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Reasons for Using Substances

Contributor: Yvette McBride Thomas

People like to feel good. Many experiences in our world are geared toward altered states of consciousness–natural highs. These “natural highs” are derived from many experiences: roller coaster rides, skydiving, white water rafting, dancing, or anything else that can produce an adrenaline rush. Our enjoyment of these sensations begins at an early age. Small children will spin around in circles or scare each other in order to feel this altered state of consciousness. Unfortunately, “artificial highs” from drugs or alcohol are easier to obtain than natural highs, and drugs are readily available to children at an early age. The following seem to be the most common reasons for drug use today.

Parental or Guardian Influence

As seen in the previous section, the “pill for every ill” attitude that is seen in the home has a major impact on children. Approximately 80% of children’s values, morals, work ethic and attitude are derived before age 8. A child is exposed to his/her parents for the majority of his/her life before age 8. Therefore, parents will have the greatest influence on their children. A child learns many lifelong habits and attitudes from his/her parents. Unfortunately, in about 80% of cases, a child’s first exposure to alcohol and drug use is in the home. Children may see a parent drinking alcohol, popping pills or doing other drugs. Parents may have a liquor cabinet, a steady supply of beer in the refrigerator, or other drugs in the home. The influence of a child’s parents cannot be emphasized enough. Parents need to understand this and be proper role models for their children. What is the subliminal programming that is occurring every time a child opens the refrigerator and sees beer? It becomes the norm. We are not saying that parents should never drink beer in the home, but rather that they must assess the role that alcohol plays in their home.

Unfortunately, too, some children are exposed to illegal drugs from the time of their birth. Worse, some are exposed even before birth, if the mother uses during pregnancy. Such babies may be born addicted to drugs (i.e., “crack babies”). Infants may be exposed to drugs in the mother’s breast milk or in the home environment. One client in drug treatment described a baby picture of himself, in which a bottle of beer and a marijuana “joint” were photographed with him in his crib. He grew up believing that drug and alcohol use was normal for everyone. He began using at age eight and was chemically dependent and involved in the courts by age 17. Another client in treatment, an adolescent, shared a story of being beaten by her father-for smoking his marijuana. She had the black eye to prove it.

Peer-Group Influence 

Most people are aware that during the adolescent years, a person’s most influential group is their peer group. When their peers are using substances, teens often feel a need to use them as well, in order to gain acceptance, to be “tight” with their friends. Using substances because “everyone else does” may not seem to be a valid reason to adults, but to high school and junior high students, it is compelling. Failure to join in can cause a teen to become an outcast from the group-the worst fate imaginable to many teenagers. So they will often do whatever it is that their friends are doing so that they can fit in.

Even “good” kids may submit to peer pressure. For many adolescents, using drugs or alcohol can make them feel rebellious, as if they are being independent and carving out their niche in the world. It may also make them feel “grown up”. As a person grows older, he/she may decide to continue using or to stop using for many different reasons. He/she may outgrow the peer group influence but may not outgrow the substance involvement.

To Get An Effect or To Get High (Pleasure)

The majority of people using substances do so to get the mood-altering effect or some type of pleasurable sensation. Many available substances will induce a feeling of euphoria. People who use substances for pleasure, who have few problems with their substance use, are often labeled “social” users. These individuals can drink or get high on weekends just to feel good and have no resulting problems. Other persons who get involved in this type of substance use will eventually develop major substance abuse problems. No one can predict before beginning use if he/she will become drug- or alcohol- dependent.

Curiosity and Boredom

Curiosity is the most familiar reason given for first trying a substance. Curiosity is quickly satisfied. Therefore, if the person chooses to continue using the drug, he/she does so for other reasons. With the current availability of many substances, people are aware that if they want to try substances, they can. Young people are naturally curious; they are attracted to new and exciting things. Adolescents want immediate gratification and often don’t look at the possible consequences. This also leads them into trying many different drugs, to experiment with the different highs. This need for immediate gratification also allows them to get bored very easily. Obtaining and using illegal drugs is often viewed as exciting or “cool” by adolescents and can take up a large amount of time, thus alleviating their boredom.

Internal Issues

Internal issues correlate with serious substance abuse problems. Internal pressures to use include: stress, low self-worth, depression, anxiety and nervousness. Low self-esteem has been found to be a major factor in an individual’s choice to begin using substances. Alcohol and drugs are called mood-altering substances for a reason. Drugs alter (change) the mood (emotions) of the individual. They may either exacerbate an existing problem or create a new one. Many drugs also contribute to additional internal issues, such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Once again, substances may provide an easy but temporary method of dealing with these internal issues but usually cause additional problems. Often, the user doesn’t realize that substance use does not solve problems. When the substance wears off, the problem is still present, and often there are additional problems resulting from the substance use.

External Pressures

An individual may use substances to escape external pressures. These external pressures–situations with which an individual may feel uncomfortable-may include school problems, work difficulties, family problems, peer pressure, relationship issues, etc. If an individual feels upset about a certain situation and gets drunk or high, he/she may feel relief from the problem. This escape, however, will only last for a limited period of time. When the individual is no longer high, the problem will return. Using drugs or alcohol as an escape is only temporarily effective–and very dangerous.

An individual may begin to regularly rely on the drug or alcohol as a coping mechanism. This leads to addiction and produces an individual who has no other coping skills for difficult situations. Often, the use of drugs creates additional external pressures and exacerbates the existing ones. A vicious cycle occurs: the individual uses drugs or alcohol to deal with existing problems and the use causes more problems. The individual then uses more drugs to deal with these new problems. This additional use then causes more problems, which leads to more use. It is a never-ending cycle of use and problems.


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