Addiction is an insidious illness. It usually develops gradually over time, making it easy for the severity of the problem to escape the notice of immediate family members. On top of this, the natural inclination for close family is to deny and diminish the problem in order to retain some sense of normality.
If you suspect that a family member may be addicted to alcohol or substances, but you are unsure of the severity of the problem, consider whether any of the following apply to the person:
- An inability to stop using. The individual has made at least one serious but unsuccessful attempt to give up the substance or behaviour.
- Use and abuse of substances continue despite health problems. The individual continues regularly taking the substance, even though they have developed related illnesses.
- Dealing with problems. The substance or behaviour is resorted to in order to (or as an alternative to) dealing with problems.
- Obsession. The individual has become obsessed with the substance or behaviour, spending more and more time and energy finding ways of getting access to it.
- Taking risks. The individual takes risks to obtain the substance or engage in the behaviour.
- Taking a large initial dose. This is common with alcoholics. The individual may rapidly consume large quantities of alcohol in order to feel its effects as soon as possible.
- Sacrifices. The individual is willing to give up activities that they used to enjoy in order to carry on taking or having access to the substance.
- Maintaining a good supply. The individual will ensure that they have a good supply of the substance of choice even if they cannot afford it or are put to serious inconvenience.
- Secrecy and solitude. The individual uses the substance alone or in secret.
- Disregard for safety. The individual consumes the substance in amounts which are unsafe (particularly in the case of alcohol and heroin).
- Maintaining stashes. The individual maintains small hidden stashes of the substance in unlikely places (such as the car or the office).
- Withdrawal. The individual experiences physical discomfort when their ingested levels of the substance drop below a certain level. Depending on the substance they may experience symptoms such as cravings, constipation, diarrhea, trembling, seizures, sweats, insomnia and uncharacteristic behaviours such as violence.
- Appetite changes. Some substances alter a person’s appetite. Marijuana consumption, for example, might greatly increase their appetite while cocaine may reduce it.
- Sleeplessness. While insomnia is a common symptom of withdrawal, the use of illicit stimulants such as speed or ecstacy might also result in a disrupted sleep cycle.
- A change in appearance. A person may begin to appear more disheveled, tired, and haggard, as using the substance or carrying out the addictive behavior replaces key parts of the day, including washing clothes and attending to personal hygiene.
- Increasing tolerance. The individual needs to take more and more of the substance to achieve the same effect.
A person might experience a few of these symptoms or many of them. Substance use disorders manifest differently in different individuals. In general, the greater the number of symptoms displayed, the greater is the severity of the situation.
Most of the above symptoms apply equally (with the necessary changes) to process disorders (i.e. an addiction to a behaviour such as gambling or shopping).