Addiction vs. Dependency

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A reader asks if there is any difference between addiction and dependency.

The Chicago Manual of Style offers this straightforward distinction:

One is physically addicted to something but psychologically dependent on something.

I like the simplicity of this explanation, but a casual Web tour reveals a difference of opinion when the context is drug use. For example:

Physical dependence in and of itself does not constitute addiction, but it often accompanies addiction.—National Institute on Drug Abuse (US government site).

A number of substances produce psychological and/or physical dependence without producing an addiction.—Addiction Science Forum.

Addiction can occur without physical dependence [and] physical dependence can occur without addiction.—The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment.

Clearly, the use of the words dependency and addiction must be handled with care when writing about their medical implications. For the non-medical writer whose purpose is to choose between the words on the basis of connotation, a look at their etymologies offers a basis for choice.

Addiction implies enslavement. The word derives from a Latin verb that meant, among other things, “to sell into slavery.” An addicted person no longer belongs to himself. Addiction implies a state from which there is no escape.

Dependency, on the other hand, carries the connotation of temporality. A child’s dependency ends with maturity. Dependency connotes a situation from which there is a way out.

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4 thoughts on “Addiction vs. Dependency”

  1. Dependency can mean that one has been prescribed a drug, is taking it as directed, and is dependent on it. Cessation can result in withdrawal symptoms, just as with addiction. However, because the use is legitimate, the patient is not considered an “addict,” even if such dependency is chronic or even permanent.

    Addiction commonly refers to the use of drugs that have not been prescribed or if so, are being abused. In this case, the user may be labeled an “addict.”

    It may be a fine line, but I believe it to be an important one within the medical community. (I am not part of that community other than as a patient.)

  2. Actually, I think the Chicago distinction is perfectly consistently borne out by the other sources. In each case, it could be understood that the dependency is physical, and the addiction is psychological.

    For example : one person who finds themselves dependent on prescription drugs may find themselves developing an addiction and seek more of the drug out, while another may be concerned about the dependency and take measures to stop taking the drug.

    I watched a TED Talk titled, ‘Everything you know about addiction is wrong’ which posits that people in only certain conditions form addictions. The theory is that happy, fulfilled, and connected people don’t become addicts. This supports the Chicago distinction.

  3. Chicago is a redoubtable source, but even they can be trumped by IRL usage and context. It’d be unlikely, to say the least, to hear a legitimately dependent user of a prescription drug referred to as being “addicted to Vicodin.” for example. Similarly, it would be equally rare to hear, “he has a heroin dependency.” I can tell you that many people who are legitimately dependent would, at the very least, bristle at being called “addicted.” My POV, of course, and people are free to use the terms interchangeably if they wish.

  4. So, as you can see, I am WAY behind in my DWT reading! lol

    I did want to comment on this post though. Coincidentally, right under the Addiction vs Dependency title, is an ad for Suboxone. I thought that was pretty ironic.

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