by Daniel D. Maurer
Human beings have had access to mind-altering chemicals since the dawn of time. Alcohol, of course, is probably the world’s oldest recreational drug. And that one’s tricky regarding addiction because some cultures— including our own—have incorporated alcohol as a foodstuff. Wine is a nice accompaniment to a dish of pasta, and beer and brats seem to just naturally go together. What muddies the water, even more, is that some people can have a shot of single-malt whiskey or a highball now and then and not go off the rails in full-blown addiction.
Other drugs such as marijuana or psychedelics like mushrooms or peyote have come on the scene more recently (historically speaking). Opiates (also called opioids) have been around awhile, but in the advent of modern pharmaceutical-grade, opioid-based drugs, addiction issues have cropped up—especially recently with the heroin epidemic, which some experts have blamed on the same drug companies who developed (and actively promoted) a vast expansion for painkillers in the 80s and 90s.
Add in benzodiazepines, prescription stimulants, barbiturates, nicotine, caffeine, inhalants, ketamine, ecstasy, PCP, cocaine, and so-called designer drugs like “Spice” or “bath salts” . . . a person can see that our culture is awash in a veritable cornucopia of mind-bending pharmacological inventions.
What makes the question whether or not someone you love is addicted even more difficult is the fact that every chemical works differently in the human brain. What’s more, every individual will react differently to those chemicals! It’s no wonder why you’re reading this article right now—you want a definitive answer: is my son, my daughter, my friend or spouse really addicted?
I cannot answer specifically to their situation. I wish I could. However, addiction and recovery experts continually improve the assessment skills needed to determine how serious a problem has become for someone.
But . . .
There are things you can look for—call them “pointers” to establish whether there really is a problem brewing, or if it’s simply a case of your loved one “sowing their wild oats.”
This one is more anecdotal than evidence-based, but in my view, it’s the #1 signal that there really is a problem (especially with alcohol). I have yet to see a case where someone either drank or drugged to a blackout state at least three times and didn’t have a problem. What I’m talking about is not “passing out” but using so much that the brain stops making short-term memories during the time when the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The medical term for it is anterograde amnesia. It usually happens when a person drinks so quickly that his or her blood alcohol level rises to a dangerous level. Often, the person doing this will not be able to recall events that happened during this time, even though they may walk around, talk, or engage in activities. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax® and Z-drugs like Ambien® are also notorious culprits to causing blackouts.
Normal people do not do this. And they especially don’t on multiple occasions. Although a person may mistakenly take a benzo or party a bit too hard once or twice in his or her lifetime, I have yet to meet someone who is a regular blackout drinker or a drug user with this issue who is not addicted.
So, if your son or daughter has had over three blackout experiences, it’s probably an indication that addiction has taken hold of his or her life. Still, it’s best to seek help in these situations to find out for certain.
Change in Physical Appearance
For a good four or five years into my foray with alcoholism and drug addiction, my physical appearance went fairly unchanged. Then, the baggy eyes came. And the stinking body odor. And a massive weight loss. I quit eating, instead favoring a liquid or pill-flavored lunch and dinner when I could sneak off, away from my family.
If your son or daughter suddenly looks different, and you suspect drug- and/or alcohol use, it’s probably not the five-in-the-morning jogging habit that has caused them to look that way. Prescription stimulants like Adderall® or Ritalin®, or illegal drugs like meth or cocaine will, of course, promote weight loss. But many people do not realize that alcohol, heroin, or painkillers can also make someone look like a ghoul, wasting away.
The problem lies in the fact that drug and/or alcohol use takes over a person’s life. It’s all you care about. And even eating takes a back seat to drinking or drugging. (I suppose if marijuana or synthetic THC is the drug of choice it might be the other way around—look for empty potato chip bags.)
Most drugs, and definitely alcohol when in excess, wreak havoc on a person’s appearance and overall health. If you see this with your son, daughter, friend or spouse, well . . . addiction may be the issue. Seek help. Recovery does work.
Has Drug or Alcohol Use Taken Over His or Her Life?
The last point I need to raise I briefly mentioned in the point above. But I need to flesh it out a bit.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether drinking or drug use has begun to dominate a person’s life. If you had asked me ten years ago, I think if I were honest with you, I would have said yes. (I wouldn’t finally get sober until three years after that.) But wind the clock back five more years and if you asked me the same question fifteen years ago, I would have said no. Hands down.
The difficulty lies in the fact that addiction hides so readily. Your son or daughter won’t see a problem, especially if it’s still early on. Since our society lives in a culture where binge drinking and drug use are glorified as quasi-acceptable pastimes (just go to any college campus for a weekend), it can be hard to differentiate a person’s behavior from anything else you see kids their age are doing.
Certain drugs like heroin or meth are easier to see a problem than, say, with drinking or pot use. But ONE big indicator can clue you in that there is an addiction issue. And that’s answering this one question:
Does drinking or drug-use have to accompany any activity the person is engaging in?
Here are some alternative forms of that question specific to certain activities:
• Does a gaming session need pot with it to really enjoy it?
• When your daughter goes to the beach with friends, does she have to drink?
• Is studying just not as effective unless your son abuses amphetamines?
• Is Saturday night not the same without getting wasted?
Really, these questions are all different forms of asking whether or not an addiction has taken over a person’s life. If it has, then it’s time to do something. Why? Because addiction kills. Really. It does. But there is always hope. Millions have gotten sober to go on and lead productive healthy lives.
You may be able to help the person more than you believe you can.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction and need treatment, we would love to talk with you and see how we can help you. PLEASE CALL 844.310.5975. Our counselors are available to answer your questions.
Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer openly living in long-term recovery. He is the author of Sobriety: A Graphic Novel, a Hazelden Publishing, youth and young adult recovery resource. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more information on Dan and his work, visit his website and blog at Transformation is Real.