How to Help: Identifying and Understanding Addiction

Early detection of a drug addiction can save a loved one’s life. Learn the warning signs, as explained by Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and Addiction Expert George Joseph.

Posted on | By George Joseph

When someone you know has a possible addiction problem, here are some things you can do to help.

  • Learn about addiction. The more you know the better. Attend family support groups such as Al-Anon; research the Internet for sites such as SAMHSA, NIDA.
  • Initiate conversation. Ask questions in a caring, gentle manner. Tell the person your concerns and how much you care for them. Be prepared to give them specific examples of their behavior or events that concern you. When addressed early, the stages of recovery are much easier to obtain. It’s never too late, but when a person hits their “bottom,” the process is much more difficult.
  • You are #1. Neglecting your own needs may put you at risk of enabling your loved one’s addiction, being put in a risky situation, or becoming ill due to stress and neglect. Seek out people that are good listeners and that you can have as a support system.
  • Enabling is a lose-lose situation. When you begin to make excuses or minimize the person’s use, it prolongs the problem. This is a way for the addicted person to continue using – getting what they want. In order for the person to realize the hazards of drug and alcohol abuse, negative consequences may have to be a part of that equation. You feel you’re protecting them, but actually, you are endangering them.
  • It is not your fault. Addiction is seldom the fault of another person. It is a disease that has many facets and causes. Your job is to support the addicted person and encourage alternatives to the destructive behaviors, but you are not responsible for the person to change. You are not responsible to control the person and his decisions. Your loved one must realize the need for help and accept responsibility for their actions.

What Makes a Person Become Addicted?

Not everyone who drinks alcohol or tries drugs becomes addicted. Why is that? What makes one person become addicted when others can use without consequence? Vulnerability to this disease ranges and affects people differently. Factors, such as genetics, age of first use, environment and mental health may play a part in someone becoming addicted. Factors that can increase the risk of addiction are:

  • Family history or substance use and/or mental health
  • Childhood experiences – abuse, neglect, trauma, grief
  • Mental health diagnoses: depression, anxiety, borderline personality and eating disorders
  • Pre-teen or teenage drug, alcohol and/or tobacco use
  • External factors causing stress, fatigue, other pressures
  • Resentments that haven’t been resolved

Do You Know Someone in Trouble With Addiction? 

People who abuse substances are masterful at hiding their symptoms, minimizing their use, and manipulating others into believing them. Below are some common warning signs that may indicate that the person is either using or abusing substances.

Physical signs of substance abuse 

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupils are dilated or pinpointed
  • Appetite changes – dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Sleep patterns are abnormal
  • Physical appearance changes – sloppy, not groomed, poor posture, little eye contact
  • Strange smells on clothes, body or breath
  • Shaky hands, loss of balance, slurred or rapid speech

Behavioral signs of substance abuse 

  • Lack of motivation and performance in school or at work
  • Sudden financial problems or excess spending
  • Illegal acts such as stealing
  • Behaviors become secretive and paranoid
  • Decreased interest in or time for hobbies
  • Change in friends and social activities
  • Increased fights and accidents

Psychological signs of substance abuse 

  • Changes in personality traits and attitudes
  • Inflexibility, drama, anger, dramatic mood swings
  • Easily agitated, excitable and giddy
  • Intervals of highs and lows – hyperactivity to lethargy
  • Increased feelings of fear, paranoia and anxiety

Warning Signs of Teen Substance Use 

The teenage years are difficult enough without adding substance use into the mix. Parents are faced with the challenge of distinguishing between normal teen behavior and the warning signs for addiction. A parent’s most valuable tools are (1) observation and (2) staying interested in your kid’s life. Ask questions and talk to your kid. Warning signs may include:

  • Secrecy – all of a sudden it’s “not your business.” They want you out of their lives and will not discuss friends, things they buy, or things they are doing.
  • Finding new interests in things that glamorize drug use – clothes, tattoos, music, and paraphernalia
  • Increased need for privacy – locking doors, isolation, poor eye contact or communication
  • Poor attendance at school. Grades drop and teachers report lack of attention or interest and increase in conflicts.
  • Stealing money from parents, siblings or friends. Stealing items to sell or abuse, such as prescription or over-the-counter medications.
  • Depression, increased need for sleep, withdrawn, isolated, distraught
  • Sudden use of air fresheners or incense to mask the smell of smoke or drugs
  • Increased use of perfumes or mouth wash and breath mints to cover up lingering odors
  • Requests for eye drops or eye washes to reduce red eyes or dilated pupils

Denying Addiction – Are You in Denial?

What is denial? And how does it affect addiction? Denial is the inability to believe in the existence or reality of something. In addiction, denying there is a problem is very dangerous, causing the addicted person or others to rationalize, underestimate, and minimize use. The addicted person always feels they have their use in control and isn’t always able to see the negative consequences in their life due to the drug and/or alcohol use.

This defense mechanism kicks in automatically in order to appear “normal” and attempt to function in society. Denial is easier and safer than admitting that there is a problem and you do not have control over your use. Denial is expensive. Denial is damaging and destructive to one’s life. With denial comes grief, shame and guilt due to loss of loved ones, job loss, financial hardships, health problems, and possibly, bouts of depression or anxiety.

What does addiction look like when it takes over your life?

  • Neglect – nothing matters except for when and where you are going to use drugs or alcohol. Planning takes more time, so other responsibilities get dropped and using becomes priority.
  • Increased high-risk behaviors while using or in order to use – driving under the influence, stealing, prostituting, using shared needles, selling or transporting drugs, unprotected sex, mixing substances.
  • Legal trouble – selling or using drugs in public places, DUI, DWI, disorderly conduct, theft, and other risky behaviors that may result in an arrest.
  • Relationship issues – spouses or significant others may attempt to put boundaries on or give ultimatums to the addicted person; however, this will only threaten them more. Discord will soon heighten when the use has become intolerable to sustain the relationship. Fights may occur with family members, friends or co-workers that cause increased stress for all involved. Relationships become chaotic. 
  • Tolerance increases/increased use – the more you use, the more you need to achieve the same initial effects. You’re always chasing that first high.
  • Avoiding withdrawal – with some drugs and alcohol, the dependent person must keep using in order to not experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawing is uncomfortable and can be life-threatening. Symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, anxiety and seizures can be part of a person’s withdrawal.
  • Loss of control – the substance use has a hold on you – like a true love. It’s all you think about and dream about. You tell yourself you’re not going to use that much or at all, but you give in losing the battle once again.
  • Everything revolves around drug seeking and using – more time is spent thinking, planning and using drugs and/or alcohol than any other activity.
  • Activities cease – an addicted person may have in the past been involved in fun activities and hobbies, but due to the addiction, all interest has been lost. Old activities are replaced by the new drug seeking and using activities.
  • Inability to stop – the addicted person knows that the use is out of control and it’s bad for them, but continues to use regardless of the consequences: blackouts, illnesses, depression, paranoia, seizures, skin lesions, anxiety.

Most Commonly Abused Drugs and Red Flags Associated With Use

Most substances have an addictive quality when used in high or frequent doses. From caffeine to prescription medications or illicit drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, all have the potential for abuse and addiction. The most commonly abused drugs, not including alcohol, are sleeping pills, painkillers, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin.

Red Flags: How many of these can you answer “Yes” to?

  • Do you try and convince yourself not to use, and then you do?
  • Do you feel guilty and shameful about using?
  • Does the drug use relax you and make you feel “normal”?
  • Have your family and friends approached you with concern about your using?
  • Have you hidden your use or lied about your using?
  • Have you stolen money or sold items to get money to buy drugs?
  • Are you in debt due to your drug use?
  • Have you mixed drugs using more than one at a time?

If you have answered “Yes” to one or more, you may have a drug problem and may want to seek help in assessing you further.

 

Recovery and the Road to Healing  

Overcoming an addiction is complex and can be overwhelming at first; however, with professional help and proper support, the recovery process becomes less threatening and more exciting as each day goes by. When addiction enters one’s life, it affects all areas – personal, family, friends, work, etc. The recovery process is about change, including changing the way an addicted person sees, feels, processes and communicates to themselves and others. Recovery challenges the person to find ways of solving problems within their life and ways of living their life without using substances. Willpower is a myth that many people think is the tool for recovery. It has nothing to do with willpower - it has everything to do with releasing the control and accepting help from others. It is imperative that persons wanting sobriety find the best way to receive a secure, solid base and layers of positive change. Treatment provides the foundation and tools for ongoing success.

Article written by George Joseph
Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and Addiction Expert