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That drop of golden fluid time and again

That drop of golden fluid time and again

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Ninetyseven-imagery via Pexels

Evening on drugs use and abuse

Addicts, what kind of people are they actually? Why can one person just have a beer, a joint or a pill, while the other goes a step further every time? Also, how susceptible to addiction are you yourself? This was the subject of discussion during an online edition of Let’s Talk, the recurrent talk show by Studium Generale. Together with students from the FHML Honours programme, they organised an evening on the topic of drugs use and abuse last Monday.

The evening starts off with a short video in which three unrecognisable Maastricht students are recorded as they talk about the first time they used hard drugs. It seemed like a fun experience, and to a large extent that is what it was. Although they also have bad experiences – a friend who had an epileptic fit because of XTC, viewing the images on your telephone to discover what you got up to the night before – they are not afraid of becoming addicted.

The audience (about 120 people) is more cautious during Let’s Talk about drug (ab)use. A small poll showed that they mainly use alcohol and weed. They see drugs as dangerous, even though some also refer to it as ‘fun’. Forty-two per cent also answered that they were ‘not sure’ whether they were susceptible to addiction. One quarter felt that they were not susceptible to addiction, while 17 per cent is or had been addicted.

One of them is speaker Audrey Becker. She is a tropical doctor, anaesthesiologist and these days works in the care and treatment of addicts. For years, she herself was addicted to alcohol. She shows an animated film to explain how something like that goes. We see a bird walking past a droplet of golden fluid. The first time, he just looks, the second time he has a taste. It gives him a great feeling. He drinks more and more drops, even when he no longer feels good doing it.

“That is how it goes,” says Becker. “It starts as an experiment and eventually it becomes an addiction.”  How much you use, doesn’t matter, she says. “Addiction is about lack of control. You use more, and more frequently than you had planned to.”

That loss of control can even be seen in the brain. Normally speaking, we use our prefrontal cortex (to the front of the brain) for our actions. When we want to do something that we like, our reward system is activated. But before we eat that sweet, drink that beer, or light that cigarette, the decision first passes by the prefrontal cortex. There it is decided whether we will actually do it. In people who are addicted, the paths of the reward system leading to the prefrontal cortex have been affected. The idea is no longer looked at critically, but there is immediate action.

Why this happens in some people and not in others, is not clear. But it is not a rare phenomenon, says Becker. “It concerns 12 to 15 per cent of the population. Higher educated, lower educated, it makes no difference.”

In that regard, addiction doesn’t discriminate, yet every case is different, says psychiatrist Robert Hilse, who works at Mondriaan, an institute for mental health care in Zuid-Limburg. “When someone comes to us, we first look at ‘what the problem is according to the client?’ Then you set priorities. Maybe someone has a partner who also drinks, but who doesn’t want to stop. Or his or her friends also use drugs. Some are homeless, some are troubled by a trauma. That is why we work with a whole team, not just psychologists and psychiatrists, but also with GPs, nurses and social workers.”

Whether the treatment works, varies. “You have to be ready for it,” says Becker. “And it is different for everyone when that point is reached. For one person it may be very early on in the disease, for the other it may be only after the tenth time they have been hospitalised.” Do people like that not get incentives from their environment, someone in the audience asks. Are they not worried? “Addicts are very much in denial, certainly in the early stages,” says Becker. “In my case, only a couple of people who were close to me had an idea that something was wrong. If I went for a drink with colleagues after work, I would have one or two beers. Once I was home, that’s when I really got started. It is said that addiction is the opposite of connection. You isolate yourself, you lie to everyone.”

Even after treatment, there are differences. “Sometimes feelings of depression disappear in a flash as soon as someone stops drinking,” says Hilse. “For others that doesn’t happen. Those then have to be treated for depression as well.”

What does apply to almost everyone, is that they will now have to abstain from drink or drugs forever. “There are those who, years later, can just have the one drink,” says Hilse. “But that is a very small minority. It can just as easily be triggered again, and then the next day you have just a little more.” Becker nods affirmatively. “Addicts know no balance; it is all or nothing. I am not interested in one beer. So I will never drink again.”

Cannabis use among students

Alcohol and weed. Also during the Let’s Talk last Monday evening, those were the drugs that people said they used most often. This was in line with the Trimbos Institute findings. Recent research shows that a quarter of the 18- and 19-year-olds has smoked dope now and again. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, the figure has risen to almost 50 per cent. University (of Applied Sciences) students are the bulk users: 33 per cent of them has at some time smoked weed, compared to 12.8 per cent of the lower educated.

Students mainly use cannabis at the weekend and in the holidays. Reasons for use are the pleasant feeling and to have fun. Some students also say that it improves their study achievements. That is remarkable, because research shows that smoking dope now and again (once a month) can lead to attention and study problems. Someone who smokes dope often for a long time (10 times a month) can even suffer disorders in information processing, IQ, memory, and attention.

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