By Dr. Edward A. Selby, Ph.D.
So, the old saying goes: With a friend like you, who needs enemies? Well, this characterization applies extraordinarily well to alcohol, drugs, and other chemical substances. Many people use alcohol or drugs because the substances “help me feel better.” Although this experience may be true to some degree, whatever benefits people may obtain from using alcohol or drugs are drastically outweighed by the long-term consequences of habitual use. The hard part is getting someone caught up in addiction to recognize this fact.
Historically, in treating people with addictions most clinicians steered clear of discussing the positive aspects of substance use. In recent years, however, research has shown that discussing the perceived benefits of substance use is essential to overcoming addiction (Elliott & Carey, 2013). Along these lines, I was once speaking to an ex-smoker who hadn’t smoked in well over a decade, and he told me, “I miss it. Every day, I still get cravings for cigarettes and part of me always wants to start up again.” For the non-substance user, it may seem strange to “miss” using a substance, but many people who’ve used alcohol or other drugs have similar positive identifications with their preferred substances, even if those substances caused them serious harm. Some people even describe their drugs or alcohol as a sort of “friend” (Rúdólfsdóttir & Morgan, 2009). But returning to the quote at the start, with friends like drugs or alcohol, who needs enemies?
All of this raises the question, then, of why people would find anything positive about drug or alcohol use? The answer, as it turns out, is multifaceted and can be divided into three common themes: a) feeling good, b) enhanced socialization, and c) coping with emotional pain (Kuntsche et al., 2005). The important thing to keep in mind with these substance use motivations is that even if effects are seemingly positive or helpful in the short term, they are always harmful and destructive in the long term. Not to mention that there are certainly better ways than addictive behavior to address whatever underlying needs substances may fill in someone’s life.