that locks people into a cycle of substance use.

Related: Can You Prevent Drug or Alcohol Addiction?

Why do people use drugs or alcohol?

People might drink alcohol or use drugs for many reasons. Alcohol, for example, is legal, socially accepted and even celebrated. Some people use substances to alter their moods and escape from something they don’t want to deal with. That could be depression, anxiety or the notion that a drug might help them perform better at school or their job. 

“Alcohol does work for that,” said Angela Garner, an admission consultant at Landmark Recovery whose been in recovery for over four years. “That’s why people stay drunk. It’s a symptom masker.”

Related: Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Addiction

Other people are curious and might experiment with drugs or alcohol because their friends and family do it and they want to fit in, which is common among kids and teenagers. That’s what happened to Dustin Wasson, the executive director at Praxis of South Bend by Landmark Recovery, a drug and alcohol rehab center that accepts Medicaid in northern Indiana. At a young age, Wasson grew up following the band The Grateful Dead, one of the factors that led him down a path to addiction.

“Growing up, I idolized a certain lifestyle and glorified drugs and alcohol,” said Wasson, who’s been sober for over four years. “Listening to certain genres of music I believed at the time I had to partake in using to justify I was a real ‘Deadhead.’ It just came with the territory, and I got with the wrong crowd. By the time the ‘harder’ drugs came around, I was already past the experimental stage and turned to substances as my answer.”  

When drug use turns to dependence and addiction

After long-term drug use, the brain’s pleasure center gets used to it. You can develop a tolerance to a substance. All of a sudden, you might need more of the drug to feel as good as before. Soon enough, you need drugs or alcohol just to feel “normal.” 

You might experience powerful urges to take drugs that can cause you to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like steal or drive under the influence. In some cases, you might become physically sick without them.

Related: What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Drinking Alcohol?

All in all, addiction is a highly complex disease that can affect a person’s thoughts and behaviors. It also takes a toll on the mind and body. However, substance abuse and addiction almost always have root causes. Therefore, it’s crucial to analyze the past and trace back to the causes that lead to addiction in order to overcome it long-term.


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“In early recovery, it’s really vital that you’re examining your past and what could’ve happened, and pinpointing that trauma and depression, because that’s what addiction is,” said Eleanor Barham, another admissions consultant at Landmark Recovery with over two years of long-term recovery. “Drugs and alcohol are a symptom of it. I think it’s important that you focus on that now and use it as a tool to get healthier and better.”

Understanding how certain factors in your life can lead to chronic substance abuse and addiction will help you reduce your risk of becoming addicted.

4 common causes that lead to addiction

4 common causes that lead to addiction

Whether you use drugs as a way to cope with negative emotions or escape from reality, repeated substance use can affect your brain and body and lead to addiction. Understanding the underlying causes that can lead to repeated substance use and dealing with them are the keys to overcoming the addiction long-term. Here are the four most common causes that lead to addiction.

Related: What Happens to the Body During Drug Detox?

1. Starting drug use at a young age

Although drug use at any age can lead to addiction, research shows that when kids or teens use drugs, it affects how their bodies and brains finish growing. That’s because brain development continues well into a person’s 20s, a time characterized by many physical and social changes that can make young people vulnerable to peer pressure. Using drugs when you’re young increases your chances of becoming addicted when you’re an adult.

For Barham, she started taking her mother’s Klonopin at 14 years old. She said she struggled with childhood trauma at home, explaining that her mother accused her of stealing the Klonopin and selling at school. However,  she didn’t consider taking the antidepressant until she entered a drug experimentation phase. 

“I didn’t understand why you would want to sell them. They must be good,” Barham said. “I started getting into the place where I wanted to experiment, and what the hype was that people wanted to buy this.”

2. Trouble at home, school or at work

Experiencing failures at school, for example, or even trouble getting along with people, can make life hard. As a result, some people might use drugs to “self-medicate” or get their minds off these problems, especially young people who might not live in a stable home environment. This can lead to trauma in the mind and at home, which can cause someone to grab alcohol or drugs to deal with it.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of my childhood trauma had caused a lot of depression and anxiety,” Barham said. “When I started taking Klonopin, I wasn’t using it to get messed up. It literally just put me to sleep.”


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3. Mental illness

Some people struggle with mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More than one in four adults living with mental health problems also has a substance use problem, per a mentalhealth.gov report. The longer mental health problems go untreated, the more likely people are to “self-medicate” with drugs to make their symptoms and side effects go away temporarily. 

“I was an alcoholic way before I drank,” Garner said. “I didn’t know what social anxiety was because I’m an extrovert. I just didn’t feel okay in my own skin, and I didn’t know why.”

Related: Why Do People With Drug or Alcohol Addictions Relapse?

4. Family history of addiction 

Studies show that having a first-degree family member (parent, sibling or child) with a SUD is associated with higher rates of substance use and higher occurrence of mental health disorders. For example, parents or older family members who use drugs or misuse alcohol, or even who break the law, can increase kids’ and teens’ risk of future drug problems.

Related: How Drinking Alone Leads To Future Alcohol Addiction

5 practical ways to lower the risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol

5 practical ways to lower the risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol

The Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program (DAAPP) at Prairie View A&M University shared five great tips to help prevent substance abuse and lower the risk of developing an addiction, including:

1. Truly understand how substance abuse and addiction develops

You won’t get addicted to a drug after a single use. However, repeatedly using addictive drugs, whether they’re illegal or prescribed, or drinking alcohol can lead to a developed tolerance and interrupt normal, healthy body functions. As a result, your body might become dependent on drugs, which is one of the most common signs that you’ve developed an addiction.

Addiction is similar to other diseases, such as cancer. Both chronic conditions interrupt normal, healthy body functions and cause harmful effects. Additionally, an addiction left untreated can have lasting effects that ultimately lead to death.

2. Avoid temptation and peer pressure

“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” –Oprah Winfrey

Peer pressure doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s normal for adults, children and teens to identify with a group of peers as they consider who they want to be in life. Therefore, it’s important to develop healthy relationships and surround yourself with people who don’t pressure you to use drugs or drink alcohol, but rather have a positive influence in your life. You can do this by building a foundation where you how to say “no” and establish boundaries that prevent you from giving into peer pressure.

“It’s not about doing drugs or not drinking,” Garner said. “It’s about finding a connection to the world around you and to people. Whatever it looks like, explore who you are and then find the right people.”

Related: 101 Inspiring Recovery Quotes

3. Find help for mental health problems

Mental health and substance use are often linked to one another. Whether you’re a child or an adult, if you’re dealing with a mental illness like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s best to find professional help from a licensed therapist or counselor. A behavioral therapy program can help you learn healthy coping skills to deal with your negative emotions, instead of turning to drugs or alcohol. You don’t have to hit rock bottom to get help.

“You don’t have to be broken to go to therapy,” said Garner, who added she still goes to therapy in recovery and enjoys it. “It’s like going to the doctor for checkups.”

Related: What Is A Dual Diagnosis?

4. Examine addiction risk factors

Several studies have shown that addiction is a disease that typically runs in the family, but can be prevented with healthy attachment and connection. However, a parent that struggles with drinking or drug use is often preoccupied with getting high or recovering from the effects of a substance. Therefore they might miss opportunities to build a healthy connection with their children, which exposes them to stress and trauma that could result in substance use as a coping method.

“I don’t want to blame or point fingers at anybody, but I didn’t have the kind of environment where I could share what was going on with me,” Barham said. “I think if I would have advocated for myself a little stronger, leading up to when I was taking my mom’s Klonopin and alcohol, I could’ve gotten the proper help.”

Taking a deep dive and talking about your family history of mental illness and addiction can have powerful benefits. The more you’re aware of the risk factors around you, the more likely you are to overcome them and avoid substance use as a coping method.

“For people who have addiction in their family or don’t, or parents, just normalize talking about the real issues behind addiction and the real ramifications, instead of the Boogeyman,” Garner said.

Related: How To Talk Your Children About Underage Drinking

5. Maintain a well-balanced life

People often misuse drugs and alcohol when life becomes too stressful and they don’t have healthy ways to manage their emotions. While stress can sometimes help you overcome tough situations, it can also make you vulnerable to addiction or relapse (for those in recovery). Therefore, learning and practicing stress management skills can help you handle life stressors and live a balanced and healthy life.

Related: How Social Media Affects Addiction and Recovery

Develop goals and dreams for your future, especially if you’re recovering from an addiction. These will help you focus on what you want and help you realize that drugs and alcohol might be a symptom of unchecked mental health problems that will simply get in the way and hinder you from achieving your goals.

Don’t let substance use turn into an addiction

Do you have uncontrollable cravings to drink alcohol or use drugs? Have you ever become physically sick when you tried to limit your drinking or quit altogether? You might be experiencing the signs of addiction, and could benefit from a detox program under the supervision of trained addiction treatment professionals. 

If this sounds like you, don’t let drugs or alcohol prevent you from living a healthier, happier life. Call 888-448-0302 today for more information on treatment programs at Landmark Recovery. One of our dedicated recovery specialists is available 24/7 to answer questions and guide you through the admissions process.

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About the Author

Demarco Moore

Demarco Moore

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Demarco Moore currently writes blogs about drug addiction treatment and recovery to help save lives at treatment provider Landmark Recovery. Before that, he cut his teeth as a sports writer at the Manchester Times, where his coverage and stories won Tennessee Press Association awards in 2016 and 2017.

He’s always had a knack for storytelling. Moore’s written content for junior golf tournaments and helped to amplify the “People Not Profits” message of credit unions. When he’s not writing, Moore loves to travel, laugh and put his mental health into the hands of the Tennessee Titans during football season.