Cocaine is a destructive and dangerous drug. It destroys lives and tears families apart. Cocaine abuse can quickly lead to a spiral of addiction, crime and damage to the body and mind. It is important to understand the physical impact of cocaine use as well as the warning signs of cocaine addiction. It is also important to understand how difficult it can be for a cocaine user to seek treatment and what form that treatment will take once they do decide to ask for help. Cocaine use is serious, but with treatment and a good support system, individuals can beat their cocaine addiction.
Cocaine is known by many different names in the drug community, including coke, blow and snow. No matter what you call it, cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs in circulation today. Cocaine is classified by the DEA as a Class II Controlled Substance, meaning it is deemed to have a high potential for abuse and physical dependence. Cocaine has no legal use in the US, so typically those who abuse cocaine are required to break the law to obtain it as well. In addition, studies have shown that individuals who use cocaine are often poly-drug users, meaning that they often use more than one substance. The use of cocaine comes with significant risks and can cause both physical and psychological damage to the user.
Cocaine is a stimulant that acts on the dopamine neurotransmitter system in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that controls feelings of pleasure. Cocaine can be smoked, snorted, or injected into the body. The use of cocaine triggers a release of dopamine, which causes the user to experience a “high.” This high can make a shy person more social and allows the user to forget their troubles while they enter an artificially happy frame of mind. When a person uses cocaine, the release of dopamine results in the feeling of pleasure and a lowering of inhibitions. In some cases, users may also experience anger, agitation, heightened senses (to the point of unpleasant sensitivity), paranoia, and a decrease in appetite.
Long term effects of cocaine use are numerous and can impact many different systems in the body. Cocaine use has been associated with numerous heart diseases such as hypertension, cardiomyopathy and aortic rupture. Cocaine use has also been associated with liver damage and brain damage due to a decrease in blood supply to the brain. Prolonged cocaine use can also cause headaches, mood disorders and seizures. If cocaine is snorted, it causes damage to the lining of the nose, leading to nosebleeds, loss of smell and, in some cases, a destruction of the nasal cartilage. Injecting cocaine puts the user at risk for HIV or hepatitis from shared or unsterile needles.
Of course, once the high wears off, the user is transported back to their “normal” mental state. In many cases, users of cocaine are attempting to escape reality. The short half-life of cocaine means that users only experience the high for a short time before being plunged back into their reality. That rapid change in mental state from euphoria to reality is jarring and leaves the user craving that euphoric feeling. Even if the user’s current reality isn’t unpleasant, it can rarely compete with the artificially positive, almost manic, happiness that accompanies the high. But often the user’s reality is unpleasant and cocaine provides an escape from that reality into a world without cares, worries or problems. The ability to escape reality to a world without pain, anxiety or fear is a powerful attraction. It is easy to see why users choose to spend more and more time in the high state, avoiding their reality whenever possible.
Because cocaine works quickly and wears off quickly, the feelings of happiness are fleeting. This makes the user want to use cocaine again, resulting in a “binge and crash” pattern. The human brain is remarkably adaptable. The more cocaine a user ingests, the more the brain adapts to the increased dopamine. This adaptation requires the user to increase their cocaine intake over time to maintain their high, which can lead to addiction.
The most common sign of cocaine addiction is the inability to stop using cocaine. For users, the inability to quit using is the point at which they realize that they need help with their cocaine use. People who are addicted to cocaine might feel powerless to stop their use. They might also feel more depressed when not using, given the disparity between their perceptions of life while high versus their reality. Users may also find that they are no longer able to maintain their personal relationships, impacting their marriage, friendships and family ties.
For those around the user, the signs can be less obvious. Some things to look out for include frequently missing work or other important life events, financial problems, depression, lack of interest in things that previously brought them joy, risky behaviors that are out of character and mood swings. Physical symptoms to look for include increased nosebleeds, dilated pupils, weight loss, and confusion. Once an individual is addicted to cocaine, it is very unlikely that they will stop using cocaine on their own. Outside intervention is usually necessary to allow the individual to resume his or her regular life activities without the use of cocaine.
The decision to get treatment for substance abuse can be one of the most difficult decisions to make. Sometimes the individual makes that decision for themselves. Other times the decision is made for them by family, friends, or even law enforcement. The biggest barrier to seeking treatment is the belief that the addiction cannot be cured. The word “cured” is often a misnomer, because people recovering from addiction often remain in the recovery phase for the rest of their lives. It is more accurate to say that addiction can be managed very successfully, allowing the individual to lead a stable, healthy and productive life filled with love and friendships.
The decision to seek treatment can be even more difficult if the user has tried treatment in the past and relapsed. At that point it is easy to feel like treatment doesn’t work for you. But a relapse does not mean that recovery has failed. A relapse means that the treatment plan isn’t yet right for you. If a person with cancer doesn’t get optimal results from one cancer treatment, they don’t give up. They try another cancer treatment, and maybe even another, until they find the treatment that works for them. The human body is a complex machine and each brain has unique properties. The treatment for addiction must be highly specialized to the individual and it is not uncommon for the treatment team to try several different options before finding the right treatment for the individual.
Deciding to seek treatment for cocaine addiction is also difficult because it requires a moment of clarity that is unclouded by drug use. Often the user abuses cocaine to hide from their reality and to mask fear, anxiety or other painful emotions. Finding that moment of clarity can be hard and is one of the reasons why drug users wait so long before seeking treatment. Too often, that moment of clarity comes after a life-changing incident, possibly one in which they’ve harmed or nearly themselves or someone else. The term “rock bottom” refers to this type of event; the kind of incident that you can’t ignore and one that jolts you into the realization that life cannot continue this way.
If the user themselves cannot recognize that they need help with their cocaine addiction, it might be up to their friends and/or family to help them see that their current life isn’t healthy or sustainable. Treatment is significantly more effective if the individual enters voluntarily. No matter how tempting it is to forcibly admit someone to treatment, in the long run it is better to convince them that entering treatment is their path to a better future.
Some of the hesitance toward treatment could be caused by the fear of the withdrawal process. While it is true that the withdrawal process can be unpleasant, it will look different for each person that goes through it. Just like there is no “one size fits all” treatment process, there is also no one withdrawal journey. Each individual will experience withdrawal differently. How withdrawal symptoms manifest will depend on a variety of factors, such as the severity of the drug use before treatment, the overall mental state of the individual, and the person’s tolerance for pain and discomfort. What one person would describe as “excruciating,” another may escribe as “uncomfortable.” It is also important to remember that, although it can be intense and uncomfortable, withdrawal is temporary.
Withdrawal is a common term for the process of ridding the body of external chemical substances. When a person is addicted to an external chemical (often referred to as chemically dependent), the body adapts to function with the chemical and feels the absence of the chemical when it is withheld. A common example is that of caffeine. The three cup a day coffee drinker will feel sluggish and suffer from headaches if they suddenly give up their daily coffee. The body has adapted to function with a daily influx of caffeine. The absence of it causes the brain to send signals to the body to restore what it considers to be the balance. In the case of cocaine use, the brain and body have adapted to the regular influx of dopamine. Once that regular dopamine “fix” is removed, the brain will begin to send the body signals in an attempt to restore that balance. The detoxification process is the process of teaching the body to recognize a new, healthier balance, without dependence on external chemicals.
While in the withdrawal process, the individual may feel a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. The first and most difficult to manage is the craving for cocaine. These cravings can take two forms. First; the body will crave cocaine as a way to minimize the other physical symptoms of withdrawal. Second, the brain misses the “high” that the dopamine brought with it and wishes to re-enter that state. In addition, since cocaine users often experience a decrease in appetite, during withdrawal, the body responds by increasing the appetite. Withdrawal from cocaine can also cause changes in your mood. Due to the decrease in dopamine in the brain, depression is a common withdrawal symptom. This depression can become serious, even leading to suicidal thoughts.
How long the withdrawal period lasts can depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the addiction, and the physical health and mental state of the individual. Typically, the detoxification process lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Even after the body has completed the process of ridding the body and brain of any dependence on cocaine, the individual will likely need to undergo additional treatment to address the reasons for their addiction to cocaine as well as to learn coping mechanisms to learn to handle daily life without cocaine. The detoxification process, therefore, is the first step in a long treatment process.
Withdrawal from cocaine can be a very serious and dangerous undertaking. It is generally not advised for someone addicted to cocaine to attempt the withdrawal process alone. Detoxification can cause physical and emotional trauma. At a minimum the individual should seek support from a trusted friend or family member who can monitor the process and be on the lookout for warning signals that might require medical attention. At home detoxification can be an option for those with a mild to moderate cocaine addiction. For individuals with a more severe cocaine addiction, or those who don’t have a support system at home to assist them, the detoxification process should be monitored by both medical and mental health professionals in a controlled treatment setting. This can be in a hospital or a residential treatment center.
A residential treatment center offers many benefits to the individual who is facing the detox process. First, and most importantly, the center will be staffed with medical professionals that are specially trained to monitor and manage the withdrawal process. In some cases, there are medications the medical staff can provide to help minimize the more negative symptoms of cocaine withdrawal. For severe cocaine withdrawal symptoms, medications such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines can help with depression and anxiety. In addition, medications such as amantadine and bromocriptine can be prescribed to help combat the body’s cravings for cocaine.
In addition to medical support, a residential treatment center can also offer easy access to psychological support as the brain begins to process emotions without the aid of cocaine. Since cocaine induces an artificial state of happiness, the subsequent loss of that dopamine often results in depression and anxiety. The therapists at a residential treatment center can talk the individual through these emotions and help them to process their new feelings. Drug counselors are also typically on hand at a residential treatment center to talk with the individual about the detoxification journey. In many cases, drug counselors are recovered drug addicts who can draw upon their past addiction recovery and provide first-hand experience for the newly recovering.
Once the detoxification process is complete, or at least well underway, the individual should start working with counselors and therapists to figure out a plan for moving forward in life without the aid of cocaine. The brain has been wired to function with cocaine as a coping tool. The brain needs to re-learn how to function on its own and how to appropriately process the emotions and situations of daily life without chemical assistance. Mental health counseling is the cornerstone of any residential treatment program and can help those who used cocaine as a way to hide from painful feelings or situations. Counseling can also help the recovering addict process and move forward through the guilt that they feel about their cocaine use. Maybe they hurt their family members or committed crimes while addicted. Counseling can help to free the individual from that guilt and also help them to rebuild their relationships.
Residential treatment facilities provide a variety of different therapies to help individuals through the recovery process. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy that challenges the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that led to drug addiction. CBT is considered a problem-focused therapy in that it addresses current issues and helps to establish strategies to deal with those issues. A similar approach, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) uses CBT techniques combined with mindfulness. In DBT, the individual learns about their tolerance for stress and the triggers that can cause an emotional reaction. They learn coping skills that can be used to avoid a negative spiral that could lead to relapse.
One of the most important benefits of residential treatment is the ability to interact with other people who are recovering from drug addiction. One of the therapies that residential treatment provides is group therapy. Group therapy allows individuals to hear other addiction journeys and to understand that they are not alone. Group therapy also gives individuals the opportunity to support others who are recovering. Whether it be an opinion on how to cope with a potential trigger, or just a kind word of encouragement, the power of peer support cannot be overstated. Another type of group therapy comes in the form of 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous. Even inside residential therapy, the 12-step mindset and road map can be extremely beneficial to someone struggling with recovery. It can provide some much-needed structure to a life that has been without structure during addiction.
Often residential treatment facilities provide some sort of alternative therapies as well. These can take many different forms and are often viewed by the residents of the facility as extra-curricular activities. While they can be fun activities, they also provide a therapeutic benefit. Art therapy, for example, can assist the individual in expressing emotions through art that they have been unable to express with words. Art is seen as a “safe” form of expression. An art therapist can then work with the individual to unpack the elements of their art and begin to work through the emotions that are reflected in the piece.
Another useful alternative therapy is equine therapy. Horses are beneficial in a therapy setting because they are seen as non-judgmental and are good at mirroring the emotions and attitudes of the people who care for them. If the individual is stressed or scared, the horse will reflect that stress or fear. Equine therapy encourages the individual to be in a calm, relaxed state while caring for the horse. The ability to choose to be calm is a powerful tool in the recovery toolbox.
At some point, the recovering individual needs to re-enter their daily life. The detoxification process and residential treatment should go a long way toward preparing the individual for this transition. At some point in the recovery process, the care team in residential facility will begin to prepare the individual to leave residential treatment. They will review triggers and coping mechanisms, discuss options for handling work, family and social obligations. They will either schedule regular visits back to the facility for outpatient treatment or pair the individual with a counselor in their area for regular visits.
The potential for relapse can be high for cocaine addiction. According to drugabuse.com, almost ¼ of the people who undergo treatment for cocaine addiction relapse. Relapse does not mean failure. If an individual relapses and re-enters treatment, the chances are high that they will end up in long term recovery. Some warning signs of cocaine relapse include not keeping regular meetings with counselors, spending time with friends who are using drugs, isolating themselves, and engaging in dangerous or compulsive behaviors.
Cocaine addiction is serious but it is absolutely treatable. A willingness to seek help, coupled with the trained assistance of medical and mental health professionals and the support of counselors and peers can lead to long term recovery. If you or someone you love is suffering from cocaine addiction, contact a drug treatment facility. They will have trained professionals to talk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you need help. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.