5 Signs Your Loved One Needs Substance Abuse Treatment

It can be devastating to watch a family member struggle with drug addiction, but it can be just as devastating not to know that they are struggling in the first place. If your loved one has a drug addiction, learning to recognize the signs of addiction can be critical to overcoming your own denial and guiding your family member toward substance abuse treatment. By enlisting the help of supports within the recovery community, you can better navigate the road to recovery for both you and your loved one.

Denial is a powerful thing. Our desire for our loved ones to be okay can be so strong that we suspend disbelief and deny even what is right in front of us in order to make reality align with that desire. Denial is how we cope with things too overwhelming to face. But when your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, overcoming that denial is necessary in order for healing to begin.

“It’s not like I didn’t know he was using drugs,” Monica tells me. “It was impossible to deny he was using. But something in my mind kept me from acknowledging that he wasn’t just a drug user, he was an addict.” But as her 27-year-old son, David, began falling deeper into addiction, denial became more difficult to maintain. “In many ways I was lucky. That might be a strange thing to say, but I feel lucky that I was able to get out of denial before I was forced out by something like an arrest or an overdose. Because of that, I was able to get my son into treatment and he’s been sober for 2 years now. The end of my denial was the start of a new life for both of us.”

Research continuously shows that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes, which means seeing through the fog of denial to recognize addiction as soon as possible is imperative to setting your loved one up for success. If you suspect that your loved one is struggling with addiction, recognizing the signs that they need substance abuse treatment can mark the beginning of recovery and open up the door to sustainable healing.

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Recognizing Five Major Signs of Addiction

In some people, addiction is clear. You find your loved one’s drugs, and you can tell when they’re high. Maybe you’ve even had to come to the rescue when they’re arrested for drunk driving or taken to the ER for an overdose. In these cases, addiction reveals itself openly.

But in other cases, addiction isn’t as obvious. Rather than existing in plain sight, addiction hides. In fact, your loved one may work very hard at keeping their addiction from you, particularly if they are in the early stages of the disease. If you think that your family member is experiencing addiction but do not yet have definitive proof, here are some signs to look for.

Changes in Mood and Behavior

Drug use can produce significant changes in mood and behavior owing to the way they act on critical neurotransmitters in the brain. Even people who were once emotionally stable can become unpredictable and emotionally volatile, particularly as they come down and go into withdrawal. Your loved one may become depressed, paranoid, withdrawn, and combative; as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) points out, “Recurrent arguments or fights with family members [are common]. People struggling with addiction are known to act out against those closest to them.” On the other side of the spectrum, they may exhibit unusual elation, energy, and sociability when high.

Poor Work and Academic Performance

Drug abuse can lead to absenteeism, as your loved one’s drug use diminishes their ability to attend work or school. Even if they are able to get to where they are supposed to be, their motivation and ability to think clearly and logically can be significantly impaired, leading to poor performance.

Secretive Behavior

Drug addicts often devote significant time and energy to keeping their drug use hidden from view. They may lie about where they spend their time, who they are hanging out with, and how they are spending their money. It can be tempting to let little lies go, try to explain them away as misunderstandings, or even to simply believe them due to your own desire for denial. But when lies become a consistent pattern, your loved one is trying to hide something from you. “Rarely are people truthful about their addiction,” explains Steven Gifford, a counselor specializing in addiction treatment. “Family members often know that something is going on, but even when they confront or approach the addicted individual about the problem, the person will deny having a problem—most often because he or she is in denial about even having a problem.” In a sense, addiction may be a secret even to your family member.

Loss of Interest

When addiction takes hold, it pushes other things out of the way to make room for itself at the center of someone’s life. As the Help Guide says, “Your life revolves around drug use [and] you spend a lot of time using and thinking about drugs, figuring out how to get them, and recovering from the effects of drugs.” This often means that they lose interest in even things they used to enjoy, including family, friends, and hobbies.

Physical Symptoms

There are a number of signs of drug addiction that can be observed physically. This can include significant weight loss or gain, as drugs can significantly impact appetite, metabolism, and level of physical activity. Your loved one may also experience physical withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, nausea, and gastrointestinal upset. For some, addiction also means neglecting self-care and grooming, leading to an unkempt appearance. However, this is not the case for everyone; the fact that your loved one doesn’t “look like an addict” doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling with substance abuse.

Guiding Your Loved One to Substance Abuse Treatment

If you recognize the signs of addiction in your loved one, the next step is to guide them into treatment. Of course, this is often not a straightforward process, as most addicts remain in denial, fear treatment, or want to maintain your own denial so as to spare you from pain. However, the earlier your loved one seeks substance abuse treatment, the better their chances are of recovery.

Before you talk to your loved one, it is helpful to explore substance abuse treatment options to determine what you feel is the best place for your loved one to turn for help. By learning about what to look for in a drug rehab center and connecting with a treatment facility that meets your criteria, you will be able to immediately offer meaningful resources for your loved one should they choose to pursue treatment.

When you are ready, choose a time and place that affords you privacy and bring up your concerns in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental manner. Ensure your loved one that you realize this is an illness, not a character flaw, and that you are worried about their emotional and physical health. Avoid placing blame or shaming them. Instead, tell them that you support them, ask what you can do to help, and talk to them about the program you have selected. If you do not feel comfortable initiating this conversation yourself, you can enlist the help of a professional intervention specialist who will work with you to create a positive, healing intervention experience that nurtures you as a family. The treatment program you have chosen should be able to refer you to an experienced, compassionate interventionist.

Begin Your Recovery Journey Today


Your loved one may not agree to treatment the first time you talk to them. They may not admit their addiction. This is normal and is often part of the road to sobriety. What’s important is letting them know that you love them, are concerned for them, and have resources available when they are ready to take the next steps toward recovery.

In the meantime, you can practice self-care by seeking your own supports via individual therapy as well as support groups for families of addicts, such as Al-Anon. Such resources can be vital to help you process your own feelings about and experiences of your loved one’s addiction and show you that you are not alone in your struggle. Indeed, there is a broad community out there full of people who know what you are going through and are ready to offer you the help you need to cope with each stage of your loved one’s addiction and recovery. By drawing on the strength of the recovery community, you can ensure that you navigate the road to recovery in a way that nurtures both you and your loved one and brings you both closer to healing.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned suite of programs and how we can help you or your loved one take the next steps on the journey toward wellness.