For many people, the difference between drug addiction and drug dependence is a semantic one. Some believe calling someone drug dependent makes it sound nicer than calling them an addict, as the negative images the word addict conjures can be quite severe.
However, the medical definitions of the words reveal that the two words do in fact have different meanings. They are similar, that is undeniable, and the difference is quite subtle (to the point that some treatment centres reject use of either word, preferring to replace them with phrases like ‘substance abuse issues’): but the difference is there. NB: This article refers to ‘drug’ as the substance being abused, but anything from cigarettes to alcohol can be substituted.
This refers to a physical need for the drug in order for normal function to occur. If the drug is not taken at all, withdrawal symptoms may appear. These symptoms can include mild anxiety, excessive perspiration, nausea and vomiting. More severe symptoms can be quite scary and include severe trembling, hallucinations, and sensory issues.
At worst, withdrawal can lead to seizures and even death. Because of this, any rehabilitation program must follow a gradual reduction of the drug, before the user is completely weaned from the substance.
This is defined as the compulsive continued use of a drug, no matter the consequences, be they medical, social or emotional. Addiction is indicated by a change in the behaviour of the user to a state in which the drug rules his or her life: any and every action is calculated towards or around the ‘scoring’ of the next fix.
Thus we can see that being dependent on a drug is a time when the user seems to be in control of their using. They can function as normal, attend work and other appointments, and take care of themselves reasonably well as regards personal grooming, clothing and so on.
As the dependency exerts an ever greater grip on the user, it becomes more of an addiction. This is the point when even fairly unobservant colleagues and neighbours will begin to notice that there is an issue as the user’s need becomes more urgent and they take less pains with hiding the problem.
While the two words have different meanings, we can see that dependence is the earlier stage of the substance abuse problem – the beginning of the slippery slope, if you will – while being an addict is the more noticeable stage – the depths of the problem, when behaviour may turn criminal as the user becomes more frenetic in their efforts to keep their need fulfilled. However, help and treatment can be sought after at all stages of addiction.