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How to Spot an Addiction in Someone You Know

We all know someone who might have had one too many drinks the night before, and someone who has experimented with drugs at some point in their lives. While most of us can exercise restraint and moderation on a daily basis, there are millions of Americans who can’t.

Some people think addiction is a lack of self-control or willpower, but this is furthest from the truth. The scariest part is that an addiction to drugs and alcohol can develop in anyone—no matter race, gender or socioeconomic status—which can make it hard to recognize in our friends and family. You may not even be able to recognize your own addiction.

“A main distinction between substance abuse and addiction, is that someone who is abusing substances generally still has some control over their lives,” said Serign Marong, MD, a family medicine physician at Banner - University Medicine Primary Care Clinic in Tucson, AZ, who treats patients with addiction issues. “Whereas someone with an addiction has a disease, and they have lost control of many aspects of their life.”

Left untreated, addiction can get progressively worse. If you are concerned a friend or loved one’s use of alcohol and drugs is becoming a problem, Dr. Marong shared tips for recognizing the warning signs and ways you can help.

How can you tell if your friend has an addiction?

Your friend or loved one’s behaviors and certain physical changes can provide you clues to whether they may be addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Physical changes
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain (clothes don’t fit the same)
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Looking pale, tired
  • Easily sweaty
  • Red, glassy eyes
Behavioral changes
  • Forgetfulness: Making plans and a couple days later forgetting about it
  • Repetitive speech
  • Isolation and withdrawal from family and friends
  • Minimizing things: downplaying something bad that happened
  • Irritability
  • Blaming people, places and things
Other changes
  • How much time they spend talking about their use, money spent, etc.
  • Are they only willing to do social things that involve their use?
  • Is their work or relationships being affected?
  • “Even those who argue they have control, what aspects of their life have they changed to accommodate their use?” Dr. Marong asked. “Do they argue their job isn't affected, but in reality, they have been late more often, called out sick, or simply could be doing better at work?”
  • Are they using to cope with any kind of stress? “Lots of people talk about drinking a glass of wine to relax after a stressful day at work, but if that is the only relief they get, something needs to change,” Dr. Marong said. “Either the job or the coping strategies.”

How can I help?

In general, it can be hard to change someone’s opinion or behaviors, so don’t expect that you can force your friend or loved one to quit either. However, there are some things that you can do to help support them getting treatment.

  • Let them know how their addiction affects you using “I” statements, such as, “When you drink every night, I feel scared.”
  • Encourage treatment
  • Educate yourself on the addiction and support that is available
  • Continue to provide love and encouragement
  • Set boundaries and stand by them
  • Enlist assistance from others to help intervene

If your friend or loved one has recognized that their addiction is a problem, the next step is getting them help and support. Reach out to a Banner behaviorial health specialist or call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357 for free and confidential treatment referral and support.

Supporting a friend or loved one can be difficult, especially if that person believes they don’t have a problem. Don’t be surprised and don’t take it personally. In the meantime, continue to show your concern, stay involved and let them know you are there for them.

“It's hard sometimes to see how much our behavior can affect people,” Dr. Marong said. “In addiction it seems even harder. That's where patience, but with boundaries, are important.”

Don’t forget about yourself

It’s important to take care of yourself, because you are affected by this disease too. You can find support, answers and resources through groups like Al-Anon, a program that can help you learn acceptance and how to take care of yourself. Or speak with a behavioral health specialist who specializes in addiction.

To find a specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

Behavioral Health Primary Care Wellness

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