How Do I Know If Someone Is Struggling With Addiction?

By Patrick O’Neil (RADT, MFA), Group Facilitator, Cast Centers

You’re worried about that certain someone. There’s something different about them, their behavior is off, but you’re not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because they’re distant, or moody, or they look unhealthy, or they’re absent from your life and they used to be present all the time. You think they may have a drug problem, or perhaps they drink too much alcohol and you want to help. But you’re worried that if you ask they’ll feel like you’re accusing them and it will hurt the relationship.

Very few drug addicts and alcoholics will honestly admit they have a substance abuse problem—as the very nature of the disease of addiction creates secrecy. Even in today’s society with the ease of obtaining prescription drugs, legalized marijuana, and the continued approval and promotion of social drinking, it appears that casual using is not only okay, but also expected. Of course there are people that can use and drink responsibly and that’s fine, only it creates another layer of legitimacy that the addict and alcoholic can hide behind. However we’re not talking about “normies” (which is AA terminology for people that can drink normally and not have unhealthy consequences). We’re referring to people whose “recreational use” has turned into an addiction, their lives have become unmanageable, and they are powerless to stop using.     

In his article, “What Is Addiction?” Jeffery Juergens advises, “Identifying a substance abuse problem can be a complicated process. While some signs of addictive behaviors are obvious, others are more difficult to recognize. Many people who realize they have a problem will try to hide it from family and friends, making it harder to tell whether someone is struggling.” And therein lies the problem. How can you help someone, or at least offer support, if they won’t ask for help?

According to journalist Kim Borwick, “Confronting an addict can be daunting. People struggling with substance abuse are typically in a fragile state and a poorly planned intervention can make an addict feel alienated or attacked by his or her family and friends. If you are considering stepping in and confronting your loved one about their substance problem, prepare yourself as best as you can. Before you intervene, keep an eye on their behaviors for a few weeks. This will help you determine if there is a problem and better understand how it affects them.

Borwick’s advice can help you ascertain if a loved one, family member, friend, or colleague is struggling with addiction. For the most part there are detectable warning signs. The most common of these would be:

Physical Appearance: It’s not unusual for drug addicts to stop bathing, brushing their teeth, or even caring about how they look. They may have suddenly lost or gained weight, and their faces become gaunt or bloated. They look tired from lack of sleep and malnutrition. Their complexion has changed; they have circles under their eyes, they don’t eat, or if they do it’s a ton of candy. While these may seem like stereotypical symptoms, the reality is that the addict’s focus is on obtaining and using drugs and nothing else matters.   

Secretive Behavior: Unfortunately most addicts and alcoholics with untreated addiction can be very secretive, manipulative, and dishonest. They become more and more withdrawn from loved ones, lie about their whereabouts or activities, and disappear in order to buy and use drugs. Yet if you carefully look at their behaviors and really listen to their justifications then it becomes obvious that they are hiding something and not being truthful. According to Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, “Addicts often want to avoid confrontation because they’ve used their addictive behavior as a coping strategy for so long, they often don’t have other well-developed ways of dealing with the stresses of life.” Besides, if they admit to being addicted to drugs and alcohol then they’re worried you’ll pressure them to quit.

Mood Swings: According to licensed chemical dependency counselor Steven Griffith, “Mood swings are often associated signs of addiction. If drug or alcohol use has gotten to the point where someone is using all of the time, the symptoms of withdrawal can include depression, irritability, fatigue, sweating, and anxiety. When that person is using, signs of addiction can be drastic improvements in mood, or suddenly shifting from being cranky to becoming happy and upbeat. These wild mood swings are the result of the drastic changes that drug and alcohol use can have upon the body and mind, and are a highly noticeable sign of addiction.”

Paranoia: Drug use and the secrecy of using can create paranoid thoughts. The addict may be in fear of getting caught or just mistrusts everyone around them. Abuse of stimulants like meth and cocaine can result in a “psychosis resembling paranoid schizophrenia, with delusional thoughts, aggressive behavior and seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there.” The paranoid addict becomes overly suspicious of family and friends, conjuring up unrealistic motives to their actions and responses. According to Dr. Edward Bednarczyk, “You’ve kind of got psychosis in a pill form, or an inhaled or injected form, with meth. When you start to use that, the risks of having a very real psychosis develop are high.

Avoidance: Your once gregarious loved one may seem withdrawn, lacking motivation, and avoiding life. Typically drug use isolates the addict from those closest to them. They avoid work, social interactions, and activities that used to be fun. Where they once had a healthy social life they now isolate and use drugs as a way of dealing with loneliness and being unhappy. When forced to interact they use even more or just don’t show up at all.

Money Problems: Nothing says your loved one’s drug use has crossed the line to addiction more than financial problems. The astronomical cost of an ever-increasing addiction is hard to maintain without other financial responsibilities being affected. Tell tale signs are unpaid bills, missing material possessions, and asking to borrow money when they have a full time job.        

Disregarding Harmful Consequences: Your loved one may have gotten a DUI, but shrugged it off as just “bad luck.” The wreckage from their drug use has caused numerous negative consequences, such as loss of employment, impaired physical health, overdoses, missed work, and destroyed relationships, but it’s never because of their addiction. The classic, “I can quit anytime I want” statement comes to mind. Yet the addict doesn’t want to admit that their drug abuse is causing physical and mental suffering to themselves, family, and friends, and even though the evidence states otherwise, they continue abusing drugs and alcohol.

Ignoring these warning signs will not make the addict’s problem go away and their addiction definitely won’t fix itself either. “Nobody wants to risk the possible backlash of an intervention,” says Kim Borwick, “but as the majority of recovered addicts will tell you, a loved one’s confrontation often marks the turning point in their recovery story, saving them from a life of self-harm.” Alcohol abuse and drug addiction are treatable. Help your loved one stop struggling.

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