It may be a frightening experience to see a family member starting to change in strange ways. Maybe you haven’t seen your son for days except for some late-night comings and goings. The issues seem to go deeper than typical young adult angst.

Perhaps your father has withdrawn from normal activities and spends more time out at local bars than ever. When the idea of addiction creeps into your mind, it can be tempting to ignore it and sweep it under the rug.

Addiction is often called the family disease because of the way it affects and is affected by family systems. Addiction often causes stress and bleeds into family life. It’s not easy watching a loved one go through a substance use disorder.

While addiction starts to affect several aspects of their life, there is little that you can do but encourage them to get help. The early stages of drug use can be difficult to spot, but as it continues into addiction, it will be even harder to hide. Addiction is difficult to maintain and even harder to contain. It will start affecting different aspects of the addicted person’s life like their job, family life, financial well-being, and health. However, the longer a person remains in drug dependence and addiction, the more likely they are to run into dangerous side effects like infectious diseases, negative health impacts, and overdose.

Learning to spot the warning signs of drug abuse and addiction can help you catch the problem in your family as early as possible. And while you may not be able to force someone into getting the help that they need, there are some things you can do if you find out that a loved one is struggling with substance abuse.

Abuse Vs. Dependence Vs. Addiction

The stages of drug use that leads to addiction can be different for each person. Sometimes it can happen slowly over a long period, but other times it can seem to happen extremely quickly. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used to draw a distinction between substance abuse and substance dependence. However, the most recent edition changed the way they diagnose the disorder. Now, all problematic drug use falls under the diagnosis of “substance use disorder” with a range of mild, moderate, and severe.

However, there are important distinctions between substance abuse, dependence, and addiction. Learning these differences can help you identify the signs of a substance use disorder and how far along your loved one is if they are misusing drugs or alcohol.

Substance Abuse Or Misuse

Abuse describes any instance where a drug is used beyond safe, legal doses. You can abuse legal drugs like prescriptions and alcohol, or you can abuse illicit drugs. If you take more than the recommended dose, if you take doses in close succession, or if you take the drug with the intention to get high, it can be considered drug abuse.

Abuse can be dangerous because it can lead to tolerance, dependence, and even an overdose.

For instance, binge drinking is one of the most common examples of drug abuse in the United States. It has become almost a rite of passage among young adults and college students.

Most of the college students that binge drink throughout their four-year education don’t develop alcohol addiction. However, they do risk alcohol poisoning and accidents related to alcoholism.


Chemical dependence occurs when drug use starts to have an impact on your brain’s chemical messaging system. The chemicals introduced by certain drugs can start to encourage your brain to rely on them instead of producing a natural balanced brain chemistry.

When you become dependent, you may no longer be using drugs simply to get high, but rather to feel “normal” and avoid uncomfortable symptoms. When you stop using a chemical substance after becoming dependent, it can cause withdrawal symptoms that can range from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous.


In some settings, addiction, and dependence can be used interchangeably. However, there is a distinction and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) highlights the difference in their definition of addiction which is, “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Addiction goes beyond physical symptoms of drug dependence. It’s a complex disease that primarily affects the brain.

For instance, a person might become dependent on a certain medication and notify their doctor. The doctor might discontinue the prescription, and while the person feels withdrawal symptoms, they ultimately stop using to avoid health risks.

Someone who has become addicted will continue to use even when the drug use has started to cause physical, mental, social, and vocational consequences. While drug dependence affects your central nervous system, addiction affects your reward and learning centers, which affect motivation. For this reason, it’s incredibly difficult to stop an addiction on your own.

Physical Warning Signs

When determining whether a person is struggling with a substance abuse issue, physical symptoms of drugs use may be the most obvious signs. However, each type of drug can affect people differently, and sometimes drug use can mimic other medical issues. However, unexplained physical changes or symptoms can be the first red flag that you are dealing with a drug problem. Here are some of the most common physical signs of substance abuse:

  •  Bloodshot eyes, or dilated pupils
  •  Changes in appetite
  •  Strange sleep patterns
  •  Runny nose or sniffing
  •  Unexplained and sudden changes in weight
  •  Shaking, tremors, or poor coordination
  •  Intoxication signs like slurred speech
  •  Unusual odors

Behavioral Warning Signs

Behavioral warning signs can be a bit harder to discern than physical ones, especially among teens who are going through changes naturally. Plus, there are just a variety of legitimate reasons that a person’s behavior may change. However, a life of active addiction is difficult to maintain and hide, which can cause a variety of serious behavioral shifts. If they are coupled with other physical signs, it can point to a substance use disorder. Here are some of the most common behavioral warning signs:

  •  Strained relationships
  •  Secretive or suspicious behavior
  •  Trouble at work, school, or with the law
  •  Legal issues like arrests or charges
  •  Failing performance at work or school
  •  Changes in social circles, new friend groups
  •  Unexplained need for money, constantly asking for cash
  •  Stealing money or valuables
  •  Lack of control with drugs or alcohol
  •  Increased tolerance (Drinking or using more before it’s effective)
  •  Using drugs or alcohol when it is dangerous (i.e., drinking and driving)
  •  Lack of self-care, poor hygiene

Psychological Warning Signs

Drug dependence and addiction are both disorders that affect the brain. Because they have such an impact on your nervous system and beyond, it may cause certain psychological symptoms. Again, there are a variety of reasons a person may display observable psychological behaviors, but if they are combined with other signs, it can be compelling. Psychological signs include:

  •  Fearful, panicked, anxious, or paranoid without a clear cause
  •  Lethargy, lack of motivation
  •  Unusual surges of energy
  •  Strange and sudden mood swings
  •  Irritability or agitation
  •  Angry outbursts or bouts of rage

What You Can Do

If you find that a loved one does have a probable substance use disorder, it’s important not to ignore the issue.

Substance use issues tend to get worse when there are no clear consequences. It’s important to address the issue and let the person know you won’t support their dangerous drug habit.

Learn more about the difference between enabling and non-enabling behavior. In general, enabling behavior will shield your loved one from the consequences of drug abuse and prolong their active addiction before seeking help.

Though it’s important to avoid enabling and that may mean some harsh realities like kicking someone who is using out of the house, you shouldn’t abandon a loved one that’s struggling with addiction.

Let them know that you are here to help as soon as they want to seek treatment.

If you believe that a loved one might be showing signs of a substance use disorder or addiction, you may be able to help by learning more information.

Speak to an addiction specialist at Delphi Behavioral Health Group to learn more about the therapy options in addiction treatment.

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