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Are you struggling with a drug problem that’s spiraled out of control? If so, you may feel isolated, helpless, or ashamed. Or perhaps you’re worried about a friend or family member’s drug use. In either case, you’re not alone. Addiction is a problem that many people face.

The good news is that you or your loved one can get better. There is hope—no matter how bad the substance abuse problem and no matter how powerless you feel. Learning about the nature of addiction—how it develops, what it looks like, and why it has such a powerful hold—will give you a better understanding of the problem and how to deal with it.

Addiction is a complex disorder characterized by compulsive drug use. People who are addicted feel an overwhelming, uncontrollable need for drugs or alcohol, even in the face of negative consequences. This self-destructive behavior can be hard to understand. Why continue doing something that’s hurting you? Why is it so hard to stop?

The answer lies in the brain. Repeated drug use alters the brain—causing long-lasting changes to the way it looks and functions. These brain changes interfere with your ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control your behavior, and feel normal without drugs. These changes are also responsible, in large part, for the drug cravings and compulsion to use that make addiction so powerful.

The path to drug addiction starts with experimentation. You or your loved one may have tried drugs out of curiosity, because friends were doing it, or in an effort to erase another problem. At first, the substance seems to solve the problem or make life better, so you use the drug more and more.

But as the addiction progresses, getting and using the drug becomes more and more important and your ability to stop using is compromised. What begins as a voluntary choice turns into a physical and psychological need. The good news is that drug addiction is treatable. With treatment and support, you can counteract the disruptive effects of addiction and regain control of your life.