Science says that drug or alcohol addiction is a disease and not a choice. However, it can be difficult to empathize with a loved one who is struggling with addiction, as it often feels they are putting substance use above everything else in their life. You may ask yourself how you missed the warning signs and didn’t see your loved one’s substance use getting gradually worse. You may also wonder why your loved one can’t just put the bottle down or throw away the pills and return to a normal life.
Research shows that repeated drug use results in several adverse changes to the brain, including the area of the brain that regulates self-control. Over time, the body and brain become physically and psychologically dependent upon alcohol, drugs, or addictive behavior. Once addiction has set in, the addicted person will pursue harmful behavior habits not out of choice but out of need. This dependence is what makes addiction so hard to kick.
In an ideal situation, you would be able to identify addictive behaviors before addiction sets in. Unfortunately, a substance use disorder is rarely noticeable until a person is deep within its throes. At this point, the person may or may not believe they are struggling with addiction or may not be able to acknowledge this behavior publicly. To keep others from seeing what the addict views as a “defect” or “failure,” they may begin to hide their substance use behavior, making it even more difficult for loved ones to help.
Recognizing the Signs of Drug Addiction
Self-aware people who struggle with addiction may grow adept at hiding their behavior, but eventually, they will show outward signs of a substance use disorder. If you suspect that a loved one suffers from addiction and is abusing drugs or alcohol, look for a few red flags:
- Lapses in concentration or memory
- Unexplained or prolonged absences
- Staying up later than usual or sleeping in longer
- Ignoring responsibilities or commitments
- Lack of motivation
- Sudden mood swings or changes in behavior
- Changes in appearance, including weight loss, weight gain, and red eyes
- Lack of care about appearance
- Secretive behavior or outright lying
- Troubles at work, school or home
- Monetary issues
Signs of Addiction in Alcoholics
Though drug addiction and alcohol addiction are equally severe, loved ones may find it more difficult to confront the latter. This is due in large part to the fact that alcohol is legal and accessible, and because many consider drinking “socially acceptable.” Alcoholics use these facts to their advantage when confronted about their alcohol use and may even call out those who partake in social drinking as “hypocrites.” Despite a loved one’s denials, however, a few tell-tale signs can help you confirm the reality of their struggles with alcohol abuse and that it’s time to seek help. These signs include:
- Heavy drinking throughout the week
- Missing work because of frequent hangovers
- Drinking alone and/or at “unacceptable” times
- Episodes of violence or angry outbursts with little to no provocation
- Neglecting to eat
- Making excuses in order to drink
- Hostility when confronted about drinking
- Slurred speech
- The perpetual scent of alcohol on his or her person or breath
- Continuing to drink even though loved ones have expressed concern or frustration
- Frequent promises to stop drinking or reduce alcohol intake (and failure to keep those promises)
Functioning alcoholics are even more challenging to diagnose. Yet, addiction eventually catches up to everyone, even those who can maintain jobs and relationships despite their heavy drinking.
Diagnosing Substance Use Disorders
To diagnose a substance use disorder, a doctor or treatment provider will examine your loved one for symptoms that meet specific and scientific criteria that define the disease of addiction. One of the most effective tools for this type of diagnosis is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Not only can the symptoms listed in the DSM help diagnose addiction, but they can also help determine the extent or severity of the disease. These criteria include the following:
- Use Despite Desire to Limit: A patient wants to cut back but cannot.
- Lack of Control: The person uses the substance in larger amounts and for more extended periods than they intended.
- Cravings: The patient experiences an intense desire or urge to use the substance.
- Time Spent: A person will go to great lengths to acquire the substance.
- Relationship Issues: Intrapersonal relationships become strained due to drug or alcohol use.
- Loss of Interest: The user stops engaging in activities and social events that once appealed to them.
- Lack of Responsibility: Drugs or alcohol take priority over school, work, or social obligations.
- Tolerance: The user needs more of the substance to experience the desired effect.
- Dangerous Use: The patient abuses drugs or alcohol even though doing so puts them in dangerous circumstances (such as drinking and driving).
- Worsening Situations: The afflicted individual continues to drink or do drugs despite worsening physical or psychological issues.
- Withdrawal: When the person does stop use for any prolonged period, they experience symptoms of withdrawal, including irritability, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting.
These benchmarks are generally accepted and used by most professionals who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.
Staging an Intervention
Unfortunately, most addicted people are unwilling to acknowledge or accept a substance abuse disorder. This prompts many families to stage an intervention.
A drug or alcohol abuse intervention offers a controlled environment in which friends and family members can express their concerns and share their points of view regarding their loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse. It also serves as a platform for participants to explain the consequences of refusing to seek treatment.
Because the goal of an intervention is to encourage a loved one struggling with addiction to make positive changes before their circumstances get worse, participants should not use the process as a means of expressing anger or frustration regarding the abusive behavior. They should also not try to force their loved one into treatment against their wishes.
An intervention is not something you and your family should do on a whim or on their own. Any intervention should be carefully planned and overseen or directed by a licensed counselor or intervention specialist who is familiar with addictive behaviors. In addition to rehearsing what each participant will say, you should also anticipate objections and have prepared and rational responses for each. Finally, you should research and decide on several different treatment options to present to your loved one.
Treating a Substance Abuse Disorder
Alcoholism and drug addiction are severe conditions and are not easily treatable. The combination of cravings and dependency makes it difficult for people struggling with addiction to cease use, even when they see their behavior is causing issues with their relationships, financial situation, and health. Luckily, professional rehab programs can help.
Detoxification is the first step in the drug or alcohol abuse recovery process. The side effects of detox can be uncomfortable, painful, or even life-threatening depending upon the severity of the addiction. Medically supervised detox that involves round-the-clock support and care helps to keep the symptoms of withdrawal under control and helps to reduce the risk of relapse. For individuals withdrawing from alcohol, for example, medical supervision is essential to avoid life-threatening complications.
Upon the completion of detox, the most effective treatment programs utilize some form of behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy helps identify and treat underlying mental health challenges that may contribute to or exacerbate drug or alcohol use. It is not uncommon for individuals to turn to drugs or alcohol to try to self-medicate.
Finding Support After Rehab
Following detox and rehab, your loved one may benefit from joining a recovery support group. Some popular support groups include:
Prognosis for Recovery
With the right support system, and with professional intervention, it is possible to reach recovery. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, there’s no better time than now to help them begin treatment. Talk to an expert addiction specialist for help and guidance on getting them onto the road to recovery.
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