A critical early stage in the cycle of change is the establishment of a discrepancy between behaviour and a person’s values, or their goals. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who don’t enjoy their drinking, gambling, or drug use any longer – they just do it out of habit, or to avoid harrowing withdrawal symptoms. In order to commence any sort of change, it is vital to establish and maintain motivation. Initial motivation for many people comes from an epiphany: the realisation that their behaviour is preventing them from living the life they want. Using Prochaska & DiClemente’s model, we refer to this as the Contemplation stage of change, in which people begin to question their behaviour and seek to determine whether or not they have a problem. At this stage, the realisation must come from the individual seeking to make the change. Trying to force them to alter their behaviour will only create division and resentment.

This piece from Vice focuses on young Australians using “nangs”, nitrous oxide, to get a cheap semi-legal high. You may recognise nitrous oxide from trips to the dentist, where it us used in controlled quantities as a general anaesthetic, or for English history buffs, where it was recreationally enjoyed in the 18th century at “laughing gas parties”. In Australia, recreational abuse of these small nitrous oxide canisters are popular among students, particularly international students with disposable income. In fact, some retailers explicitly target international students, offering 24/7 delivery services for those who choose to use them. Although the law on nitrous oxide varies from one state to another, in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, it is illegal for retailers to sell nitrous oxide if they suspect the customer will recreationally abuse the infamous “laughing gas”. Apart from its use in dentistry, nitrous oxide canisters are often used to whip cream, which is its intended use in commercial sales, although recreational users believe that retailers know their true motives: “they definitely know their service is for partygoers”, said one recreational user. “Especially when you open the door and you have a balloon in your mouth!”

Although the interviewees in Vice’s article do not view nangs as a “serious” drug, consequences from overuse and abuse can be extremely dire. One participant reported one incident where her “brain really hurt”. One woman, only twenty years old, has such severe damage to her nervous system from nang abuse that she may never be able to walk normally again. The risks of nang abuse include oxygen deprivation, nerve injury, and brain damage. Brain damage from short-term nang abuse can rival that of a decades-long drinking problem, causing lifelong cognitive impairment and damage to the nervous system.

Of course, as with drinking, heroin addiction, or any other issue, many people suffering from the ill effects of their nang habit are all too aware that their chosen canisters are doing them little to no good. Although various interviewees in the Vice article immediately state that they aren’t addicted, or that nangs are not a “serious” drug, they report issues with neuorological problems, pain, and panic attacks. Some report being unable to stop once they’ve started, a hallmark warning sign of an addictive behaviour coming to the fore.

What can we learn from this, however? First of all, the stigma around being an “addict” is hardly helpful to anyone suffering from ill effects due to their habits. Almost anyone will immediately reject the label of addiction, even those whose habits have been adversely affecting their lives for decades. Rather than calling their interviewees “nang addicts” (which one participant calls “super lame”), engaging with the reasoning behind someone’s multi-day nang habit is a far more productive means of addressing the issue at hand and providing affected individuals with help should they choose to seek it. Although it’s tempting to tell someone who freely admits that they can’t stop using their drug of choice, reducing them to the label of addict with all its attached stigma is hardly a helpful addition to proceedings.

The other lesson to be gained from this article on supposedly harm-free, legal drug use is that, for anyone whose behaviour is becoming problematic, there exists a discrepancy (that may also be termed cognitive dissonance) between how they feel about their habit and how their habit affects them. One person might claim “you feel OK afterwards”, but in the subsequent question he remembers feeling as if he was about to die. Another notices lapses in memory and social ability, but uses nangs to forget about other troubles. That probably sounds all too familiar for some people reading this