Aging Out of Drugs

August 26, 2016

‘I’m at the point in my life where I’ve been doing this 20 years or so. [It’s been] probably 22, 23 years, and I’m ready to quit,’ said Clyde, a long-time methamphetamine user now in his mid-40s. When we met in 2011, he was beginning to grow weary from decades of partying and staying up for days at a time. We sat in a conference room at a homelessness resource centre in Northern Colorado. From across the table, his pale blue eyes were bloodshot with fatigue.

By the time of my first interview with Clyde (not his real name), I’d been conducting research with active meth users for about three years, so his sentiment wasn’t news to me. After all, the highly potent central nervous system stimulant wears out most people eventually. The lack of sleep, the growing paranoia, the skyrocketing proportion of bad days to good all drive users to seek sobriety.

As with many others I studied, Clyde’s use fluctuated, sometimes dwindling to complete abstinence for weeks or even months; he talked frequently about leaving the drug behind for good. But he always went back. Intermittently homeless and plagued by debilitating and difficult-to-treat mental health issues, his circumstances seemed to lock him into his addiction.

Yet Clyde’s story – the part where he doesn’t quit – is not the norm. Most users, even the majority of those so hooked that we label them addicts, recover on their own without ever undergoing formal treatment.

Despite the common trope that trying any illicit drug – even once – will definitively lead to a life of ruin, the vast majority of people quit without such dreadful consequences. According to the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug use peaks for most of us in our late teens and 20s. While more than a fifth of 18- to 25-year-olds have used an illegal substance in the past month, only 15.1 per cent of 26- to 34-year-olds and 6.7 per cent of those 35 and up report current use of illicit drugs.

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that roughly half of Americans aged 12 years and older have tried an illegal substance at some point in their life, while just 16.7 per cent have used an illicit drug in the past year. And only 10.2 per cent, the individuals considered ‘current users’, have taken a drug in the past month.

These numbers indicate that roughly one in five people who tries an illegal drug will continue using with any regularity. When it comes to ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin or cocaine – in essence, any illegal drug aside from marijuana – fewer than a third of people aged 12 and up have ever used them; 7.4 per cent have indulged in the past year, and 3.3 per cent are current users. So, with pot out of the equation, only about one in 10 people who starts using drugs ends up using on a regular basis.

The numbers for drug dependence or abuse are even lower. According to the same report, 2.7 per cent of Americans aged 12 or older report past-year dependence on or abuse of illegal drugs, and 6.4 per cent report dependence on or abuse of alcohol. Though these percentages are relatively low, especially for ‘hard’ drugs, they still leave us with about 22 million Americans deemed in need of treatment for an alcohol or drug problem.

The fascinating statistic here is that in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, only 11.6 per cent of those with substance-use disorders received treatment. Yet at least two-thirds of users who become addicted manage to quit or significantly reduce their consumption without formal help.

This suggests that it might be time to look beyond the traditional recovery paradigm and turn to the natural phenomenon of ageing out, or maturing, and what empowers it, for most.

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