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A Deeper Look at Substance Use Disorders

Substance Use Disorder (SUD), also known as drug addiction, is a word that we’ve been hearing a lot lately in every part of the world. It’s defined as “a disease that affects a person's brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication,” but what does that really mean? There are a lot of people out there who don’t believe SUD is, in fact, a disorder, but science has begun to teach us otherwise.

In a November 2016 report, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., publicly confirmed that SUD is a chronic illness accompanied by significant changes in the brain. Through research that has been done, many previously misunderstood myths have been debunked and new, more accurate information has been uncovered. The first time individuals drink or take drugs, they may be doing so totally voluntarily, believing that they can control any future use. However, with continued use, more and more alcohol and/or drugs are needed to achieve the same feeling that the person using them first experienced. For people who develop substance use disorder, seeking out and taking the substance becomes a near-constant activity, which can (and usually does) cause significant problems for the user, their family, and their friends. At the same time, progressive changes in the brain begin to drive and reinforce the compulsive, uncontrollable drug use, ultimately turning into diagnosed SUD. When this happens, individuals are no longer voluntarily choosing to recreationally use drugs or alcohol; in fact, their brain’s “need” for substance(s) causes their compulsive substance use to be the only thing that matters, even at the expense of losing everything and everyone who they once loved and valued. Science has also demonstrated that repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex of the brain to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, which gets translated in the brain’s of individuals with substance use disorder as their brain telling them they need drugs and/or alcohol to survive.

People start using substances for a variety of reasons; to fit in with their peer groups, to distract themselves from their own reality, self-medicating, casually to have fun, prescribed medications after/during medical treatment leading to substance use disorder, intergenerational substance misuse, and many more. So, how might you know when your substance use has gone from “just having fun” to SUD? As someone in long-term recovery, I knew that I needed help when I thought more about my substance of choice than I did anything else in a day. It is important to note here that substance use disorder might look different from one individual to the next, but some of the signs I noticed most in myself before beginning my recovery journey were: difficulty falling asleep and/or waking up, having a decreased appetite, disinterest in former hobbies, inability to have fun and feel fulfilled without being under the influence, inability to go about a normal daily routine without being under the influence, inability to maintain employment, and challenges maintaining healthy friendships and family relationships.

If you or someone you love do find yourself wanting support and treatment around your substance misuse, I’ve listed some resources below that I’ve found to contain helpful information, but there are so many resources available that are just a quick Google search away. Coming from someone in long-term recovery, I want you to know that there are always people who care about you and want to see you get help and succeed. Since being in recovery, my life has changed exponentially; I’m a young homeowner, I have a career that I love, and I’m on track to achieving all the dreams I have ever had for myself. None of these things would have been possible had I not started my recovery journey. The last thing I’d like to point out is, regardless of your circumstances, you matter and you deserve to live a happier healthier life.

Stay safe and healthy and thank you for reading!


Youth Peer Support Specialist


Resources for more information about Substance Use Disorder (SUD): or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) - Nationwide ● Aware Recovery Center - Southern NH - Southern NH - NA statewide meetings list - AA meetings statewide lescents/ - Southern NH

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