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What Is the Difference Between Drug Dependent & Drug Addicted?

What Is the Difference Between Drug Dependent & Drug Addicted?

Kathleen’s Story

Kathleen experienced a work related injury in which a box fell on her neck while she was standing on a ladder to retrieve something else from a high shelf. She suffered a C4 injury (the fourth cervical vertebra) which resulted in limited control of her shoulders and biceps. It was accompanied by a stinging sensation that she came to discover was related to damage to nerve fibers. She also noticed tingling and numbness in her fingers. It was diagnosed as neuropathic pain. Her doctor explained that the communication between her spine and brain was being mis-translated and that the signals were coming from locations below where feelings were interrupted. She was cautioned that this problem could be chronic.

Prior to the accident, Kathleen had been vibrant and active. An athlete, she had ridden her bicycle a few times a week, swam, worked out at the gym and played on a mixed gender soccer team. She had no prior history of addiction herself or in her family.

As a result of the injury, she needed to curtail her normal routine as she took time to recuperate at home while receiving treatment. It contributed to a sense of restlessness physically and a growing feeling of despair. Initially she was prescribed Motrin which is considered a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (also known as NSAIDs). When the pain didn’t respond to it, she asked her physician for something stronger.

She was offered Oxycodone but was warned that it could become habit forming. At that point, what Kathleen was more concerned about was relief from what had become chronic pain. She developed insomnia and her depression increased. She made yet another call to her treating physician, who prescribed Nortriptyline (Pamelor), which also had applications for pain relief. It offered a slight measure of relief, but there came a time when her doctor became concerned about her ongoing requests, thinking that she should begin to wean down her Oxycodone dosage.

At that point, Kathleen began to experience symptoms of anxiety with transient and unexpected thoughts of ending her life, although she had no plan or intent. She told the physician, “If this is how it is going to be, I don’t know how to live this way.” After a few months of being away from her work environment and fitness activities, she began to feel isolated. Although her friends had visited initially, their contact dwindled. She hesitated to reach out to them, not wanting to feel like a burden since she justified that they were all living normal lives and she felt like an invalid.

The question that remained was whether this was a case of addiction or dependence. Kathleen was clear that her body had acclimated to the prescribed dose and was calling for more to meet the need for relief. Her doctor dismissed the initial inclination to think of her as med-seeking. He offered a referral to a pain medicine specialist. She followed up on his recommendation and the next week, she was sitting in an office with her new specialist who compassionately offered alternatives to what she had been doing to manage what seemed like intractable pain. These included:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Reiki
  • Restorative yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Consulting with a dietician to consider an anti-inflammatory diet
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to assist in exploring the psycho-social component she faced

Kathleen was willing to engage in all of these practices and in a few months, found herself returning to an adapted sense of a normal routine. She rated her pain most days as a 2 or 3 on a 1-10 scale which was manageable, when at the onset, she would have thought of it as a 10.

John’s Story

John had been a building contractor for most of his adult life. Long days spent on roof tops, in all kinds of weather, had begun to take its toll on his knees, but he ignored the symptoms. He had entered into the profession with the idea that he could make a good living using his skills. His father, brothers, uncles and grandfather had gone into the family business as well.

Unlike Kathleen, John and his family incorporated alcohol into family gatherings, and after a long work day, they would head to the local bar where they were recognized as regulars. It wasn’t unusual for him to indulge in a six pack of beer and down a few shots in a two-hour time span as he enjoyed the company of his family and friends. He would stumble home, tumble into bed and sleep fitfully until he needed to get up a few hours later. Often he would have a lingering lethargy and hang-over, but since he didn’t miss a day of work, he denied there was a problem. Since it was part of his familial and social activity, he had known no other way to live.

When John turned 45, he woke up one morning to find that his left knee wouldn’t support him. The pain was agonizing and didn’t respond to his daily dose of Ibuprofen. He added a quick pull of whiskey to numb it, which enabled him to get himself to work as he nursed his way through the day.

When a member of his crew noticed John limping, he offered him a Percoset that he took from his pocket. Eager to get back to work in the hope of being pain free, John accepted it. Within a short period of time, his wish was granted and the ache subsided. He wondered if he hadn’t found at least a temporary solution to his problem. He knew that surgery was a likely outcome if he consulted a doctor and he wanted to delay that as long as possible, reasoning that he couldn’t afford the time off from work.

So, his friend introduced John to his dealer. John continued taking Percoset for a few more months, until he found he wasn’t just turning to his narcotic helper to quell the increasing throbbing, but on a regular basis, reasoning that he didn’t want to experience breakthrough pain.

His family and co-workers started noticing what turned out to be an addictive reaction to the opiate. Although the pain in his knee was manageable, he began experiencing debilitating headaches, nausea and vomiting. More often than not, he would be a no-show on the job site.

His normally level temper was beginning to escalate and when questioned, he defensively replied that no one could understand his pain and that they needed to back off. This was not the easy going, amiable guy they knew. They decided to stage an intervention with the support of a trained professional who gathered together those closest to him to express their concern about the impact his addiction.

He was ready to leave the room when he saw those who were there, but had a moment of clarity in which he declared to himself that he no longer could live with the physical pain of the injury, but even more, the emotional pain of the addiction. He reluctantly agreed to enter rehab to begin the process of recovery.

Roofer photo available from Shutterstock

What Is the Difference Between Drug Dependent & Drug Addicted?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). What Is the Difference Between Drug Dependent & Drug Addicted?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 8 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.