Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part III

There are as many problems caused by withdrawal as caused by use

If we are familiar with a drug at all, we know, or, at least have been told, what the initial effect is like. Tobacco will make you calm, marijuana will make you mellow, heroin will give you a warm and cozy feeling all over, cocaine is a rush better than sex, and crystal meth a rush better than cocaine. These initial feelings are the reason most people use drugs, they are the reinforcers that get you hooked.

The initial effect is not the end of the story, though.

What actually happens is this. Drugs will begin a pendulum effect, so that your feelings swing from one extreme to another. The stronger the drug and the stronger the dosage, the more pronounced the extreme.

Let’s follow a typical course of events. A tobacco cigarette may very well get you calm. If you just had a fight with your wife and step outside and have a smoke, you will get calm. You might’ve gotten calm anyway even if all you did was step outside and stop fighting, but I’ll grant that a smoke might speed the process along. Here’s the thing, though. About three hours later, if you don’t have another cigarette, you will be anything but calm. By then, about half of the nicotine you introduced into your system will be gone and you will be jittery, irritable, and even more grouchy than you were when you and your wife were fighting.

This phenomenon is caused by that pendulum effect. It’s called withdrawal. It’s a backlash, your body attempting to find its equilibrium after it was thrown off balance. You’ll be wanting another cigarette, so that you can get calm. You might be sold on the idea that cigarettes make you calm. “I need to smoke,” you might say, “for my anxiety.”

The funny thing is, your anxiety was caused by cigarettes in the first place; caused by that pendulum the cigarette set into motion.

This phenomenon is not unusual. It arises when you use any drug that gives you an immediate effect and withdraws over the course of a few minutes or hours. About half the cocaine you use is gone from your body in an hour. That’s why the crash from a cocaine high is so severe. It can last days. Marijuana, on the other hand, takes a long time to leave the system, so that the withdrawal is not as pronounced.

We don’t see this pendulum effect so much when people first start using a drug. They usually start with lower dosages and stop an episode of use before consuming so much. A teenage boy, for instance, might get a fine buzz after a single can of beer and he may have little reason to drink any more. As he becomes a more experienced drinker and develops a tolerance for alcohol, he needs more and more beer, or will switch to stronger forms of alcohol, to achieve the same effect. That’s when he will begin to experience hangovers, the alcoholic’s version of withdrawal.

This is the way that we begin to believe the lie that a drug’s effect is confined to the initial high and doesn’t have anything to do with the subsequent withdrawal. It is the lie that drives addiction and convinces people that they can never stop.

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