Rehabs: What Makes Someone an Addict, as Opposed to a Heavy Drinker or a Recreational User?


Rehabs: What Makes Someone an Addict, as Opposed to a Heavy Drinker or a Recreational User?


It seems to be a fine line between being a social drinker or a regular drug user, to being an addict. But where is this line and how to we define it? Although many people think the answer to that question is simple, but it is far more complex than most realize.


At rehabs, a common misconception is that the difference is that “an addict can’t stop”. But this is not exactly correct, as addicts can often stop using, sometimes for a few days, weeks or even months at a time. Many high-functioning addicts can keep their substance use concealed and relatively ‘in-check’ well enough to hold down a job.


Furthermore, rehabs address the issue of consumption, as many believe that you can determine who is an addict by looking at how much they consume. However, rehabs assert that this isn’t true either. For example, one person might be able to consume 15 glasses of wine in an evening and be perfectly healthy, whereas an alcoholic could actually consume a smaller amount overall.


Regularity is also another misconception addressed at rehabs in terms of addiction versus heavy or recreational usage. A healthy person might drink something every night, while an addict might go for much longer periods without using. The extent of someone’s consumption is also not definitive of addictions and is a common misconception addressed by rehabs professionals.


Rehabs use the example of a university student who may drink enough at a party to end up in the hospital, for instance, whereas, an addict might be able to limit his or her intake enough that no one at work notices. Rehabs address the difference between addiction and substance abuse, as these two are not the same. For example, a businessman might have a lot to drink after work and get pulled over for driver under the influence, or a university student might get blackout drunk and sleep with someone he didn’t mean to, or a teenager might let her friends pressure her into getting high before a test.


Rehabs assert that all of these people are abusing substances, in that they’re using bad judgement regarding them and causing harm to themselves and potentially to others. At rehabs, we look at how a person can use judgements about alcohol or drugs and not be an addict… so what is addiction?


ADDICTION is chemical process in the brain. This process changes the way the brain reacts to drugs, and it impairs the person’s decision-making abilities. According to rehabs, this results in the addict losing the ability to make rational judgements with regards to substances. They view their actions as stemming from compulsion rather than CHOICE.



rehabs - heads-min



According to rehabs, the key to understanding addiction versus heavy drinking or recreational use is not that the addict can’t stop, but that they can’t freely chose whether to stop. Rehabs highlight that this doesn’t mean that addicts have no free will at all when it comes to alcohol or drugs. They have free will to a certain extent, but their free will is impaired, and they frequently make choices and decisions that they would never make if their brain were working normally.


This impairment in the functioning of their brain may manifest in other areas. Rehabs often see client’s who are admitted for addiction, yet they maintain that they are not addicts because they are able to avoid using substances for considerable periods or in situations where it is necessary, however, they usually have difficulty regulating or moderating their consumption once they start using. Rehabs process their powerlessness in this regard and how they lose control as soon as they start using, despite the fact that they can go for periods without any use at all.






High-functioning alcoholics might get up everyday and breeze past the liquor cabinet on their way to work, but, for example, if they have a drink or two to relax in the evening, it will likely be extremely difficult for them to stop there and go off and do something else. Another common trait is that those suffering from addiction often have a blind spot when it comes to their own behaviour.


Rehabs tend to work with the client’s difficulty with decision-making in that many addicts are impaired in this sense and are therefore unable to freely and deliberately chose to do things that are destructive and they have a lot of trouble acknowledging and taking responsibility for the things they do that are harmful. Rehabs assist the client in recognizing when their substance use is having a deleterious effect on their own lives as well as on their families’ lives. Recreational users are more able tot see the negative impact of their substance use and are this more able to change their behaviour accordingly.



Denial is a defense mechanism that involves a refusal to accept reality, thus blocking external events from awareness. If a situation is simply too much to handle, the person may refuse to experience this. Denial is a concept that is frequently worked with in rehabs and forms an integral part of the treatment process for most clients.


Rehabs process and deconstruct the addict’s denial system as this is often what prevents them from truly acknowledging the damages caused by their addiction. For most healthy people, being pulled over for driving under the influence or having a partner break up with you over your drug use and patterns is a ‘wake up call’ that’s likely to prompt a change in lifestyle. Addicts, however, are much more likely to deny their problems that are consequences of their own behaviour or to blame others. Rehabs work with clients who have had numerous ‘wake up calls’ – the problem is that they often stay asleep and don’t actually wake up!


– Addiction: A Bewildering Illness –

Rehabs aim to confront, process and treat addiction – which is no ordinary problem. It can be one of the most bewildering, maddening and frightening illnesses out there, and one that requires rehabs intensive, addiction-focused treatment. Rehabs understand that to many people, including the client themselves, that addiction can be so challenging because it often feels as thought nothing makes sense and that people suffering with addiction have no control over their actions. People frequently ask:


“Why don’t they just stop?”


“Why are they doing this to themselves?”





Rehabs address the difficulties in understanding and treating addiction by highlighting that addiction is often not as obvious as other symptoms in terms of visible ‘broken’ parts. Addiction in this sense is bewildering because nothing about the addict’s body seems to be broken, and in general, addicts are in touch with reality and are usually aware of the choices they are making. They know that they love their family, and yet their actions hurt their family. They may know they are losing their job or running out of money, yet they don’t stop.


Free will: Addicts seem to have free will about every other aspect of their life. They can decide what to eat and what to wear. However, their lack of free will is limited to one very specific choice.


Just Stop: Addiction can be bewildering to the addicts themselves and their loved ones because the solution seems too simple – just stop using! Addicts often say that they wish they could stop using but they can’t.


Influence: Family members struggle to understand that they can’t influence their loved one’s behaviour if they are an addict and no matter what they do – bargaining, yelling, pleading, shaming, threatening or punishing – that they have no control over the addicts behaviour. Rehabs assist them in understanding that none of these tactic work and that the client has to engage in treatment in order to begin their healing journey.


Blame Game: Rehabs often work with families who begin to feel hopeless, powerless and frustrated by their inability to stop the ongoing train wreck that is caused by addiction. Sometimes they blame themselves and may feel personally rejected. The problem tends to be worsened by the tendency of addicts to blame those closest to them for their problems.


Health: Addiction, similarly to other illnesses, is also frightening because it threatens to take away not just the addict’s health, but also everything else that they and their families value along the way. Addiction strips people of their money, jobs, their friends, families, homes, their social respect, their autonomy, their sense of meaning and purpose and their ability to enjoy anything at all in life.


Cure: Although rehabs work well at treating addiction, there is no cure for addiction. At best, it can be managed as a lifelong chronic condition, similar to diabetes. But the fact that it can be managed, and often is, is still an enormous advance.


Rehabs are far more available than ever before, and treatment options are available that can help people with addiction to understand and manage their illness. Rehabs, psychotherapy, medication and support groups all help to treat and assist those struggling with addiction. On their own, or with treatment, many addicts are able to put the problem behind them for good, and many others are able to enjoy long periods of recovery.


While rehabs can’t magically cure addiction, we can make it less bewildering for both the client and their families. Understanding what may make you or your loved one an addict versus a ‘heavy drinker’ or a social user is a good place to start. If you or a loved one struggles to stop using once they start and go for longer periods of time than expected whilst using, are experiencing negative consequences as a result of using, need more and more to obtain the desired effect or are in denial about the effects of their use, they may need the help offered by rehabs.


  • Use in larger amount or for longer periods of time than intended
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or quit
  • Excessive time spent using their drug of choice
  • Intense desire/ urge for drug (craving)
  • Failure to fulfil obligations
  • Continued use despite social / interpersonal problems
  • Activities / hobbies reduced due to use
  • Recurrent use in physically hazardous situations
  • Recurrent use despite physical or psychological problems caused by or worsened by use
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal


Rehabs use the above criteria in order to diagnose and address the severity of the substance use disorder. Rustenburg Addiction clinic is your first choice when it comes to Rehabs, and will offer you a personalised and informed approach to handling addiction, as well as a comprehensive primary care programme.

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