How to Deal with Addiction

Addiction doesn’t reflect poorly on you or your family—it’s a disease that we process and manage together, without judgment or stigma. Here’s some information to help you decide if your loved one is addicted, along with some helpful tips to approach the topic.
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Ways to Tell—and What to Do—if You're Worried That a Loved One Has Addiction

Addiction doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual process. Sometimes family members don't recognize the small changes that occur daily, weekly or monthly—or how family members adapt to these changes. Here are seven steps you can take to see through the chaos of addiction and find help for your family.

Notice your own behavior.

Try a quick gut check. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar?

  • Playing detective and trying to find where your loved one is hiding alcohol or other drugs
  • Constantly checking up on your loved one
  • Putting off plans with friends or family because you're not sure what condition your loved one will be in
  • Making excuses for your loved one's behavior or absence

With the best of intentions, families tend to cope with the fear and chaos of addiction by keeping secrets, finding scapegoats, and adopting other unhealthy behaviors: preoccupation, denial, enabling or blaming.

Recognize the signs of addiction.

Experts have identified telltale physical and behavioral signs of addiction to alcohol or other drugs:

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms

  • Always uses substance to intoxication
  • Uses substance at inappropriate times such as before driving, at work, or at school
  • Misses work or school
  • Damages relationships
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Steals or borrows money from work, home, or friends
  • Secretive, defensive behavior about activities and possessions
  • Unusual mood changes
  • Abrupt temper outbursts
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Changes in peer group or social group
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, pastimes, and hobbies
  • Aggressive or physical behavior
  • Money or valuables missing from home
  • Traveling to locations outside of normal range

Physical Signs and Symptoms

  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Slow or staggering walk
  • Inability to sleep or awake at unusual times
  • Unexplained bruises or marks
  • Glazed or red eyes
  • Pupils larger or smaller than usual, blank stare
  • Cold, sweaty palms or shaking hands
  • Puffy face, blushing or paleness
  • Extreme hyperactivity; excessive talkativeness
  • Runny nose, hacking cough
  • Needle marks on lower arm, leg or bottom of feet
  • Nausea, vomiting, or excessive sweating
  • Unusual nose bleeds
  • Unexplained breakout of acne/rash
  • Unusual odors
  • Low or no energy
  • Depressed or anxious
  • Deterioration of personal appearance or hygiene

You should also know that people with an addiction sometimes try to stop on their own. If so, you’ll see signs of withdrawal and patterns of reuse. Withdrawal from heavy and sustained use of substances can be dangerous; medical monitoring is needed in many cases. 

Stay detached, but with love.

When facing a loved one’s addiction, remember this: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. You can address the issue of alcohol or other drug addiction with your loved one, but any behavior change is up to them.

Consider other mental health issues.

About 8.9 million persons have co-occurring disorders; they have both a mental health and a substance use disorder such as depression and alcoholism. The relationship between the two is complex, but treatment is effective when medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and drug and alcohol counselors work as a team to unravel and diagnose the problem and tailor care.

Don’t judge.

Addiction is a disease. If your loved one had a heart attack, would you stand back and blame him for his diet or lack of exercise or weight control? Most likely, you would rush to help. Alcohol and drug addiction is just like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. It’s just as life-threatening if left untreated.

Begin the conversation and keep expectations low.

It’s not easy to know what to do or say, but the stakes are high—you may literally be saving a life. 

Keep these guidelines in mind for your conversation:

Do . . . 

  • Bring up the issue when the person is sober
  • Express your concern in a caring and honest way
  • Talk about the effect the drinking or drug use has had on whatever he or she cares most about: career, children, sports, physical health
  • Have a support person with you or available by phone
  • Write down what you want to say ahead of time so you're prepared

Don’t . . . 

  • Bring up the issue when the person is drunk or high
  • Use a blaming tone
  • Offer solutions; you are not a chemical dependency professional
  • Try to change behaviors
  • Do this alone
  • Despair or take it personally if the conversation ends badly; you have planted a seed

When your loved one is open to professional help, start with a professional assessment.

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and other addiction treatment centers have professional staff who conduct addiction screenings and assessments. A professional assessment is the best way to assess the problem, establish the facts, and determine what kind of treatment or other services will help lead to recovery and sobriety.

With care and support, your family can work through the chaos you've experienced and begin rebuilding relationships based on honesty and responsibility.