Am I addicted to pills?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

Are you taking pills that have been prescribed to you by a doctor or are you taking pills that you got from a friend or bought from somewhere else?

I’m taking pills that were prescribed to me by a doctor, strictly according to the label.

You may worry that you’re addicted, especially if you’re on certain drugs that are used recreationally, but there’s a difference between taking a medication and abusing one.

Some medications are habit-forming or addictive or cause what is known as a “physical dependence,” where your body adapts to expect that medication.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid taking those medications if that is what you and your doctor decide. It means that you need to have a discussion with your doctor about the potential side effects of a medication and whether they outweigh the benefits.

It also means you don’t have to take those medications. If a doctor prescribes you something and you’re worried about the risks, you are within your rights to ask for a different treatment. (But make sure you avoid suddenly stopping any medication without talking to your doctor first—sometimes your body needs to “taper” off by stepping down your dosage over time.)

I’m taking pills that were prescribed to me by a doctor, but I’m deliberately using them to get high.

Taking medication outside its normal purpose is what we call substance abuse. For example, maybe your doctor has prescribed you a benzodiazepine like Xanax for panic attacks. But instead of following the instructions your doctor gave you, you take a few recreationally and then have a few drinks. Not only is that incredibly dangerous, but it could be a sign of problematic drug use.

The difference between experimentation, problematic drug use, and an addiction differ from person to person. If you’re concerned about your drug use, or someone else has raised concerns, you should talk to your doctor or a specialist who focuses on substance use.

I’m taking pills I got from a friend or brought from someone else.

If you took one Adderall from a friend one time to write a paper that you left until the last minute, no, you’re probably not addicted to pills. But you shouldn’t be taking medication that isn’t prescribed to you. Medications are complicated, and there is always the potential for allergies or drug interactions. For example, there’s a lot out there that interferes with the effectiveness of birth control—that’s the kind of thing you want to clear with a doctor or pharmacist before starting a treatment.

If you’re buying Adderall, Xanax, etc. to use regularly, you may or may not be addicted—but you’re certainly using drugs illegally and may face other physical, psychological, or social consequences.

Check out our article What is Addiction to learn more. 

But even if you aren’t addicted, you have other things to worry about. You can’t always verify the purity of drugs you get from dealers or the Internet. You could get caught and arrested, which might mean anything from fines to jail times to losing scholarships. You could get in a car while using something and hurt yourself or someone else. These are real risks, and you should take them seriously.

Whether you’re addicted or not, the best thing you can do is talk to someone about how your drug use impacts your life. You can bring this up with your doctor or seek out a substance use counselor or therapist.

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