Virtually everyone on the planet knows someone who has substance abuse issues. Before I ever started using drugs I sure knew a lot of people who used drugs and drank alcohol. At first I did not recognize they had substance abuse issues. As I started to experiment, I noticed some people had progressed to serious abuse. We made fun of those people. They were weak. It could never happen to us.
Believe me folks, it can happen to anyone who ever tries drugs or alcohol. As reported in nationalgeographic.com.
As a counselor for both in-class and online drug classes I get asked for advice about drug addiction and alcoholism from both clients and friends with regularity. Some call me when they’re suspicious, others wait until there is a full-on crisis and their loved-one needs to go to treatment. In either case there are always questions about signs and symptoms. This will be the first in a series of blogs that examines how you can tell if you or someone you care about has substance abuse issues.
While we get into more specifics later, my first question to you is: do you or the person you care about ever use drugs? If drugs have been tried there is a possibility that abuse can and will follow.
Before reading the next set in the series I encourage you to take a drug class. It will help you evaluate your use and identify patterns that could mean abuse.
Three tell-tale signs of drug abuse / addiction
This is the most consistent and persistent component of addiction. For an addiction to survive it must remain hidden. This is why most people don’t get treatment for their addiction until it becomes so severe that they cannot hide it anymore.
We recently admitted a beautiful young woman who is addicted to heroin. She talks openly of the drug being the only love she has in her life. This is despite having a child and a family that love her very much. Addicts will lie to protect their addiction from danger (aka discovery) just as you or I might lie to protect a child or loved one from an aggressive assailant.
Common areas where lies start stacking up might include loved-ones disappearing for long periods of time, suddenly needing quite a bit more sleep, or the disappearance of money and possessions — particularly consumer electronics or jewelry.
Addiction, like misery, loves company. Whenever a person starts using heavily his or her peer-group will change, often quite quickly. This is because people who do not share the addict’s vice will generally become concerned and/or alienated. It’s one thing to smoke a joint at a party; it’s another thing when marijuana use starts happening multiple times a day every day. The first scenario is teens experimenting; the second is a life-style choice that will generally bring with it a specific and narrow peer selection.
This is actually one of the easiest ways for me to tell who is doing well in the treatment center I run. The degree to which those who are bent on becoming sober and healthy attract like-minded clients is almost uncanny. Sadly, the opposite is also true. There have been many times over my years in the field where I have thought a client was moving in one direction, but observation of their peer-group lead me to another conclusion.
It should be noted that this shift is often a bit more difficult to discern with alcoholism. Consumption of alcohol is a societal norm so it does not carry the stigma associated with other drugs of abuse. There is also a cultural expectation that binge drinking is simply part of late-adolescence. I remember an old friend who used to tell me “it can’t be considered alcoholism until after we graduate college.”
3. Appearance, media and lifestyle
When someone becomes addicted to a substance or behavior they begin to build a life around their addiction. It’s the most important thing in their lives, their one true love. This will have an inevitable and usually significant impact on their choice in clothing, their choices in media and their lifestyle in general.
An environmentalist is someone whose lifestyle is built around being good to the Earth. There are those who might be considered recreational environmentalists, for whom environmental preservation is one of a number of interests, and there are those who are more passionate. When an environmentalist goes to buy a new car are they more likely to look at a Prius or a Land Rover? The choice will be the one that corresponds most directly with their personal interests and passions.
In the same way, a recreational user will generally have things that are more important than drugs or alcohol in their lives and their lifestyle correspond. A full-blown addict will make every decision, every day, with their addiction first in their mind.
“My loved one may be an addict. What do I do now?”
If you’ve gotten to this point in the article it’s possible that you’ve experienced the progressive sinking sensation in your stomach that often accompanies noticing a number of signs of addiction in your own life or the life of a loved one. So now what? Here are three next steps to take.
1. Involve an addiction professional
Talking to a therapist or a treatment center about the behaviors you’ve observed will often shed a lot of light on what the next step might be. For some clients in-patient treatment will be needed, for others out-patient might be the next step.
2. Start attending Al-Anon meetings
Al-Anon is the sister fellowship to Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find answers about the nature of addiction and also some great tips for addressing some of the ways that the family system is supporting the addiction.
So far I’ve yet to find an addict whose family didn’t support the addiction in some way. Whether by making threats to not follow through, helping them avoid the crises and natural consequences of their behavior, or giving them money to “pay rent” and the like. These things are often done unwittingly, but they keep the addict stuck in addiction. Al-Anon can help you identify these things.
3. Organize an intervention
I advocate the use of an intervention only with the help of a professional who is trained and experienced with interventions, and only when the situation is life-threatening. Generally an intervention has serious and significant consequences. Sometimes these are good consequences, but frequently they are not. And generally speaking you won’t get a second chance to launch an effective intervention.
I’ve read estimates that 50% of the world population is impacted directly by addiction. I think that’s probably low. If addiction is part of your journey right now, it’s my sincere hope that these tools will be useful to you in finding the next step along your path.