No one sets out to be an addict. Addiction happens over time, unintentionally, often without the substance abuser knowing.
Of course, it’s well known that recovery only begins when the person with an addiction recognizes the problem and wants change. However, it may take a “wake up call” from a close family member or friend to get them to see their addiction for what it is.
If you suspect that your friend or family member is struggling with substance abuse, you will want evidence to point to during an intervention as the person is likely to be defensive. Here are some common signs and symptoms you may observe and bring to their attention:
Physical Signs of Addiction
- Broken capillaries
Many drugs, alcohol included, are vasodilators—they increase the diameter of small vessels to allow increased blood flow. Over time, vessels walls weaken, allowing blood to seep closer to the skin. What you see are small red threads, usually on the tip of the nose and the cheeks.
- Track marks
If a person is using injection drugs, like heroin, small red marks where a needle has been repeatedly inserted and/or vessels broken by the pressure of the initial injection surge develop. Track marks are usually seen on the forearms, but users who have been conscious of trying to hide their injection drug use from the beginning may have shot up on the lower leg.
- Significant weight loss or gain
Some drugs suppress appetite. Some drugs increase appetite or have a lot of calories in them themselves (e.g. alcohol). Consequently, use over time may present as noticeable weight loss or weight gain (without any other lifestyle change—i.e. without the person trying to lose or gain weight).
- Complaints of physical symptoms
Prescription and illicit drugs have physical side effects, even in early stages of (ab)use, so you may hear your loved one mentioning:
- Stomach/abdominal pains or upset
These are common complaints, so it is important to consider the bigger context in which they come up before counting them as a symptom of a drug problem.
Behavioral Signs of Addiction
- Mood swings
Drugs affect the way the brain works, often by interfering with pain receptors or by stimulating pleasure centers. A person’s mood may shift as the drug takes effect and tapers off and as brain chemistry changes in response to long-term (ab)use.
Many people with substance abuse issues display depression, irritability and/or euphoria that are not easily explained by surrounding life circumstances.
People with substance abuse problems are aware that their behavior is not condoned by their family, friends or society at large, so they’ll often try to hide it. Hiding it may require covering up where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, etc. Sometimes, they may not be careful enough with the details, so you may actually catch them in a lie.
There are a number of types of withdrawal you may notice in a friend or family member struggling with substance abuse:
- Physical withdrawal when their body is deprived of the substance too long
- Emotional withdrawal from people who have historically been close to them
- Disinterest in hobbies or topics that used to interest them
- Decreased performance at school or work
Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on what’s happening, but it seems like you are watching your loved one become a shell of who they once were right before your eyes.
- Change in social group
If you are a friend of the person with a substance abuse problem, a change in social group may mean that your friend is outright distancing themselves from you. However, it may also mean that they are developing new social networks that exclude you and of which you may not approve (i.e. you know they’re a “bad crowd”). Family members may not be directly affected by a change in social grouping but notice a change in who comes around and who your loved one goes out with.
What to Do If You See Signs of Addiction in Your Loved One
Some of the signs of addiction, like headaches, insomnia, mood swings and social withdrawal, are also signs of other issues—e.g., illness, stress, grief or trauma. Some signs, like changes in what interests a person or who they hang out with, may simply be part of adolescence or identity testing in light of some other personal experience. So, it may be hard to know whether or not you’re really seeing addiction develop in a loved one.
Duke City Recovery Toolbox offers help for friends and family affected by substance abuse, too. Our services include education on the addiction process and family counseling. We can help you better discern physical and behavioral signs of addiction vs. normal changes, and we can help you prepare for an intervention if your loved one truly does have a substance abuse problem. We can help you develop the skills you may need to be effective as your loved one’s recovery support system and cope with the emotional toll of your loved one’s substance abuse.
Contact us to speak to a member of our clinical team to learn more about support services for family and friends.