Why Do We Get High?

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What are the real causes of substance abuse? If you are trapped in an addiction, is there anything you can do to escape? Your Bible offers hope—and answers!


Is there a missing dimension in our lives? Why do so many turn to drugs for an answer? What should you do?

The world is awash in chemical substances that promise pleasure—but that bring danger. Millions self-administer these potentially deadly substances in spite of their well-publicized risks and documented fatalities.

Why do people of all ages take such risks? Why would someone willingly court disaster? You might be surprised to learn that the ultimate keys to understanding and combating substance abuse are not found in clinical programs or medical textbooks, but in the Bible! The evidence is sobering—and it is encouraging!

The Chemical Minefield

If something can be ingested, injected, inhaled or absorbed into the human body, it can be abused! In the United States alone, nearly one-third of the population either abuses drugs or has a relationship with someone who is chemically dependent! Other countries face a similar problem.

Alcohol produces pleasurable effects by relaxing muscles and sedating the brain so worries temporarily vanish. In moderate amounts, alcohol produces healthful changes in the human body. But frequent alcohol use at intoxicating levels clouds judgment, slows reflexes, causes memory loss, damages the heart and liver, weakens the immune system and produces birth defects. Drunkenness is directly linked to accidents, job loss, violent crime and suicide. In short, alcohol abuse kills and maims. It disrupts and destroys the very fabric of human society.

Tobacco use is "the most serious and widespread addictive behavior in the world and the major cause of preventable deaths in our society" (An Invitation to Health, Hales, p. 399). Smoking is directly linked to heart disease and strokes, to lung, breast and bladder cancer, to respiratory diseases like emphysema, to miscarriage, and—in children of smokers—low birth weight, birth defects and mental retardation (ibid., pp. 403–408). Smokers have a rate of premature death three times higher than non-smokers, and experience five times as many heart attacks.

Millions ingest what they consider "recreational" drugs—chemical substances consumed for thrill and pleasure. Among them, LSD and PCP are hallucinogens that alter mental perception and promote a feeling of superhuman strength, yet can trigger violent behavior and psychotic attacks. Cocaine and amphetamines provide a temporary feeling of heightened energy and confidence, but damage the heart and brain. Designer drugs such as ecstasy—a common sight at all-night dance parties called "raves"—create feelings of warmth and openness yet can permanently damage brain cells and can even kill the user (see Time, June 5, 2000, pp. 62–73).

Nearly half of the drug abuse in the United States involves the misuse of prescription drugs. This involves not only deliberate misuse such as forged prescriptions, Medicaid frauds and black market sales, but also errors made by physicians and accidental misuse of prescribed drugs—especially by the elderly (see Prescription Drug Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic, Colvin). Many observers have become concerned about the astonishing increase in the use of Ritalin, a physician-prescribed drug given to American children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Caffeine—the active ingredient in coffee, tea and a variety of soft drinks—may be "the most-used drug in the world" (Hales, p. 345). Extremely high levels of caffeine ingestion have been tentatively linked to heart problems, breast lumps and bladder cancer. Large quantities of caffeine can cause irritability, nervousness, insomnia and gastrointestinal disturbances. Continued use of caffeinated beverages can lead to psychological and physical dependency (see Drugs, Society and Human Behavior, Ray & Ksir, pp. 230–232).

Costs of Abuse

Many widely used chemical substances damage the brain, heart and lungs of the user, as well as the bodies of the user's unborn children. Drug use contributes to the leading causes of death in the world—heart disease, stroke and various types of cancer. Drug abuse also generates an incredible financial burden for society. The total cost of substance abuse in America has been estimated at more than $240 billion per year (Colvin, p. 100). In the U.S., approximately "one out of five hospital beds is occupied by someone with substance abuse as a contributing factor" and nearly "50 percent of all preventable deaths are related to some aspect of substance abuse" (ibid.). A World Bank study indicated that "tobacco use causes a net global loss of $200 billion per year" (World Health, p. 23). Substance abuse and its consequences are major medical and social problems.

But why do young people and adults around the world use and abuse dangerous chemical substances that clearly have the capacity to damage and destroy our brains, our bodies, our families and ultimately our societies?

Underlying Causes

Scholars and journalists commonly assert that substance abuse is due to poverty, low self-esteem and genetics. Drug users are said to be victims of their environment and their heredity. Observers often downplay or ignore important evidence that points in another direction. While some may indeed have a biological sensitivity to alcohol and other chemicals, there is also a well-recognized psychological aspect of substance abuse—involving the choices individuals make for themselves.

Numerous studies indicate that most people begin using drugs out of curiosity. Many are lured by the illusion that a magical substance can make you happy, outgoing and confident, and can provide meaning for an otherwise empty life. Many are looking for a way to deal with depression or to escape the pressures of life or the boredom of daily routines (Hales, p. 318). Many begin to use and abuse chemicals for social reasons—to fit in and gain acceptance, to enhance low self-esteem, or make an impression and be noticed. Advertising promotes the mistaken idea that you need to ingest chemicals to have fun. Millions of impressionable people watch substance-abuse behaviors modeled in movies or on television. Culture also plays a role in substance abuse. Russians, for example, "are the world's heaviest drinkers"—as the director of a Moscow clinic commented, "if you don't drink in Russia something is wrong with you" (World Press, November 1997, p. 44). Many other cultures share this viewpoint!

Perhaps the most instructive information available today comes from extensive research on young people. Their risk factors are primarily social and psychological—involving the influence of parents and peers, who shape their values and behaviors. People with more risk factors will be more prone to abusing chemicals. In other words, substance abuse increases when individuals lack positive guidance and good role models, do not uphold healthy values, and have stronger relationships with negative peers than with supportive parents.

Research indicates that young people who associate with non-conforming peers involved in a deviant subculture are more prone to substance abuse than young people who have personality problems or face socioeconomic difficulties (Ray & Ksir, p. 13). While genetics may be a factor for some who develop chemical dependencies, formative environmental influences appear to play a much more significant role.

Take a Pill?

"We used to have a word for sufferers of ADHD. We called them 'boys.'" So quips one psychoanalyst quoted in Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, by Northwestern University professor Christopher Lane.

Expenditures on drugs to combat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are on the rise. Britain's National Health Service alone is likely to see expenditures on ADHD drugs reach £101 million by 2012, up from £17 million in 2006, and the U.S. is likely to see annual ADHD drug expenses top $4 billion by 2010, according to a University of Heidelberg study released in November 2007.

Yet many observers, like Lane, are now questioning the widespread emphasis on drugs. Last November, researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health reported that the brains of children diagnosed with ADHD matured in a normal pattern, but with a delay of up to three years in some brain regions. "Finding a normal pattern of cortex maturation, albeit delayed, in children with ADHD should be reassuring to families and could help to explain why many youth eventually seem to grow out of the disorder," explained Philip Shaw, M.D., who led the research team. Among 223 ADHD sufferers studied, half of 40,000 brain cortex sites reached peak thickness at age 10.5, compared to age 7.5 in a control group of youngsters without the disorder. Intriguingly, the NIMH's Multimodal Treatment Study of Children, which has been monitoring children's ADHD treatments since the 1990s, has found that drug treatments such as Ritalin work no better than therapy after three years of treatment.

The controversy rages on. Books like David Healy's Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship Between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression, and The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder, by Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield, point out the shared interests of psychiatrists eager to gain patients and a drug industry eager to sell prescriptions.

Healy, former secretary of the British Association for Psychopharmacology, decries what he calls the "biobabble" the pharmaceutical industry uses to draw a simplistic and misleading causal link between depression and serotonin deprivation in the brain; pill-pushers are quick to offer serotonin replacements, not mentioning that effective counseling can by itself often spur the body's own serotonin production. Horwitz and Wakefield agree, also faulting the American Psychiatric Association, which in 1980 reclassified many former "neuroses" as full-fledged medical ailments.

Now that science is recognizing how therapy may be more effective than drugs to treat these emotional disorders, perhaps it is also time to consider the therapeutic value of a time-tested biblical prescription—the family unit—a safe and loving environment where a father provides guidance and resources, and a mother supplies the personal attention so vital to young children's development.

Real Solutions

Today, the medical model of addiction dominates the thinking of much of the Western world (see The Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control, Peele). This model suggests that people who abuse chemical substances or have behavior-related problems are nothing more than victims of faulty genes, which produce internal chemical imbalances. Yet this widely accepted theory promotes the false notion that people "have little control over their lives… It also excuses lawlessness by wildly mixing up moral responsibility with disease diagnosis" (Hales, p. 18). Indeed, much of the "conventional wisdom" about substance abuse undermines personal responsibility. Even most programs that attempt to cultivate the capacity to "say no" to drug abuse are incomplete in significant ways.

Studies in human behavior have identified important factors associated with the prevention of substance abuse. Young people who "are religious, attend school regularly, get good grades, have good relationships with their parents and do not break the law are the students who report the least drinking and drug use" (Ray & Ksir, p. 13). Such powerful values and positive behaviors are initially fostered in the home by competent and caring parents and other adult members of the family. Promoting positive values that foster personal responsibility—by right education, positive peer influence and a good example—is a documented and proven method of preventing and combating substance abuse.

But there is more to the story! If people are to "say no" to drugs and other risky behaviors, they must have compelling reasons beyond just wanting to stay healthy and improve their self-image. Writing in the Unesco Courier, Federico Mayor stated, "To fight the demand for drugs, we have to go to the root of the problem and give life a purpose… we must offer young people not just a means to live but a reason to do so" (December 1998, p. 9). Young people and adults need to be informed about the personal and social consequences of substance abuse, and to develop "refusal skills" enabling them to say no in tempting-yet-dangerous situations.

On a more fundamental level, we all need to understand the ultimate reasons for avoiding risky and destructive behaviors. Those reasons are not found in medical textbooks or treatment manuals—they are revealed in the Bible.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

  1. Early alcohol intoxication
  2. Adult examples of drug use
  3. Peer approval of drug use
  4. Parental approval of drug use
  5. Absence from school
  6. Poor academic achievement
  7. Low educational aspiration
  8. Little religious commitment
  9. Emotional distress
  10. Dissastifaction with life

(Drugs, Society and Human Behavior, Ray & Ksir, p. 14)

The Biblical Dimension

Today, people commonly hold to the philosophy, "If it feels good, do it!"—but this is a shortsighted viewpoint with dangerous consequences. In a world devoid of meaning, millions become hooked on a search for new and different sensations. Tragically, our secular society has thrown away the divine road map that explains in detail not only how to live life, but why we need to live a certain way. The Bible shows the way out of substance abuse. Scripture reveals the true purpose of life and the real reasons for living a certain way—for knowing when to say yes and when to say no. In Genesis, we learn that the Creator of the universe made us in His image (Genesis 1:26–27) and that we are to take care of what God created (Genesis 2:15). The Bible calls the human body "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Christians realize that their body is "the temple of God," and are mindful of Scripture's warning that "if anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him" (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). Personal responsibility and facing the consequences of one's own actions are fundamental themes throughout Scripture. God made us free moral agents so we could learn to make wise choices (see Deuteronomy 30:15–20). Parents and leaders must teach younger generations how to lead a truly abundant life (Deuteronomy 4:6–10; 6:7; Proverbs 22:6). Young people must be taught—and shown by example—that the laws of God are practical (Proverbs 3:1–2). Experienced adults must convey the lesson that "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). Individuals must be encouraged to "ponder the path of [their] feet" (Proverbs 4:26), to set worthwhile goals (Matthew 6:33), to do their best (Ecclesiastes 9:10) and to choose their friends carefully (Proverbs 1:10–19). The way to real happiness involves making wise decisions (Proverbs 3:13–15)—not searching in vain for a chemical that will magically bring relief!

The Bible also gives specific guidelines regarding the use of chemicals. Scripture warns repeatedly against drunkenness and the abuse of alcohol (Proverbs 20:1; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; Ephesians 5:17–18; 1 Peter 4:1–3). However, the Bible also recognizes the healthful aspects of alcohol (1 Timothy 5:23) and promotes its responsible use in a variety of ways (Deuteronomy 14:26; Ecclesiastes 9:7; Matthew 26:29). The Bible teaches moderation (Philippians 4:5, KJV). When that message is missing, especially in the home, problems occur. Young people who see the abuse of alcohol and other substances tolerated at home tend to seek out peers who act in similar ways, which leads to continued abuse. Following biblical guidelines will go a long way toward preventing the abuse of chemicals!

Not only does the Bible give us reasons and specific instructions for preventing substance abuse; it provides personal case studies for our admonition. God gave Solomon wisdom (1 Kings 3:9–12), but he apparently learned some lessons the hard way—by experience! Solomon described his futile attempt to find happiness by pursing whatever physical pleasures his heart desired—the proverbial wine (Ecclesiastes 2:3), women and song. His experiment was an abysmal failure, and he came to hate his life (v. 17).

What lesson did Solomon ultimately learn? "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment" (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 KJV). Solomon understood this ultimate reason to shun substance abuse—that our Creator will hold us accountable for our actions! When Jesus Christ returns to Earth, He will reward those who have learned to make wise choices and live according to God's law, but He will punish individuals and nations for ignoring that law (Matthew 25:31–34; Revelation 11:18).

Factors Preventing Substance Abuse

  1. Purpose in life
  2. Strong system of values
  3. Positive parental example
  4. Close relationship with parents
  5. Positive peer influences
  6. Academic achievement
  7. High educational aspiration
  8. Regular school attendance
  9. Regular church attendance
  10. Realistic long-term goals
  11. Knowledge of consequences
  12. Hope of a reward

Substance abuse has plagued mankind through the ages. Yet research indicates that "drug addiction is highly treatable if patients are motivated and feel they have something to live for… Individuals must feel there is something better in the world than drugs" (Hales, p. 369). The "medicalization" of substance abuse—treating it merely as a disease—ignores the ultimate cause of substance abuse. By removing the abuser's feelings of guilt, it takes away powerful motivating factors for avoiding abuse or changing destructive behavior.

The Bible explains that God will reward those who walk in His ways and overcome behavior problems. Our Creator not only reveals the true purpose for human life; He also outlines the way that leads to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. When that knowledge is missing from people's lives, it is no wonder so many are irresistibly lured by the temptation to get high. But those who turn to God can be healed of their addictions and other problems, and by obeying His loving guidance can find a joy in their lives that no drug could ever provide!

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