What is addiction?

Addiction is a very real problem that reaches every part of the nation. While cities and urban areas are often in the news, rural communities are also struggling with the challenges of substance abuse and addiction. Iowa is facing not only the challenges of the past, like alcoholism, but also faces new challenges, including methamphetamines and opioids.

Counselors and prevention specialists agree that addiction is a real medical disease. It’s not a sign of weakness, lack of willpower or a personality defect.

“Addiction is a medical disease … a disease of the brain,” according to Jane Adams, director of Youth & Shelter Services Inc. of Hamilton County.

“Addiction is not curable, but it is treatable,” Adams said. “With ongoing supports, people can stay in recovery for a long time.”

Community and Family Resources Prevention Specialist Katie Talbot said alcohol remains one of the most widely abused drugs in the state of Iowa. However, marijuana and methamphetamine are prevalent as well. She said Iowa will likely see a rise in the use of opioids and heroin.

Talbot said that one issue with marijuana use has changed since the 1970s and 80s.

“The typical amount of THC (the main psychoactive component in marijuana) was only about 1 to 2 percent. Compare that to today where the marijuana plants can range anywhere from 18 to 25 percent, due to competitive breeding in within the marijuana industry,” she said.

Addiction affects adults, children, families and communities. In fact, few families can say that they have not been touched by addiction, according to Talbot. Both Community and Family Resources and YSS of Hamilton County offer a variety of counseling and treatment options for those dealing with addiction.

We can talk and find out what’s going on, what they suspect is happening,” she said.

Often, Adams said, mental health issues and substance abuse go hand in hand.

“The child may start out with an anxiety disorder and then start taking drugs to feel better, to deal with the anxiety,” she said.

An assessment will help the family and the counselors find the right path forward.

“We can do an assessment here to determine if there are substance abuse, mental health or physical issues — whatever is going on. Then we can look at what treatments are available,” she said.

Adams that for anyone with addiction issues, whether young or old, the sooner they get treatment, the sooner they can get help and the better the chances for recovery. But the road to recovery can be daunting when addicts face a future without drugs or alcohol.

“For adults with lifelong or with years and years of addiction may mean they have to be in treatment several times,” she said. “We have people who have come back to treatment four, five or six times.

Relapse is common, she said. “But with every treatment episode, their chances of staying clean gets better,” she said. “They just have to keep trying.”

Stages of addiction

Adams outlined three stages of addiction. It starts with experimenting — trying drugs or alcohol a few times.

“Most kids experiment with alcohol or marijuana as they are growing up. That’s pretty common. But not everyone develops lifelong addictions,” Adams said.

The second stage is abuse — using illegal drugs like heroin, meth or marijuana, or using pills for a purpose other than prescribed or more than was prescribed.

Addiction goes a step further to dependency. The mind and the body become dependent upon continued use and stopping can mean experiencing intense withdrawal symptoms.

“As you use more, you need more of the substance to achieve the high. Your body acclimates and needs more and more and more,” said Talbot.

Recognizing the signs

• They’re hanging out with a new crowd

• Change in eating habits.

• Weight loss

• School work or work begins to suffer, deteriorate

• Loss of interest in hobbies or activities

• Overactive or underactive (depending on the drug)

• Repetitive speech patterns.

• Dilated pupils, red eyes.

• Excessive sniffing and runny nose (not attributable to a cold)

• Looking pale or undernourished.

• Clothes do not fit the same.

“When you see these signs, it’s time to start asking questions,” Jane Adams said, adding that if parents are concerned there may be drugs, don’t be afraid to search the child’s room.

“Check their phones and text messages. Check their computers and tablets,” she said.

The best way to keep kids away from drugs is to keep the lines of communication open, according to Adams.

“Ask to meet their friends and invite them to your house,” she said. “Be present in their lives.”