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Drugs and Alcohol (young people)

Giving up or cutting down on drug use: challenges

People rarely seem to stick to exactly the same pattern of drug use throughout their teens and twenties. For example, Jamie uses cannabis from time to time but turns down offers of other drugs such as cocaine and MDMA. Similarly, Raphael tried ecstasy when he was younger but it wasn’t for him; he prefers to stick to cannabis. While anti-drug messages aimed at young people were often thought to be exaggerated, especially when they suggest that any drug use is a slippery slope to addiction, some people we spoke to had found it difficult to give up drugs. Daniel had some difficulty overcoming his addiction to heroin and found that he replaced it with an addiction to alcohol.
 

Daniel gave up heroin but replaced his addiction with an alcohol problem.

Daniel gave up heroin but replaced his addiction with an alcohol problem.

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I stopped taking heroin at that point but what that did and I didn’t see what that did. It just shifted all of that addictive behaviour over to the drinking. So my drinking just went out of control. I mean I, I’ll use an example.
 
I started doing my dissertation a couple of months after that. Now my dissertation is a fucking fabulous piece of work. I got 69%, one off a first for it. I have no memory of writing my dissertation at all. What I would do at the beginning of every evening, and I mean every single evening is that I’d work in the library from about 5 o’clock to 10 o’clock. I would go to - I lived in a huge halls of residence, a huge block. Underneath that was an off licence. I would go there. I would buy three bottles of white wine, two packets of cigarettes and I worked from 10 o’clock at night to 6'00 in the morning typing, drinking, smoking, typing, drinking, smoking. At 6'00 in the morning I was so hyper, my mind was so blown wide open that I’d have to roll a skunk joint basically just to get myself off to sleep. I’d wake up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then at 5 o’clock I’d be in the library and I’d do the same again and again and again and again. It’s a brilliant dissertation. It got the highest mark of anyone in my year. It’s fabulous.
 
But you don’t remember how?
 
No I don’t remember any of it.
 
Ok. So
 
So that was my drinking after I’d given up smack was three bottles of white wine a night.
 
And why did you give up heroin because not everybody who?
 

Well I’m not, I mean I’m not an idiot. Like, I knew that I’d been very, very, very lucky. I knew that I’d been lucky and I was like - and also it’s got, of all the drugs really there are two drugs out of all of them that people in mainstream society view as being the dirty ones is heroin and crack. And I never, I never took crack. It was never really. It was just never there but I knew that I had this fucking degree to get and my willpower, my ego was so huge [laugh] that. I mean I was never going to get my degree let alone get a good 2'1 which is what I got in the end if I was going to carry on doing this, you know. And so I stopped but really I stopped but it didn’t really affect my daily life because I was still abusing myself tremendously. I was just doing it in a more socially salubrious sort of way but those days were really. I mean, yeah really. I mean it, you know when people talk about hardcore addiction, or like hardcore alcoholism, mine was between August ’04 and January ’06. Some people’s hardcore addiction goes on for 20, 30 years and I just don’t know how they fucking do it. I’d never be able to do it. 

Joe wanted to stop smoking cannabis because he became interested in health and fitness and wanted to stop smoking tobacco. It took him about six months to give up for good. People who smoke their cannabis with tobacco often found that the cannabis was easier to give up than the tobacco. For Stephanie, giving up cannabis was relatively simple. She just didn’t enjoy it anymore and, like Joe, she also wanted to stop smoking tobacco after a member of her family got lung cancer. Stephanie didn’t like the way that cannabis made her feel lethargic, with no motivation, so she didn’t find it difficult to stop.
 
Friends and peers
Giving up drugs can be particularly difficult if it involves spending less time with close and valued friends who are still using.  After Stephanie stopped smoking cannabis she found that she didn’t have much in common with the other members of her group. Others said that their old friends didn’t seem to realise how boring they could be when they were stoned. Joe used to take ecstasy at techno club nights with a certain group of friends. When he wanted to stop taking ecstasy he simply stopped going out with that group.
 
Encouragement from others is important and it helped young people like Chloe to shift the focus from the negative to the positive things going on in her life. Although some of her peers were critical, Chloe feels that giving up drugs has helped her establish a new, more positive identity and the self-confidence to be whoever she wants to be. Jim, who was previously addicted to heroin, says that you have to cut links with anyone who is doing drugs: friends, family, etc. to remove the temptation to use.
 

When Chloe stopped using drugs and changed the way she acted and talked, some friends were supportive but others accused her of trying to be something that she’s not.

When Chloe stopped using drugs and changed the way she acted and talked, some friends were supportive but others accused her of trying to be something that she’s not.

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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How did your friends at that time react when you started changing and sort of looking at your life from another?
 
It was kind of mixed. At the time it was like, ‘Ah she thinks that she’s too good for us now. She thinks she’s too hot. Why are you trying to be something that you’re not?’ kind of thing. But there was a mixture of like, ‘Good for you’ as well kind of keep it up. And now even those same people from school whenever I’ve seen them, it’s the worst thing like. So if I do go down the pub on a Saturday night or something for a couple of drinks and there will be people from school saying, ‘You’ve done so well. I remember you. [dah, de dah, de dah] I see your Facebook pictures in Africa.’ And I have to sit there for like half an hour listening to this drunk person tell me all that. ‘I remember you. You’ve done so well. I always look at your Facebook statuses. There so inspirational.’ [laugh] Like that’s what it is like now.
 
But at the time it was kind of like, ‘Why are you trying to be something that you’re not?’ Even the way I talk now I talk a lot better now. Before I used to talk. Can’t even do it anymore. Like you know that proper like Wild One like a rude girl definitely. Wild One is a patois, Jamaican say. But like, like this though, like that kind of talking, you know that taking the mick kind of young person talk. That’s how I used to talk. But now obviously I know that it’s not.
 
I think that pronouncing words is an art. You take time to make sure you pronounce your words properly and that’s what I like to do. But at the time there were like, ‘Why are you trying to be something that you’re not?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m whoever I want to be’ [laugh]. 
 

Jim talks about the challenges, his attitude and what has helped to overcome his heroin addiction.

Jim talks about the challenges, his attitude and what has helped to overcome his heroin addiction.

Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
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Was it at times difficult? Were you tempted to go back to using heroin?
 
Obviously there’s times when you get cravings and what have you or perhaps you see an old friend in town or something and, you know that’s somebody you used to use with and that brings back memories and you want to go and use then. But personally no I didn’t have too much of a problem. On the whole it’s not been too bad.
 
Again based on your experience if you are telling someone who is starting this treatment what do you think is important for them to know?
 
Disassociate yourself from other users whoever they may be, family, friends, close relatives whatever – disassociate yourself because that is the main starting point. You can’t really be around other users and try and get off yourself because you’d be too tempted. Stick to your script. Don’t use on top and don’t drop down too soon. Only reduce your methadone when you know you’re ready. And that’s about it really. It’s just a matter of keeping a positive frame of mind about it.
 
Ok so you did exactly that. You just disassociated yourself from people where you used to?
 
Yeah
 
But you were living in the same place, in the same town, in the same city?
 
Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah I could have, you know, jumped on a bus and gone and got some whenever I wanted.
 
Was that easy to?
 
To score?
 
Was that easy to leave these friends or this group behind?
 
No it wasn’t especially at first because these are people I’d grown up with all my life. I’d known them since I was about five years old some of them. So even though you’ve been through all the drug use and all the rest of it and it’s destroyed your life they are still a big part of your life, what’s left of it. You know what I mean. So you naturally try and hold on to that. So yeah that’s quite emotional but saying that, the drugs block out your emotions anyway. So I didn’t feel it too much at the time.
 
Have you made new friends? Have you another group?
 
Yeah, yeah totally different life now. I’ve been to college and I’ve got a girlfriend and a son, totally different life now.
 
So how do you see those positives now? How do they help you?
 
Well the fact that I’ve got my life back. As I’ve just said I’ve got a girlfriend, I’ve got a son, I’ve got a job, flat, family, friends. You know what I mean all those things are positive. They are things I didn’t have before.
 
And that helps?
 
Yeah. I mean people might take that for granted but to me that means a lot. 
Friends can be a source of support and encouragement to cut down or stop using. Although, with friends who don’t use drugs themselves (or are ex-users) there’s a risk that the ‘encouragement’ comes across as nagging. Sam’s working hours were reduced and he felt tempted to go back to old habits. Luckily for him his friends were very supportive and prevented him from doing something ‘stupid’. (See also Friends, alcohol and drugs)
 

Sam would like to move to another area of the country with his girlfriend and baby, away from the network of dealers and other drug users. (Played by an actor)

Sam would like to move to another area of the country with his girlfriend and baby, away from the network of dealers and other drug users. (Played by an actor)

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Male
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I’d love to say that I’d never go back to the way I was but in all honesty if my life was to fall apart it’s probably the first thing I’d do. Recently I lost, I lost a big chunk of one of my jobs. I lost 24 hours. My first reaction was to head for the pub that I used to go to all the time. And I did get out and I did got extremely drunk and it wasn’t a working day so that was alright. But the way I was feeling, you know, the way I was feeling I could, I was wobbling. Luckily my friends were very supportive of me. They kept me away from doing anything I regretted. But I probably could, you know, if I hadn’t of had my girlfriend and other things to make me think, ‘Hold on don’t do anything silly’ I could have slipped into it again. So...
 
And this is because of losing? 

Because I lost something that was precious to me. I, like I said before, youth work means a lot to me. You know, it’s one of my reasons for being like I am. So if I was to lose say, god I shouldn’t even say it, but say my partner was to ever go or take my child or whatever or something was to happen to anybody that I loved I would have a hard time staying the way I am. And that’s scares me, that really scares me because I know the attraction. I know that if I wanted to feel nothing I could go and I could get that. I could feel better, you know. It’s only a matter of 20 minutes then I’ll be alright. Do you know what I mean? But I wouldn’t really be alright. But, so that does scare me. But I think if I ever get into that situation I’d leave the area because if I’m not in this area then I’ve got a lot less access to things, you know. One of my ambitions actually is to move away from here. I do love it. I’ve got some really close friends here but I’ve done a lot of things there, I don’t know. But I think to take, to take me to a new level so that I’ve got a fresh start, you know, I can develop what I’ve developed already. I think moving away and going somewhere new would be good for me and my family. And I think we could develop it and I feel that would be good. 

Temptations and fear of relapse
Some young people who had used heavily in the past and were pleased to be ‘clean’ were worried that they might start using again if something bad happened to them– for example if their relationship or job ended. Jim said how important it is to keep positive and keep your head in the right place. When Harry feels tempted to have something at a weekend he knows that this is the ‘bad side’ of his mind talking and that, as an ‘all or nothing’ person, he needs to resist.
 
Daniel is confident that he won’t use drugs again but says that he really misses red wine and cocaine. 
Some young people commented that they don’t regret having experimented with illegal drugs. Karis and Kasim say they would much rather have done cannabis and other illegal drugs in their teens than start in their twenties or thirties. Leah is happy that she is not addicted to drugs. Some felt that they had learnt from their own, and other people’s bad experiences with drugs and had a lucky escape. Now they felt it was quite cool to say ‘no, thanks’ when offered drugs. All agreed that now they can move on and focus on pursuing personal and professional goals.

Last reviewed : July 2018.
Last updated: January 2015.
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