Being a person in long-term recovery, I am all too familiar with the symptoms of someone abusing drugs. I just have to take a moment to reflect on my old life: always late or cancelling commitments, never having any money, always sick, depression and mood swings, unreliability, regularly off work, increasingly precarious behavior, needing more and more of the drugs to have the same effect, lack of self-care, and consumed with one thing—at the expenses of anything or anyone else—using.
I didn’t live a life, I was barely existing. And I wanted to die.
Stopping misusing drugs and alcohol didn’t solve my problems. In fact, the path to recovery was hugely challenging—paved with many hurdles and life lessons along the way. Slowly but surely though, with painstaking unpicking and re-wiring, I did indeed recover.
At five and a half years sober, I am now in the unique position of helping others by writing about my experience. I do that because I have empathy and compassion for people who are suffering with substance use disorder—knowing how much pain they are in and how difficult it is to stop. I want to provide access to resources which may help them. But most of all, I believe in telling our darkest stories, we give hope to those struggling that there is a way out.
Not everyone gets the help that they need. Sometimes the symptoms are hidden by the user, but there are common tell-tale signs (some of which I mentioned above).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse advise considering the following questions—which you can go through with the person if they are willing:
- Does the person take the drug in larger amounts or for longer than intended?
- Do they want to cut down or stop using the drug but can’t?
- Do they spend a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the drug?
- Do they have cravings and urges to use the drug?
- Are they unable to manage responsibilities at work, home, or school because of drug use?
- Do they continue to use a drug, even when it causes problems in relationships?
- Do they give up important social, recreational, or work-related activities because of drug use?
- Do they use drugs again and again, even when it puts them in danger?
- Do they continue to use, even while knowing that a physical or mental problem could have been caused or made worse by the drug?
- Do they take more of the drug to get the wanted effect?
- Have they developed withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the drug? (Some withdrawal symptoms can be obvious, but others can be more subtle—like irritability or nervousness.)
If those questions confirm your suspicions, then your loved one may have a substance abuse problem.
But it isn’t their fault.
More and more we are hearing of scientific research which shows how drugs work in the brain and how they make it very difficult to stop. However, treatment and successful recovery is possible. While you can’t fix the problem you can help in some small ways towards getting them the help they need.
These are some top tips:
- Show them compassion and love. Judging or being unduly harsh will only push them away. They already feel a great amount of shame for their problem; they don’t need to be judged, they need help. Showing them love and compassion humanizes them rather than stigmatizing them.
- You can tell them that you appreciate it takes courage to seek help because it can be a challenging road ahead, but that there is help available and people live successful lives in recovery.
- If you are in recovery, and you feel comfortable doing so, share your own story—tell them how drugs affected your life, how you got sober, and what your life is like today. Spread a message of hope.
- Listen. Sometimes, people who have a substance use problem experience people talking at them and telling them what to do about their problem. They may benefit from someone just listening to them.
- You could help them find an addiction treatment professional. The American Society of Addiction Medicine list board-certified physicians on their website.
- To find treatment centers for them to call, you can search the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website.
- Understand that they may not want help. In that case, all you can do is leave any resources close by should they wish to get help.
- Support yourself whether or not they get help. You can find useful resources on the SMART Recovery website which supports people in recovery and their friends and family.
If I think back to when I was struggling with substance misuse, I just wish I had someone to talk to. I felt so much shame about not being able to stop using and doing the things to get drugs that I said I would never do. I compromised my dignity, morals, and self-respect. I never chose to become addicted—it happened because I had a brain wired for addiction and because drugs biologically changed my brain to override my ability to make rational decisions.
When people judged me and cut me off, it only made me feel more shame, and even more desperate. I felt completely isolated. If someone had offered me a compassionate ear, I wonder if I would have lost as much as I did, and endured so much pain and damage. What I needed was someone to have my back and to be there as a support. I needed someone to see my pain, hold it with love and compassion, and lead me toward a path of solutions—but to help me take my own steps toward recovery.
Let’s help people with substance use disorder, not point a finger at them and dismiss them. They are human too.
About the Author
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. For Liv, the kitchen represents the heart of the home: to eat, share, and love. You will find Liv featured amongst top recovery writers and bloggers, published on websites such as: Recovery.Org, The Fix, Intervene, Workit Health, iExhale, Sapling, Addiction Unscripted, Transformation is Real, Sanford House, Winward Way & Casa Capri.