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chasing the normal

'The invisible line': When a recreational drug habit becomes an addiction

A significant proportion of the population have experimented with drugs and for some this has been life-changing.

This week, is taking a closer look at Ireland’s relationship with illegal substances. More people in Ireland are using drugs than ever before. We’ll look at why that is… and the possible consequences.

ONE THIRD OF the Irish population has used an illicit drug in their lifetime.

The majority of these people say they have used the substance ‘recreationally’ and did not develop an addiction. But experts warn people can be blind to what is described as “an invisible line” between experimentation and dependence.

Alan Galvin, manager of the Saoirse Addiction Treatment Centre in Limerick said people can “move from, let’s call it recreational use, to harmful use to dependent use quickly”. 

“I think experimentation is a reality, people are going to experiment and we’re not anti-drug or anti-alcohol or anti-gambling, if you know what I mean. People cross what is an invisible line – it presents as issues in a relationship, issues at work, personal issues, mental health issues, the manifestation of the use or overuse or abuse.”

He said people are usually not aware of the potential harm that drugs and alcohol can do to them, even in circumstances where they would consider themselves social or recreational users. Their experience of a comedown, for example, can present as heightened anxiety, panic attacks, a lack of motivation or depression. 

‘Chasing normal’

With alcohol addiction, Galvin said social drinking with friends at the weekend can quickly become dependence as people ‘chase the normal’. 

Come Sunday you stop and then Monday and Tuesday you’re in the rats. If you go through that routine, ultimately where does it lead? Ultimately where it can lead is where they don’t like the Monday and Tuesday feeling of being low, they maybe have a drink, it lifts your mood.

“When people drink for a whole weekend and don’t get that much of a lift, they’re struggling to get back up and nearly end up chasing the normal,” he said. 

Figures from the Health Research Board indicate that more than 150,000 Irish people are dependent drinkers, more than 1.35 million are harmful drinkers and 30% of people have experienced some form of harm as a result of their drinking. 

‘Shape up or ship out’

He said people tend to separate alcohol addiction from other forms of substance abuse because it has become so normalised in this country.  

“I think people don’t draw the parallels. I’ve met the person who’ll drink Friday, Saturday and Sunday night and be in work Monday for 7am. But for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday they are probably hell to live with in their own family home,” he said.

One person comes to mind, he had marital problems, was very nasty at home, domestic violence. When I got into it with that person, they held down a very responsible job, the persona was the suit and the seven series [BMW] in the driveway, but the reality was two to three bottles of wine at a sitting, verbally and emotionally abusive, could wake up blacked out on the couch having peed himself. That was behind closed doors. His partner took a stand, ultimatum time, shape up or ship out. It usually works. 

The same can happen with recreational drug use, he said. 

“We have clients who use cocaine and drink and then the following morning or that night when they go to bed they take sleeping tablets to get to sleep, or benzos. Then to avoid depression after that for a few days they might take benzos. 

Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen / Tero Vesalainen

That sounds like a very structured way to take substances, but it gets out of hand.

Galvin said that as well as separating alcohol abuse and drug abuse, people are also differentiating between the other harmful substances. 

“The psychoactive ones we’re not too sure about, but if you pop four or five Valium because you’re stressed that might be okay. 

“If you’re a heroin user, you’re considered at the lower tranche [of society] and I think that’s interesting. As a society what we’ve done is we’ve taken addiction for the most part, which we don’t understand, and we’ve categorised it.”

He said many people can identify with “the few mad years in the 20 somethings”, but most who simply experimented did not end up with “a consequential problem”. 

“There are people with that susceptibility – they’re more likely to be addicted,” he explained. “And a person will not know that before they begin to use drugs.”


The treatment centre works with clients from all walks of life, in every age category. They have had healthcare workers, teachers, gardaí and army personnel, civil servants and company executives. 

Galvin said people only usually seek help when their substance use begins to interfere with another part of their life, like their work or relationships. 

“Our programme works from harm reduction through to total abstinence. If a client presents here and they’re using I don’t say ‘stop’, we work with them where they’re at.”

Psychoeducation is a big part of the treatment offered at Saoirse. Usually delivered in large group meetings with a counsellor, clients are given information about how the drugs they take work and exactly what they do to their bodies. 

“I’ve met young men here and they may have 50% liver function, they may have difficulties in terms of memory and recall – that takes time to come back,” Galvin said. 

He said he believes this type of education in society in general is necessary so that “ignorance is no longer a defence”. It helps people to acknowledge the harm they are doing to themselves, he explained, and it allows them to talk about it with others who are in a similar position. 

When you tell clients ‘this is what happens when you snort cocaine’ you see the wide eyes, you see the gasps. The group engages with it.

He said the focus in Ireland now needs to be on a non-judgemental harm reduction approach to substance abuse and support for the wider issues around the addiction. 

“You can stop using drug today that doesn’t make you well. There could be emotional problems, family relationship problems, they could be estranged from a child or partner. On the other side there could be prison, charges, they could be due in court,” Galvin explained. 

“When we engage with a client, it’s all trauma based. People’s experiences don’t change -the past is the past, you can’t change it, but it’s about learning to live and cope with it.”

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