Posted by Perry Clayman

PCP rehabs receive numerous calls from those who have concerns about a family member, friend or loved who is possibly suffering from an addiction.

Addiction in someone you love can be deeply distressing to watch. You may feel powerless as they continue on their path of self-destruction. You may be wondering what you can do to help – if anything.

This guide is set out to help you spot the signs and symptoms of addiction in another, provide you with factual information to help understand addiction better and advise you of the steps you can take to help your family member, friend or loved one access the correct professional treatment they need.

Addiction of any kind, whether it is to drugs, alcohol, an activity or a person can be life-threatening if left untreated. It is important that the person suffering receives the correct professional treatment and support to enable them to get well and recover.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a serious illness that affects the sufferer’s brain and the way it works. Many medical and scientific studies have been conducted to determine the nature of addiction.

MRI brain scans have confirmed that there is a physiological side to addiction, that it is progressive in nature and cannot be completely reversed or cured.

Addiction is characterised by compulsive seeking and engaging in a behaviour or substance that results in negative consequences. Most addictions negatively impact the individual’s finances, mental health, physical health, social life, personal relationships, education and ability to work.

Understanding addiction as an illness will help you to engage in a useful conversation with your family member or friend. Not everyone realises addiction is a medical disorder, but just like any other chronic illness or disease, it requires specialist treatment to keep the symptoms in remission.

Most alcoholics and addicts do not comprehend just how seriously unwell they are. One aspect of addiction is delusion. The sufferer can believe that they are in control, even when it is evident to everyone around them that they are not. In order for them to get well, they need to understand that they cannot beat addiction on their own.

Successful addiction treatment usually involves professional intervention from doctors and therapists experienced in delivering evidence-based addiction treatments.

The Science of Addiction

Understanding the science of addiction and that your friend or family member is not in control of their actions will help you to feel less frustrated with them. Through showing them this information we hope they will become more receptive to seeking professional help and treatment.

Addiction occurs through repeated exposure to a substance or an activity that produces dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. Over time the brain undergoes substantial chemical changes that alters the way vital parts of the brain function.

science of addiction

The science of addiction describes how addiction develops in the brain and progresses.

As a result of scientific research, we know today that addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behaviour. Understanding that this illness is not a moral problem or a lack of will power, but one of compulsive drug use and behaviour has enabled us to respond effectively with the appropriate professional treatment.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse – NIDA state that addiction is a brain disorder:

“It (addiction) involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control, and those changes may last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs”

“Addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as heart disease. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of an organ in the body, both have serious harmful effects, and both are, in many cases, preventable and treatable. If left untreated, they can last a lifetime and may lead to death”

It is important to understand that not everyone who drinks or takes drugs frequently or excessively will go on to develop an addiction. It is only a small minority that is affected. It has been suggested by the worlds top addiction treatment specialists that those who develop addiction are predisposed. This may be through genetics, environmental factors, mental health or traumatic events.

Most people that drink or drug excessively are able to stop or moderate their consumption if a sufficient reason comes in to force. A sufficient reason could be in the form of a doctors warning, a relationship breakdown or the loss of a job.

With someone who suffers from addiction, serious negative consequences can occur, they can even desire to stop and genuinely promise that they will, but their disordered brain prevents them from doing so. An addicts self-control system in the brain becomes seriously impaired. As a result, they compulsively continue in their addiction despite harms to themselves and even to others.

Your Family Member, Friend or Loved one is Likely to be Just as Baffled by Their Actions as You

Scientists and medical specialists have studied PET scans of the brains of individuals suffering from addiction. The scans reveal substantial physical changes to areas of the brain that are responsible for decision making, memory, judgment, learning and impulse control. So you see it really is not an addicts choice to self destruct. They are often just as baffled by their dysfunctional behaviour as you.

Addiction is a multifaceted and complex disorder that manifests differently in every individual that is affected. Addiction treatment needs to respond to this and be tailored specifically in order for it to be effective.

Overcoming addiction is not a matter of will power, the brain needs to be cleared of the drug or activity first through detox, then re-educated through counselling and therapy to learn how to respond in healthier ways to thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Underlying contributing factors and co-occurring illnesses also need to be simultaneously professionally treated and addressed. Needless to say, addiction treatment is not a quick process but recovery IS possible for those that want it and are willing to engage.

Spotting the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction/Abuse in a Family Member or Friend

There are some definite signs and symptoms of drug addiction to look out for. Confirming in your own mind that your family member, friend or loved one has a problem with drugs will give you the confidence to confront them with the truth and urge them to seek help.

Physical signs and symptoms of drug addiction/abuse:

  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • Pupils of their eyes are abnormally large or pinprick small
  • Changes in their weight and appetite
  • Changes in their sleeping patterns
  • Your family member or friend struggles to hold a conversation with you. They appear unusually forgetful, spaced out and unable to concentrate
  • Your family member or friend is either lethargic and unmotivated or full of energy (depending on the drug they may swap between the two)
  • Their speech is slurred and slow, excited and fast, or delayed and confused
  • They are neglecting their physical appearance and hygiene
  • You find drugs or drug paraphernalia on their person
  • They regularly appear intoxicated
  • Changes to their skin – They may be pale and gaunt in the face, have facial scabbing, greyish tinge to the skin or jaundice

Behavioural signs and symptoms of drug addiction/abuse:

  • A marked change in their personality and unusual behaviour
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy and social withdrawal
  • Ritualistic behaviour
  • Always asking for money, or money and valuables going missing from the home
  • Involvement in crime
  • They neglect their commitments and have changed their priorities
  • They go out frequently and sometimes disappear for long periods of time
  • Your family member or friend has become difficult to communicate with. Is often vague and evasive.
  • They often lie and may even ask you to lie for them to prevent them from getting into trouble
  • Poor impulse control and erratic behaviour
  • Secrecy and dishonesty

Emotional signs and symptoms of drug addiction/abuse:

  • They suffer from depression and anxiety and have become very negative in their thinking and outlook on life
  • They are unusually irritable and can become aggressive
  • Marked changes in their mood – Swinging from elation and happiness to depression and anxiety in a rapid cycle
  • Your family member or friend often feels that everyone is against them and shows signs of paranoia
  • They are often irrational and difficult to reason with
  • They are unusually sensitive or argumentative
  • Your family member, friend or loved one has expressed a wish to end their own life, or you find evidence to suggest they are planning this

If your family member, friend or loved one has expressed a wish to end their own life, or you have found evidence to suggest that they are planning to do so, emergency medical help or drug rehab should be sought immediately.

 Physical signs and symptoms of drug addiction and drug abuse can vary depending on the drug(s) involved. Behavioural and emotional signs and symptoms tend to be the same regardless of the substance – They also apply where an individual is suffering from a process addiction or an addiction to an activity such as gambling, sex or gaming.

Any marked change in your friend or family members appearance and behaviour should not be ignored.

10 Tips on How to Speak to Your Family Member or Friend About an Addiction

Speaking to a family member or friend about a possible addiction is not always easy or straight forward. It may be that their addiction is glaringly obvious yet they are still dismissive of your concerns.

Perhaps you have broached the subject in the past only to be met with defensiveness or denial. We hope that the following advice on how to speak to a family member or friend about addiction will help.

Timing your talk is important, we suggest that you speak to them when they are not intoxicated. It may be that they are constantly high or drunk; that being the case, try to speak to them when they are coming down or only mildly intoxicated. It is important that they understand what you are trying to convey and are able to make rational decisions.

Before you broach the subject of addiction with a loved one it is helpful to educate yourself on the subject and come from a place of understanding rather than judgement. If you do not, they are likely to be defensive and become agitated and shut off.

It is also important to offer hope and a solution to their problem. This may come in the form of private drug rehab, visiting their GP and local drug and alcohol team, or attending mutual aid support groups in the community.

Many alcoholics and addicts will not admit to their illness as they fear to have to stop. Here you can reassure them that there is medical help to support them in stopping and that they will have your support also.

Use the following 10 tips to initiate a useful conversation about addiction with your friend or family member:

Tip 1: Speak to your family member or friend when they are not intoxicated and appear approachable, or are off the back of a binge and suffering withdrawal symptoms. Do not speak to them whilst they are drunk or high.

Tip 2: Keep your manner calm, supportive and stick to facts

Tip 3: If there are other household or family members that they are likely to listen to, ask them to get involved.

Tip 4: Give your reasons for why you think they have an addiction. Relay to them times where you have observed them intoxicated or behaving strangely. Talk about the changes you have seen in their appearance and behaviour.

Tip 5: Express your concerns based on the facts of addiction and your fears of what will happen if they don’t seek help and treatment. Untreated addiction only ever gets progressively worse

Tip 6: Tell them calmly how their behaviour is affecting you and others who are significant to them

Tip 7: Advise your family member or friend that they have an illness and that having an addiction is not their fault, however they are responsible for being receptive to treatment and being willing to accept help

Tip 8: Offer to support them in accessing addiction treatment or drug rehab and reassure that that as long as they are willing they will not be alone.

Tip 9: Tell your friend or family member that you are always available for them to speak to in confidence and that they can always approach you for help

Tip 10: If your loved one is very unwell from their addiction it is important that you are not enabling their illness in any way. If you have been giving them money or lying for them, calmly tell them that you will not longer do this as it is only aiding in their self-destruction.

By using these tips you may well find that they admit everything and ask for help. If they do not, do not blame yourself, addiction can delude the sufferer but you will have sown the seed. They may well approach you another time knowing that you are willing to support them in accessing addiction treatment.

What to do if Your Friend/Family Member Wants Help for Addiction

If your family member or friend admits that they have a problem with addiction and wants help, there are various treatment options available. The addiction treatment that will work best for them depends on their individual treatment needs.

Successful addiction treatment is always tailored to the person. There is no one size fits all when it comes to achieving a positive outcome.

Baring in mind that addiction can become life-threatening, it is always best to take a very serious approach when considering the various treatment options.

Help and treatment that is available for addiction include:

Private drug rehab – includes inpatient drug detox and rehab programme

  • Private alcohol rehab – includes alcohol detox and rehab programme
  • Local drug and alcohol team – community-based they provide keywork sessions, groups, workshops and occasionally funding for rehab or a community detox
  • Mutual aid support groups – this includes the likes of Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Smart Recovery
  • GP assessment – Your GP can assess your family member or friend and make recommendations regarding community-based support and treatment.

How to Get Your Family Member or Friend Into Rehab

This is something that we at PCP get asked a lot. You cannot force someone against their will to attend a drug or alcohol rehab. The person needs to be willing. Please also bear in mind that they are not locked in once they are admitted to a rehab. Patients can self-discharge if they wish. There is no rehab in the UK that can hold a patient against their will.

We have found that when an individual is unsure about attending a rehab programme, it is mainly due to fear of the unknown. It can be helpful to visit one of our rehabs so that the unknown is removed. They will also have the opportunity to speak to our counsellors and therapists before making a decision whether or not to commit to an inpatient programme.

If you would like further information on our residential rehab programmes or wish to book a show around, please call us today. We will do all we can to help.

Sources and references:

National Institutes on Drug Abuse

Talk to frank

Narcotics Anonymous

Smart Recovery UK

Alcoholics Anonymous


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