Public health experts estimate one in ten people suffer from some form of addiction. Addiction doesn’t include just the typical substances of alcohol, prescription pills, and illicit drugs. Gambling, sex and pornography addicts suffer terribly as well. With those staggering statistics, it’s highly probable someone in your family may have an addiction problem and is desperate for intervention and support.
To assist, you need to know what addiction is and how to recognize the signs a loved one is reaching out for help.
In order to know the signs a loved one needs help, it’s necessary to understand what addiction is and how it operates. This will allow you, as the family member or loved one, to be clear on the root causes of addiction. It will also help you to better grasp the complete scope of the issue.
First and foremost, it needs to be understood that addiction is a disease. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines addiction as “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming behavior and/or substance.”
Addiction is a complex disorder. Those who suffer from addiction, and the loved ones around them, may have tremendous difficulty understanding what they’re up against as they try to find a way to overcome the disease of addiction. For many who find themselves stuck in the seemingly never-ending cycle of addiction, the magnitude of what they’re up against can feel overwhelming.
In order to understand the concept of drug addiction as a disease, it’s necessary to know about the disease model of addiction. According to the disease model, addiction is a brain disease that’s characterized by altered brain structure and functioning. These brain abnormalities cause people to become addicted to substances and activities revolving around the use of substances. It considers addiction irreversible once acquired. However, irreversible doesn’t mean uncontrollable.
The concept of addiction being a disease has only been around for a few decades. Before the disease model of addiction evolved, people viewed addiction as a moral or spiritual failing and addicts were seen in a dismal light. As research into addiction progressed in the 1930s, there was a gradual shift in the understanding of addiction as a whole. Once the disease model of addiction was created, those suffering from addiction were viewed in a more humane light, and the overall message that intervention, treatment, and recovery are possible became accepted.
The disease model of addiction is the common framework now used by addiction professionals. This philosophy guides advocacy efforts and treatment programming. There have been huge advances regarding how addiction is managed as a whole.
For example, it’s known that chronic drug and alcohol use alters brain chemistry and functioning. There are many studies showing people who suffer from substance addiction often have neurological and biological differences that were present before addiction occurred. Environmental influences, such as how a person was raised, family history of substance use and other triggers, play additional roles in the onset and course of addiction disease.
Looking at addiction as a disease helps addicts, and the loved ones around them, feel empowered to get help and make the changes necessary to improve their condition and regain their physical and psychological health. While it’s true that addiction is both chronic and progressive — it will worsen over time — a person’s condition can improve with the proper interventions. As with diseases like cancer and diabetes, addiction typically requires lifetime monitoring and additional help in order to keep it in check.
Lastly, when people look at addiction as a disease, they understand its overwhelming effect on lives and that the addict lacks the ability to quit on their own. By viewing addiction as a disease, people are better able to understand that no one sets out to be an addict. Through intensive therapy and support, the addict can address and overcome their addiction and live a healthier and happier life.
Addicts are usually the first to know of the addiction problem, often subconsciously. Often, they cry out for help from their loved ones. These cries come in many forms, and it’s vital to know the signs of when a loved one needs help.
Recognizing Signs a Loved One Needs Help
Being able to appropriately support a loved one begins with recognition. This means knowing the warning signs and symptoms of addiction. Here are ten common signs of addictive behavior:
- Noticeable fluctuations in mood
- Fluctuating levels of sleep and energy
- Secretiveness and evasiveness
- Frequent lying and dishonesty
- Unexplainable weight gain or loss
- Frequent absences from work or other obligations
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Frequent unexplained disappearances
- Unusual changes in appearance and attitude
- Valuables start to disappear mysteriously
The above are the red flags that say your loved one needs help. These signs often present themselves together over time to paint a clearer picture of potential addiction.
- Noticeable fluctuations in mood: With addicts, moods shift rapidly from one extreme to the other — usually without any reasonable explanation. Keep in mind, though, that mood swings can also be a sign of other disorders. An addiction treatment specialist can assess whether your loved one may have a mental health issue that needs to be addressed in addition to addiction.
- Fluctuations in sleep or energy levels: Addicts can seem lethargic or fatigued. They take frequent naps one day then appear practically manic the next, needing little or no sleep. Some drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamines, are stimulants. Others, like benzodiazepines and other types of depressants, make the person drowsy.
- Secretiveness and evasiveness: People facing substance abuse are often extremely secretive in their behavior. They go to great lengths to hide their addiction. They may require more privacy and be evasive when you ask them questions about where they’ve been or why they’re acting in an unusual manner.
- Frequent lying: Along the same lines of being secretive, many addicts will flat-out lie to keep you in the dark and prevent you from interfering.
- Unexplainable weight gain or loss: Many substances interfere with appetite and metabolism, causing the person to eat more than usual or burn calories at a faster rate. Additionally, an addiction to food (which is almost always hidden) often leads to significant weight gain over time. Illicit drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, are classic contributors to sudden and drastic weight loss.
- Frequent absences from work or other obligations: Addicts often miss work or school. This may be due to feeling ill from a hangover or drug binge, spending time indulging in their addiction, losing track of time or no longer caring about their responsibilities.
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy: Most addicts devote an increasing amount of time to their addiction. They no longer have time for, or interest in, friends, family functions, hobbies or other activities that were once important. If your loved one suddenly starts withdrawing socially or declining invitations, it’s another indicator that addiction treatment may be necessary.
- Frequent unexplained disappearances: This is another area where lying comes into play. Addicts don’t want you to know what they’re doing or where they’re going, so they become secretive or evasive when you ask. They make up cover stories that don’t quite fit, leaving you uneasy and suspicious.
- Unusual changes in appearance or attitude: Addictions significantly impact the person’s life — including how they spend their time, who they spend it with (which may include wearing a certain type of clothing in order to fit in) and their attitude about life in general. If your once sweet and cooperative teenager suddenly becomes cocky and disagreeable, an addiction may be the cause.
- Valuables start to disappear mysteriously: Whether they are things that belong to the addict or to their loved ones, individuals facing addictions may sometimes start to steal, sell or trade whatever they can in order to secure their next fix. Prior to this, you may notice they’re always short on cash. The majority of addictions cost money, and they’ll need more and more of it to support their habit.
By knowing the signs and symptoms of addiction, you may now see clear signs a loved one is reaching out for help.
You must understand that no one wants to be an addict. No one sets out to become addicted to their behavior, whether it’s an alcohol dependency, a prescription pill addiction, illicit drug use, a hardcore gambling habit or spending hours fixated on sexual activities, fantasies or watching pornography.
The person’s behavior alone will send clear signals — providing you know what to look for. They may leave a trail of evidence you can pick up on, even if their addiction blinders are solidly shut.
It’s the ones closest to the addict who are in the best position to see the reach for help, and addicts will signal it in many ways. Here are the ten most common signs of an addict’s cry for help:
- Heightened tolerance
- Deceptive behavior
- Deterioration in appearance
- Forgetting their actions and words
- Financial struggles
- Risky behavior
- Moody and unpredictable
- Shifting from being responsible to barely getting by
- Worsening mental health
These are red flags that your loved one is facing addiction and is subconsciously or consciously crying out for help. Intervention may be imperative.
- Heightened tolerance: They need a lot more alcohol, prescription pain medication or street drugs — whatever their substance of choice might be — to get the effect they’re seeking. You might notice they’re filling a prescription more often, or buying an extra case of beer more often. This is because, as an addiction escalates, tolerance develops and the body requires more of the drug just to feel “normal.”
- Deceptive behavior: The addict will try to disguise their behavior. They might do this by hiding bottles of alcohol, showing up at events already intoxicated so they don’t appear to drink too much in public, or hiding prescription medications in unmarked bottles so you can’t identify them as addictive substances.
- Deterioration in appearance: A person facing addiction will have a noticeable deterioration in appearance. An addict has one goal each day, which is to get the substance fix they need. As this need becomes more pressing, other needs get left by the wayside. Their clothes may appear disheveled. They may shave less often. They might appear tired and haggard much of the time. Women often try to disguise this with more makeup.
Remember, however, that an addict will put enormous effort into hiding their problem, so a decline in appearance may not occur until the later stages of addiction.
- Forgetting what they did or said: It’s common for heavy substance abusers to experience blackouts or brownouts. These are periods of time that the addict cannot recall. They might have a hazy recall or no recall of events that occurred when they were intoxicated. You might remark on something they said or did at a party and they look utterly baffled. This is a sign of serious substance abuse, especially if it occurs more than once or twice.
- Financial struggles: They are having money problems that can’t be explained. Addicts can be adept at manipulating others to feed their addiction, but, eventually, the cost of substance abuse catches up to them and they can no longer hide dire financial straits. If someone is wealthy, this sign can take a lot of time to show up, which may mean their addiction can progress to a much more serious stage before they feel financial pressure to find a solution.
If you’ve been supporting the addict with money, be aware that you may be feeding their addiction.
- Risky behavior: Addicts can experience an unusual number of accidents and injuries. Or, they may miss the accident, but end up with a DUI. If your loved one gets one DUI, that’s a problem. Two DUIs indicates a much bigger problem. Generally, normal drinkers get the message with one mistake. Those who get repeated DUIs get them because they cannot stop themselves from drinking. Once they have that first drink, they lose the ability to control their intake.
For prescription drug addicts, they may have real injuries, or they may begin to “manufacture” pain to get more medication. As addiction progresses, the addict has less regard for their physical health. They may become more “accident prone” and show signs such as bruises or unexplained injuries.
- Moody and unpredictable: Addicts exhibit irrational behavior and mood swings. Being around an addict can be like riding a roller coaster. They will often overreact, particularly to even the slightest mention of their drinking or drug use. You never know if they’ll be angry, depressed, happy, elated, miserable, hostile or any number of other intense emotions.
Often, their mood is determined by when they last used, how much they used if they are in withdrawal or if they are nursing a hangover. Once the addiction has a total grip on a person, their mood is determined by the availability of their substance of choice, sufficient opportunities to use it and how adeptly they maintain sufficient intoxication to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
- From being responsible to just getting by: Previously responsible people that are now late to work, sleeping too much or whose grades are slipping are exhibiting signs of addiction. Usually, if you’ve known a person for a while, you’ll recognize certain baseline behaviors. This person was very responsible, rarely calls in sick to work or always does well in school. Now, something’s changed. If you know the baseline, changes in behavior can be a wake-up call.
- Isolating themselves: Addicts start to isolate, preferring to be alone at home. Does your loved one avoid doing things they used to love, particularly things that involved other people? Isolating is a common behavior as addiction progresses. They may only want to be around others who use substances the way they do, so they narrow their social circle to other substance abusers. Or, they may have found it’s just easier to get the level of intoxication they want by staying home and indulging. To the addict, other people are in their way.
- Worsening mental health problems: Mental health issues that were once mild may appear much worse. Your loved one possibly got a little down or had some mild anxiety, but as the addiction progressed, mental health challenges become magnified. Depression may deepen dramatically. Or, the anxious person might start having panic attacks or develop phobias or paranoid behavior.
Alcohol and drugs are often ways of self-medicating for real emotional or psychological issues, but they are a poor solution and usually serve only to exacerbate underlying mental health struggles.
Addiction Myths That Prevent Proper Treatment
The biggest obstacle to addiction treatment is denial. Any attempt to address substance abuse behavior is often met with outright hostility that a loved one could suggest such a thing. This attitude is encouraged by a number of factors. As a society, we still incorrectly look at addiction as a moral failing, and the addict who is confronted about their problem feels threatened. What would they do if they didn’t have their drink or drug of choice? How could they handle life? It is effectively perceived as a threat against their ability to survive.
It’s crucial to understand that you can rarely just ask someone if they have a problem with alcohol or drugs and get a straight answer. Most likely, you will have to do a little detective work and figure out on your own if your loved one needs an addiction intervention.
This is where dispelling the myths about addiction become necessary. Here are the five main myths:
- Overcoming addiction is a matter of willpower
- There’s nothing that can be done about the disease of addiction
- An addict has to hit rock bottom before being able to get better
- You can’t force someone into treatment — they have to want help
- Treatment didn’t work before, so there’s no point trying again
Once you are able to debunk common addiction myths, you can better understand your role in caring for your loved one who is seeking help for addiction. This leads to better empowerment and a willingness to be involved in developing an intervention and treatment plan for your loved one.
- Overcoming addiction is simply a matter of willpower: They can stop using substances if they really want to. Prolonged exposure to substances alters the brain in ways that result in powerful cravings and a compulsion to use. These brain changes make it extremely difficult to quit by sheer force of will.
- Addiction is a disease — there’s nothing that can be done about it: Experts agree that addiction is a disease that affects the brain, but that doesn’t mean anyone is a helpless victim. The brain changes associated with addiction can be treated and reversed through therapy, medication, exercise, and other treatments.
- Addicts have to hit rock bottom before they can get better: Recovery can begin at any point in the addiction process. The earlier, the better. The longer drug abuse continues, the stronger the addiction becomes and the harder it is to treat. Don’t wait to intervene until the addict has lost everything.
- You can’t force someone into treatment — they have to want help: Treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be successful. People who are pressured into treatment by their family, employer or the legal system are just as likely to benefit as those who choose to enter treatment on their own. As they sober up and their thinking clears, many formerly resistant addicts decide they want to change.
- Treatment didn’t work before, so there’s no point trying again: Recovery from drug addiction is a long process that often involves setbacks. Relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed, or that sobriety is a lost cause. Rather, it’s a signal to get back on track, either by going back to treatment or adjusting the treatment approach.
Seeking Addiction Treatment
Once you’ve recognized the signs that a loved one needs help, and you understand that addiction is a disease that can be treated, it’s imperative you take action. Remember: virtually all addicts reach out for help as long as you’re willing to give it.
But do not overreact. A loved one facing addiction needs your support — not your judgment, your lecturing, your impatience, your intolerance or your criticism. A loved one who is an addict needs your full attention and your reassurance that you’re there for them and will work with them to treat their addiction and help them recover from the disease.
Do not try to speculate or explore motives for the addiction. Your goal is not to convince your loved one that they have a problem, but that you believe they have one and your belief is based on their observable behaviors.
Engage in dialogue with your loved one and encourage other members of your loved one’s circle of trusted friends and family to join in. Make sure the dialogue is constructive, not combative, that it’s two-way, and not done while the person is intoxicated.
Recognize there’s no quick fix to addiction. Be prepared for the long haul and accept there’s bound to be a bumpy road with room for relapses.
Be prepared for professional treatment. Addiction is a serious medical and mental illness, and it needs to be properly assessed. A long-term treatment program prescribed and overseen by a professional practitioner or a team of professionals is critical.
And, above all, ensure you’re delivering a consistent, positive message that you care about your loved one and you want to help. Delivering that help starts with recognizing the signs that a loved one is reaching out for help.
The Next Step
If you suspect your loved one is reaching out for help, please don’t ignore it. You and your loved one are not alone. Contact JourneyPure At The River for more information on how to tell if a loved one needs help for an addiction.
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From the JourneyPure team where we get to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. With years of experience working alongside those suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues, we bring important messages with unparalleled knowledge of addiction, mental health problems, and the issues they cause.