We see it too often—an addict goes through drug treatment, makes great progress, gets healthy, starts rebuilding their life, then they get to wondering… “now that I’m off the drug I was addicted to, can I safely drink alcohol or do other drugs?” To many involved in drug treatment programs, it seems like a valid question. What harm is there in socially using a substance they were never addicted to? The short answer: a lot. The long answer: this type of thinking is totally, fundamentally flawed and puts a recovering addict in extreme danger of relapse. Let it be completely clear: just because an addict wasn’t hooked on a certain substance in particular, that does not make it safe for them to use in any dosage!
This may seem difficult to understand at first. Why would a recovering heroin addict with no history of alcoholism be in danger from having a beer or two with friends? The answer lies in the brain. Addictive drugs and alcohol share a common trait: they are mood-altering. These substances manipulate chemicals in the brain, creating an unnaturally large rush of them when the substance is used. Physical addiction begins when the brain, noticing this excess of chemicals, stops natural production of them in an effort to get chemical levels back to normal. This keeps an addict from naturally experiencing the feelings of pleasure their substance of choice simulates, because their brain isn’t making the chemical that makes that feeling possible. After treatment, addicts can learn to live well without their substance, but if they relapse, they will quickly return to their former state. Most importantly, this will occur even if the altered mood is caused by a different drug. They are addicted to the altered-mood state, the method by which it is achieved is secondary.
Because of this, it doesn’t matter if a recovering addict takes heroin or drinks a beer—while one will certainly take effect sooner, they both will lead the person back into addiction. Even if a recovering addict doesn’t drink enough alcohol to have the full mood-altering effect, it can still dramatically increase the chances of relapse. If the addict feels the beginnings of intoxication, they may become frustrated that they are so close to the altered mood they are addicted to without actually achieving it. To get rid of this frustration, they may seek out something harder. As anyone with a loved one recovering from addiction knows, this can lead to disastrous results.
Addiction is a mental but also a physical disease.Our nationally-renowned physicians and addictionologists can provide the tools addicts need to heal. Contact us to discuss your options for treatment.
Although there are very rare cases of recovering addicts drinking responsibly, the risks are far too great to take that chance. Full sobriety is the best bet for health, and thankfully drug treatment programs with aftercare, outpatient care, and support groups like AA and NA are good resources for keeping recovery and sobriety a reality.