substance abuse vs. addiction. Chicago Addictions Therapist: 2nd Story Counseling

Abuse vs. Addiction

By: 2SC Staff

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between substance abuse vs. addiction? If so, you are not alone. Many of our Chicago clients seeking guidance and support related to alcohol and drugs often ask this very question during their first counseling session: “What’s the difference between abuse and addiction?”

This brief article will answer that question in detail through a simple Q and A. Our hope is to shine a light on a topic that is often misunderstood and widely not discussed. We’ve attempted to present the information in plain-speak, meaning use of clinical jargon will be kept to a minimum.

Quick Point: Before we jump too far in, there is one word that is often left out of the dynamic when making comparisons between “substance abuse” and “addiction”. Specifically, we are talking about the three letter word “Use”. Bear this in mind as we walk through the primary differences.  

Q: What is substance use?

Substance use is just what it sounds like – use of a given substance. It is important to state here that just because you use (or have used) a substance, it doesn’t make you an “addict”.

For example, if you occasionally share a glass of wine with friends or family during the holidays, you are simply having a glass of alcohol. It also doesn’t mean you “abuse” this substance.

Characteristics of substance use:

  • Occasional/rare recreational use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Does not cause personal hardship, financial problems, medical challenges or employment concerns.
  • Occasional, rare use of substance does not result in exposure to personal danger.

“Having a drink doesn’t make you an addict”

Q: What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse means that you are using a substance in a way that has (or can) exposure you to various social, legal, financial, occupational or personal problems. Generally speaking, “abuse” means that a substance is not being used recreationally but instead, as a means of coping.

It may be best to think of the term substance abuse as being “at risk” for greater issues, such as a substance abuse disorder. It is during the abuse phase that you might start to notice consequences for actively taking a drug or drinking.

Example: Joe regularly uses alcohol to socially lubricate himself before going to bars. One night, the State Police pull Joe over and give him a breathalyzer test. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) registers at .09. He is over the legally allowed level of .08.

As a consequence, Joe’s driver’s license is suspended. He is also charged a hefty fine. To complicate matters, Joe now has to find an alternative way to get himself to work because he can no longer drive due to the suspension.

As you can see, “abuse” in the context of substances means there are (or potentially can be) consequences. Abusing a substance still does not make you an addict. Be sure to read our post: Do I have a problem with drinking?

Typical characteristics of substance abuse:

  • More frequent use of a substance that goes beyond it being merely recreational.
  • Problems that crop up as a result of using a substance, such as legal issues, problems with work, relationships and so forth.
  • Beginnings of guilt and shame involving use of a substance.
  • Pretending abuse of the substance has not caused problems and actively engaging in denial.

“Abuse can put you at-risk for development an addiction”

Q: What is addiction?

Addiction, simply put, demonstrates someone clearly has reached a point where regular, heavy drug or alcohol use has become problematic. In other words, an escalation from use to abuse has happened and has now entered the “addiction” zone.

You know an addiction is likely at play when you are preoccupied with obtaining and then using a substance. If you feel like you have lost control over your life because of drug and/or alcohol use, that’s a pretty good sign something is wrong.  

Key Point: There are almost always ongoing, serious consequences associated with a substance addiction. Here, we are talking about intensification of “bad things happening” because of ongoing substance related behaviors.  

Typical characteristics of addiction:

  • Medical/Health problems
  • Occupational problems
  • Financial complications
  • Relationship issues
  • Active denial a problem exists
  • Defensiveness around alcohol/drug activity
  • Strong feelings of shame and guilt
  • Physical withdraw symptoms
  • Feeling life your life is not manageable.

“Ongoing, serious consequences are a sign of addiction”

Final Thoughts

It is surprising how many folks confuse the terms substance abuse and addiction. In many ways, they are used interchangeably in our society when in fact there are clear differences. What’s more, many people do not realize that addictions are not confined to chemicals (read our page on process addictions like sex). 

If you are in Chicago and have arrived at a place where you are wondering if your use of alcohol or drugs has become a problem, we encourage you to make an appointment with a counselor who is knowledgeable on these issues. You can call us at 773.528.1777 or simply send us a confidential note through our electronic contact form.

Should you be outside of the Chicagoland area, we have provided some links to obtain more information on chemical abuse and dependency.

Finally, if you have time, be sure to read about famous celebrities who have had problems with alcohol and vote in or abuse vs. addiction poll below!

Thanks for visiting the Chicago therapists at 2nd Story Counseling!

Chemical Dependency Resources: