How to Tell if Someone Is Using Drugs
Drug abuse isn’t always easy to identify. While some people display obvious signs of use from the early stages (constant fatigue, erratic behavior, self-isolation or unexplained weight loss), others successfully hide their addiction for years. Finding out whether someone you care about is using drugs could take time and patience. Once you’ve confirmed your suspicions, you’ll need compassion and sensitivity to help your friend or family member face up to the problem.
Denial is often so powerful that not even the addict’s closest loved ones are willing to confront a drug user. Fear is another factor that keeps people from talking to their loved ones about drugs — they may be scared of losing a relationship or being attacked by a hostile addict. But the steps you take to stop someone in your life from using drugs may make the difference between whether or not he survives this crisis.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug and alcohol abuse are two of the leading causes of mortality in the United States, accounting for up to 25 percent of preventable deaths. Talking to someone you love about drug abuse isn’t about interfering with her personal freedom or trying to judge his lifestyle choices. It’s about trying to stop an overdose, accidental injury or suicide before it happens.
Detecting the Signs of Addiction
No one wants to feel like they’re spying on somebody they care for. But if you’re concerned about whether a loved one is using drugs, you will probably need to play detective.
There are a number of behavioral red flags that can alert you to the possibility of drug use:
- They may have fluctuations in energy, appearing exhausted one day and exuberant the next for no apparent reason.
- They may start keeping irregular hours, sleeping all day and staying up late at night.
- They may have unpredictable mood swings, ranging from depression or anger to hilarity and joy.
- They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy or friendships they used to value.
- They may seem unmotivated to attend classes or to go to work.
- They may ask to borrow cash more frequently or mysteriously run out of money to pay their bills.
- They may suddenly become secretive about their plans and be reluctant to tell you where they’re spending their time.
- They may change their wardrobe, either to fit in with a new social crowd or to conceal signs of drug use, such as track marks on their arms.
Sudden physical changes can point to drug abuse. Someone who’s using drugs may lose interest in her appearance and neglect her grooming and hygiene. Or he might show some of the following signs of poor health, even though he’s not actually ill:
- Unplanned weight loss or gain
- Bloodshot eyes
- Poor muscular coordination
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Unexplained bruises, scratches or lesions
- A constant runny nose or nosebleeds
- Strange odors on their body or clothing
- Slurred speech
Drugs can cause profound psychological changes, affecting moods and emotions as well as physical appearance and behavior. Although it’s natural to be moody at times, especially in the teenage years, these emotional changes might indicate an underlying drug problem:
- Dramatic mood swings
- Violent outbursts
- Paranoia or fear
- Sudden depression
- Unexplained laughter or hysteria
Changes in behavior or mood don’t always indicate that someone is using drugs. As you observe your loved one, look for more than one sign before you jump to conclusions. You might notice evidence around the house, like drug paraphernalia, strange packets or empty prescription bottles. You might notice that medications or money are missing. Your teenager might wear t-shirts with drug or alcohol slogans. Your spouse or child might start having accidents that have no apparent cause.
Sometimes your intuition can be your best guide. If you have a strong, gut feeling that someone close to you has started to engage in destructive behavior, that feeling is worth investigating. Substance abuse is often progressive, and many casual users quickly find themselves falling into addiction. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence advises that drug abuse should ideally be stopped in its early stages, before recreational use turns into physical dependence and addiction.
Effects of Commonly Used Drugs
Substance abuse can reveal itself in different ways, depending on the chemical being used. While some users stick with a single drug, many engage in poly-drug abuse, using multiple substances to experience new sensations or to balance out the side effects of one particular drug. An awareness of the way different substances affect the user will help you recognize abuse early:
- Stimulants. Drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and the prescription drug Ritalin stimulate the central nervous system. People who abuse stimulants are often seeking increased energy, enhanced mental focus and emotional euphoria. Stimulants accelerate the body’s vital functions, such as heartbeat, respiration and metabolism. Signs of stimulant abuse include weight loss, restlessness, sweating, aggressive behavior, facial flushing, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia and an upset stomach. Continued abuse of stimulants can cause serious cardiovascular complications, including heart attack and stroke.
- Depressants. Central nervous system depressants are prescribed by doctors throughout the US to relieve anxiety, promote sleep and prevent muscle spasms or seizures. According to the American Family Physician, four drugs in the family of benzodiazepines, a common class of tranquilizers, are among the most frequently prescribed drugs. Because drugs like Xanax, Ativan and Valium are found in so many medicine cabinets around the country, they are easily misused. Other sedatives include barbiturates and sleep medications. Side effects of depressant abuse include drowsiness, a lack of motor coordination, memory loss, confusion, dizziness and slurred speech. An overdose of depressants can make the heart rate and respiration dangerously slow, leading to unconsciousness, coma and death.
- Opiates. Opiates derive their name from “opium,” a narcotic that occurs naturally in the opium poppy. Opiates are either produced from opium itself, or they are synthetically designed to replicate the effects of opium. These central nervous depressants are highly addictive, and abuse can cause a deadly overdose. Whether your loved one is using a street opiate like heroin or a synthetic prescription opiate like oxycodone, recreational use can quickly lead to physical dependence and addiction. Signs of opiate abuse include drowsiness, pallor, pinpoint pupils, sweating, muscle cramps, bone pain, nausea and constipation. When the user can’t have access to opiates, she might experience flu-like withdrawal symptoms, including a runny nose, shaking, chills and diarrhea. Needle marks on the arms may indicate that your loved one is injecting opiates, an especially dangerous practice that promotes the transmission of bloodborne diseases.
- Psychedelic drugs (hallucinogens). Often found at underground parties, raves and nightclubs, hallucinogenic drugs have a mind-altering effect on the user. Hallucinogenic drugs can create sensations of closeness and intimacy with others, but they can also cause terrifying delusions. This category of drugs includes LSD, peyote, mushrooms (psilocybin), ecstasy (MDMA) and PCP. More recently, psychoactive drugs have been produced in laboratories, often without any regulatory control. These designer drugs, such as 2C-I (known on the streets as “smiles”), are so new that the full scope of their effects remains unknown. Signs of abuse include sensory hallucinations, intense mood swings, overt sexual behavior, unexplained fear and panic. Long-term users may experience memory loss, flashbacks, anxiety and severe depression.
Deciding When and How to Intervene
As soon as you make the decision to investigate another person’s drug use, you should prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll need to intervene. Many users will not stop on their own, even if they’re aware of the harm that they’re doing to themselves and others. The best time to get involved is in the early stages of drug use, when the user still has some level of control over his or her choices. By the time recreational use turns into addiction, your loved one’s substance abuse will have become compulsive and involuntary.
There’s never a perfect time to talk with someone about drugs. However, people make excuses for their loved ones in order to put off a confrontation: “She’s under so much stress right now,” “He’s only going through an experimental phase,” or “It’s just a teenage rite of passage.” In fact, a confrontation may be what it takes to motivate a user to stop.
The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment outlines the stages that addicts typically go through before they will give up drugs:
- Precontemplation: The user is not yet aware that he or she has a problem and has not seriously thought about stopping.
- Contemplation: The user is still undecided about quitting, but he or she is aware of the problem and has thought about giving it up.
- Preparation: A commitment has been made to stop using drugs, but the addict may still be actively using.
- Action. The user has set his or her plan in motion by taking the first steps toward change.
- Maintenance. The addict continues to work to maintain sobriety and avoid a relapse.
- Relapse. The user experiences a recurrence of the cravings or emotions that led to addictive behavior and backslides into drug use. Relapse is not necessarily permanent; in fact, most recovering addicts will experience at least one relapse when they’re trying to make serious changes in their lives, and many will return to sobriety.
Intervention often takes place during the precontemplation or contemplation stages, when the user is still in complete or partial denial. Family members must understand that denial is a common symptom of substance abuse, and that a user who refuses help may be even further along in the process of addiction than she realizes.
An addiction counselor or mental health professional with a background in intervention can provide valuable support during this difficult time. An interventionist can help you plan your discussion in a safe, constructive way. An intervention can be an emotionally charged, unpredictable experience, but with professional guidance, you can maximize the benefits of the discussion and minimize the element of conflict.
What Happens Next?
There are many ways you can help someone you love overcome the disease of addiction. You can start by talking to him about drugs in an honest, compassionate manner. Let him know that you’re aware of his substance abuse, and that you’re there to help — not to judge. Have a treatment plan in place that will provide the level of care that he needs to get clean and sober.
- By educating yourself and your family about drug abuse
- By attending family counseling sessions, both with the user and on your own
- By creating a healthy, drug-free environment at home
- By being willing to face the possibility that you may be unconsciously enabling the user
The recovery process can bring a lot of hidden issues to the surface. As the user goes through detox and rehab, the entire family might have to confront problems like mental illness, physical abuse or sexual abuse. If other family members are using drugs or alcohol at home, their substance abuse will have to be addressed as well. Spouses, parents and children will have to realize that addiction rarely involves one individual; it’s a family disease.
Finding the right treatment facility is the key to a healthy recovery. Although you might feel under pressure to get your loved one into rehab — any rehab — your choice of a program can make all the difference in the world to their success. Look for a program that offers a thorough assessment of its clients’ needs, customized care plans and a full range of treatment services. In addition to serving the individual, the facility should have a commitment to treating the user’s family and partners.
Call the admissions team at Alta Mira to learn how our individually tailored rehab programs could restore hope for you and the people you love.