Why Drug Addicts Do Drugs

In an effort to create believable antagonists, I’m going through Sean Mactire’s book  Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think. I’m in Chapter Eleven now, which is about drug abuse. See my previous two posts regarding alcohol abuse and drug abuse. Today’s topic is the motivation for drug abuse.

Mactire begins with, “It is one thing to explain the cultural factors behind drug abuse and another to describe the ways that drugs alter behavior, but neither of these explains why people abuse drugs even when the abusers are fully aware of the dangers.” I’ll admit, drug use has never appealed to me, so I’m interested in finding out why Mactire believes people do drugs. I’ve had people close to me delve into drugs, but I never understood WHY they did what they did.

Mactire says the explanation is poverty. People use drugs to escape the pain of poverty. And once they’ve begun the drug use, it quickly become abuse. Middle and upper class people also use drugs to escape the pain of everyday living, but they choose the expensive illegal drugs or the prescription medications available from doctors, and drug abuse in the upper income brackets is not as common as in the lower ones. Mactire finishes the chapter with a brief history of the opium and heroine trades.

I’m not completely satisfied with Mactire’s opinion that poverty is the leading motivation of drug use/abuse, so I went to the Internet where everything is true. I’ll let you finish laughing before I continue… I went to drugfreeworld.org. They say, “People take drugs because they want to change something about their lives.” They think drugs will be a solution to a problem. Then the site offers six reasons young people have given for taking drugs: “to fit in, to escape or relax, to relieve boredom, to seem grown up, to rebel, and to experiment.” I think this is a much fuller explanation than just poverty. 

This explanation is also much easier to apply to characters. You’ve got a teen-age boy from a middle-income family. Why does he do drugs? To rebel against his parents strict rules (I see a bit of Narcissist Personality Disorder here). Or to seem “cool” to his friends (Dependent Personality Disorder?). Or to relax because the pressure to get good grades is too much to handle. (Note: not every drug addict will have a personality disorder, nor will every teen. A high enough percentage of them are selfish without the personality disorder branding. I bring it up to tie together the concepts Mactire has been doling out.)

You’ve got a teen-age girl from a poverty-stricken household. Why does she do drugs? To escape the ridicule of the other kids because she’s wearing Goodwill bluejeans. To seem “cool” to the richer kids. To relieve the never-ending hunger that followers her through the day. To forget, for a time, that she’s got nothing and may grow up into nothing.

This can be applied to older characters, too. You’ve got a twenty-something young woman who’s left home to “make it” in the real world, but reality is that living is expensive and minimum wage isn’t enough to pay for rent and food. So she turns to prostitution to help pay the bills. She turns to drugs to tune out the humiliation of her choice. (And it IS a choice. She could choose to go home and humble herself to her parents. She could choose to subsist on minimum wage, risking her health or maybe even her life. She could choose to be a drug-free prostitute. If your character actually weighs all these options in the story, she becomes more sympathetic to the reader, even if she does choose the drugs over something else.) Now you’ve got a character, with or without a personality disorder, who is trapped in the clutches of an addictive drug and will do whatever it takes to continue the addiction. She is properly motivated for a life of crime.

This is a fun game, and I could go on for another hour or two, but I think you can play it on your own. Choose a personality type, plug in a background conducive to criminal behavior (poverty, sexual abuse, etc), maybe even a personality disorder, then add in an addiction and see what kind of antagonist you come up with. Feel free to share your conclusions in the comments section.

-Sonja
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