When we have a disease, we call certain traits “symptoms,” not behaviors. Addiction has its own list of physical symptoms, but it also claims a host of symptoms that affect behaviors. The symptoms of addiction are biological, emotional, social and spiritual. In the field of addiction, we sometimes call them consequences. All drugs take a toll on the body, but alcohol affects you from head to toe:
- The brain may shrink or atrophy, like the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
- The digestive system becomes red or raw and may even bleed from the caustic effects of alcohol.
- Elevated liver enzymes give rise to fatty liver disease, which may progress to cirrhosis. The liver, shrunken and scarred from cirrhosis, causes a backup of blood flow that results in varicose veins forming at the bottom of the esophagus, leaving the alcoholic more susceptible to internal bleeding. If internal bleeding does occur, the damaged liver is incapable of producing the blood-clotting factors it’s responsible for, so there’s nothing to stop the blood flow. It’s not uncommon for the terminal alcoholic to suffer from a grotesque forum of death-bleeding out through the mouth.
- The spleen becomes enlarged, which compromises the immune system by destroying valuable disease-fighting white blood cells. This increases the alcoholic’s susceptibility to infection.
- The heart’s muscular wall may thin and become flabby, causing the heart to over expand and pump ineffectively, eventually leading to heart failure.
- High blood pressure, common in alcoholics, further damages the heart’s effectiveness.
- The abdomen may swell with fluids that accumulate because of poor protein production of the liver.
- Heaving drinking may cause widespread joint pain. It’s not uncommon for the hips to deteriorate, even in young adults, causing excruciating pain and requiring replacement.
- The alcoholic suffers from damage to the long nerves, causing skeletal muscle wasting in the extremities; severe neuropathic pain, and imbalance.
- Cognitive dysfunction or an inability to think clearly renders even brilliant men and women unable to figure out a grocery list or count their change when shopping.
Biological Consequences of other drugs
Street drugs and prescription drugs used illegally come with their own set of issues:
- Accidental overdose, whether from consuming too much of a drug, a lethal combination of drugs, or an impure drug, kills more than 30,000 people every year in the United States.
- Dirty needles used from injecting heroin, meth and other drugs can carry deadly infections, especially HIV and Hepatitis C, as well as cause skin infections and abscesses.
- Kidney disease, pulmonary complications, and liver disease are long-term consequences.
- All drugs have an effect on neurological connections and pathways in the brain, altering both structure and function, sometimes permanently.
- Stimulants such as amphetamines and cocaine increase heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and core body temperature, sometimes to dangerous levels. Heart attacks are not uncommon among cocaine users.
- Snorting cocaine can produce a hole in the lining of the nose.
Social, emotional, and relationship consequences of alcohol and other drugs
Rifts begin to widen between parents and children, sisters and brothers, rendering entire families dysfunctional in the presence of the active disease:
- Depression, anxiety, anger, isolation, and mood swings
- Poor performance at work or job loss
- Failing classes at school
- Loss of interest in hobbies or family events and activities
- Debt or financial ruin
- Family tension, arguments, and sometimes violence
- Legal consequences from DUIs or petty theft
- Enabling (loved ones providing money or support so the addict can continue to obtain his or her drug of choice)
- Loss of hope
- Loss of faith in the addict, “maybe we would be better off without him”
The substitute of a chemical to deal with uncomfortable feelings, such as boredom, regret, or a sense of not belonging, is a spiritual consequence, and a seminal event that sets the disease in motion. When the addiction is in full swing, we become obsessed with our drug of choice, the only thing in life that makes us feel anywhere near normal. The drug becomes more important than family and friends, and life becomes an endless cycle of using or drinking, or thinking about using or drinking. The emptiness creates a spiritual hole—a lack of hope and faith for any light at the end of the tunnel.