You may have never heard of this term before. Polysubstance dependency? Sounds like something made up in a laboratory. Well, although not technically in a lab, it is a combination of various intoxicating substances. In fact, this term refers to people who are addicted to the feeling of intoxication in itself.
Some people LOVE the high!!! This high may also vary for different kinds of people. Have you ever heard the term “high on life”? The enjoyment a person receives from simply being alive, here on earth to live another day to its fullest . . . high on life!!!
What about those who get high from taking risks and putting themselves into compromising positions like jumping out of an airplane or skiing down the steepest slope? The rush of adrenaline that this type of person feels is similar to being high on life. It is a physical feeling of intense excitement and stimulation when engaging in certain activities. Once you feel it, your body craves it more and more often.
A person who is addicted to the feeling of getting high or of being intoxicated in itself, may suffer from polysubstance dependency. They may use several different substances at different times, not preferring a particular drug or substance over another. Many people will become addicted to marijuana, cocaine, opioids, cigarettes, or alcohol and usually only one of these. Those who are polysubstance dependent are typically defined as abusing three or more substances over a 12-month period.
It is important to understand at this point the difference between abuse and dependence. Although the terms seem to be used interchangeably at times, there is a very big difference between the two. By definition, the word to abuse means to misuse or treat in a harmful, injurious way. In other words, a person who abuses substances uses them in a way that is harmful, dangerous or improper.
For example, you may go out with your friends after work and enjoy a cocktail or two. You participate and act responsibly, consuming enough to be social, yet acknowledging that you must get home safely. On the other hand, another person may go to the same social gathering with the intention of becoming extremely intoxicated, without care or concern for themselves or the safety of others. In their overindulgence, they are abusing their bodies, taking for granted the effects that alcohol may have on it as well as their harmful or inappropriate actions.
Let’s look at the word dependence in comparison. Dependence is defined as an adaptive state that is created from repetitive use and abuse of a substance. We could look at this as abuse leads to dependency after a pattern of continued, repetitive use of a particular substance. Dependence is an actual addiction to drugs or alcohol in which a person is physically unable to stop using and experiences withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit. Their motivation has changed from enjoying the “high” to a physical need for the substance simply to handle life on a daily basis.
It has been proven that through repetitive use of drugs or alcohol, the brain actually changes, especially the parts of the brain which manage self-control. These changes no longer permit a person to casually use a substance sine their body can no longer function without it, pushing them deeper into dependency.
Polysubstance Dependence is listed as a mental disorder and characterized a bit differently than substance abuse or dependency. As mentioned earlier, a person who is diagnosed as having a polysubstance dependency does not discriminate among the various drugs but rather may use a variety of drugs to achieve the desired result. For example, a person may use cocaine, prescription medications and hallucinogens with no one more regularly used than the other. Remember, the draw is the intoxication and not necessarily the drug itself.
Unfortunately, polysubstance dependency may be more difficult to diagnose. In many cases, loved ones may not recognize the signs or symptoms since the person may not necessarily demonstrate signs of a cocaine dependency or a prescription medication dependency or a hallucinogen dependency. However, he or she may meet the criteria for polysubstance dependency when the three are considered as a group.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
Cocaine is highly addictive and abusers typically didn’t start out by saying “I am going to overindulge in or abuse cocaine”. It begins as a ‘harmless’ experimentation and casual use. A person who is addicted to cocaine may display signs of overexcitement, paranoia, mood swings, loss of appetite and long periods of wakefulness. Harmful, addictive and of course, life threatening, these symptoms may however, not be indicators of a polysubstance dependence.
Prescription medication abuse occurs when a medicine prescribed for another person or for another symptom is used in a way other than that was initially intended. A person may enjoy the feeling that they get from the medicine prescribed for their back pain and take it more than is necessary. In other cases, people may take a prescription intended for someone else’s symptoms to get that euphoric feeling. For example, an individual may take another’s prescribed anti-anxiety medication, not understanding the harm that it can do when not prescribed for them. Yet, the addiction to that feeling is what draws them in. They may display signs of slurred speech, a lack of concentration, confusion and drowsiness. Of course, these symptoms are all concerning but when evaluated independently, they may not indicate that there is a much larger problem going on such as polysubstance dependency.
Hallucinogens are drugs that cause a person to feel, see and hear things that are not real. Again, it is the feeling that draws a person to try a hallucinogenic drug in the first place and what keeps them coming back for more. Symptoms of use or abuse may include having trouble sleeping, nervous, heavy sweating and racing heart rate, having panic attacks and paranoia, possibly even believing that others are out to get them. These signs alone are scary and possibly life-threatening, but they would not be an indicator of the larger issue of polysubstance dependence.
Each of these substances is certainly harmful in itself. However, when a person is constantly in search of that feeling of intoxication, the results can be devastating. Polysubstance dependency is now classified as a substance use disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and is very treatable.
So, what are some of the signs of polysubstance dependency versus an addiction to a single drug? While a person may enjoy or display the effects associated with cocaine or opioids, it is the ultimate feeling of the HIGH, the intoxication, that creates the addictive or dependent behavior.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, substance dependency or addiction is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:
- Using a substance for an extended period of time
- Experiencing cravings and urges
- Placing greater importance on obtaining and using a substance than going to work and caring for self or family
- Risk-taking to get the substance
- Requiring more and more of the substance to obtain the same desired effect
- Trying to stop but physically unable to do so
- Even though they understand the risk, continuing to use the substance anyway
- Trying to stop and experiencing withdrawal symptoms
- Spending a lot of time studying and researching drugs and their effects
Although anyone may be susceptible to polysubstance dependency, teenagers and young adults may be more inclined to multiple drug use simply because of availability.
At this time in their lives it may be natural to experiment with various drugs and substances. While they may have access to prescription medications, the supply may be irregular to avoid being caught pilfering. Since they cannot legally purchase alcohol, they will have to creatively develop ways to obtain it. Some may say that it is a matter of convenience as teens tend to experiment with substances that they may possibly get high from. During this very stressful, ever-changing time in their lives, teens typically are looking to escape and once they find that euphoric state, they will do whatever is necessary to keep it. What may begin as partying on the weekends with friends and trying this or that to get high may quickly evolve into dependency as they enjoy the feeling of being high more and more, leading them to try different substances.
The first step in diagnosing the problem if you or a loved one is suspected of using multiple substances to get high is to first seek the advice and help of a trained medical professional. He or she will be able to understand the signs and symptoms and properly diagnose the disorder and then prescribe a treatment plan. As with any disorder, it is important to understand the root cause of the polysubstance abuse and the origins of the addictive behavior. By identifying the underlying issues through therapy, trained professionals can help a sufferer to get on a path towards sobriety and recovery.
Therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise referred to as CBT, and group therapy are typically prescribed to assist an individual with their polysubstance dependency issues. A person with a dependence on multiple substances may certainly benefit from the knowledge and experience of offered at a quality residential treatment facility such as Beachside which provides more individualized treatment including medication if necessary and appropriate.
Understand that although seeking treatment for a polysubstance dependence is not an easy road, it is the best path to saving a person’s life. Through therapy in a treatment center, patients learn what their triggers are, how to avoid them, and confront them in a positive and constructive way. CBT provides sufferers with the tools and coping mechanisms to recognize cravings, to lessen the number of relapses and to develop ways to find the desired feelings of getting high through life alone rather than fabricated through chemical substances.
As we continue to battle the opioid crisis and addictions to other substances here in the United States, it is critical that we as parents, caregivers, friends, spouses and associates learn to not only recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction and dependency but to speak up to get the person the attention that is needed to help them recover from their disorder.
If you or someone you love is experiencing polysubstance dependency, treatment is the only option. The trained medical and therapeutic professionals at Beachside can help to diagnose the problem, to determine the root cause and help the patient to successfully manage the symptoms of withdrawal and to enter into the recovery stage.