Some years ago, when print newspapers were still the norm, a local newspaper featured an editorial about a man who suspected that his wife was addicted to drugs. She was neglecting her personal grooming, she wasn’t eating or sleeping and her eyes were bloodshot. Her moods changed abruptly, and she had started to ignore phone calls from friends.
It must be drugs, her husband thought. Unless it wasn’t. She had gone through a great deal of stress over the previous year: a close family member had died in an accident and she had miscarried a baby. In those circumstances, wouldn’t most people stop eating, sleeping and taking care of themselves? Wouldn’t it be normal to stop wanting to be around people? The husband had a gut-feel that there was more than grief at play, but without evidence of actual drugs, he didn’t know what to do.
This is a conundrum faced by people every day, when they are sure that a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addicts often become very good at hiding their addictions from others, and as the husband in the story realized, addiction shares symptoms with grief, anxiety, mental illness and a host of other things. Nobody wants to confront a friend or family member with untrue allegations of substance abuse. Nor does anyone want to sit back and let a big problem get even bigger.
So how is it possible to tell whether someone has an addiction problem? Of course, the only way to know for sure is if the person actually admits it, but there are some warning signs that loved ones can look for. These are roughly divided into physical, behavioural and psychological signs, with some degree of overlap between these categories.
Drug and alcohol addiction can lead to changes in appearance (for instance, sudden weight loss) or have a detrimental effect on the addict’s health. The physical warning signs include the following:
- Eyes may become bloodshot, or the pupils may seem unnaturally small or large
- The individual sleeps too much or too little, may have trouble waking up, or suffers from nightmares
- A sudden change in weight may or may not be accompanied by changes to the person’s usual eating patterns
- Personal grooming deteriorates, resulting in declining physical appearance and odours on the person’s body or clothing
- Physical coordination suffers: the individual might become clumsy and speech might become slurred or disjointed
The physical changes are accompanied by changes in behaviour, including the following:
- There is increased unexplained absenteeism from work, school or other commitments
- Performance at work or school declines, and the individual pays less attention to detail when performing daily tasks
- The individual literally starts to beg, borrow or steal money without providing an explanation
- The person engages in furtive activity and gets angry or defensive when asked about it
- The person loses interest in friends and family, choosing to spend more time alone
- Acts of aggression or impulsiveness get the person into trouble with teachers, work managers or peers
Finally, there are psychological warning signs. These include the following:
- There are sudden personality changes, as the person becomes uncharacteristically aggressive or garrulous
- The person experiences intense and ever-increasing mood swings or angry outbursts
- The individual may seem hypervigilant or agitated
- The individual may appear to be either lethargic or hyperactive
- The person may been paranoid or anxious for no discernible reason
If a loved one is displaying several of these symptoms, it may be time to talk to them about your concerns. If necessary, you can make arrangements for a professional intervention. Conversations of this nature are never easy, but it is better to broach the subject and be wrong than to say nothing and watch a tragedy unfold.