Recognizing an Addiction Problem
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Monti, MD, MPH
Recognizing an addiction problem may be more challenging than it seems. Addicts are often skilled at hiding their behavior, even from their closest friends and family members. Additionally, what may seem like an addiction could be an experimental phase or an individual’s response to challenging or stressful circumstances. Addiction, however, is chronic and usually degenerative in nature. Without intervention in the early stages, an addiction may turn into a debilitating and life-threatening condition. Regardless of the type of addiction, it’s important to recognize warning signs and seek help if necessary.
In the early stages, an individual might not exhibit telltale behavior of a full-blown addiction. Especially when it comes to common behaviors like drinking or smoking, it may be that a person is simply using a substance recreationally. Therefore, it can be difficult to determine whether or not the behavior will be repeated and to what extent the addiction might manifest. Even in the early stages, however, certain clues may be noticeable. If a person is particularly drawn to an activity or substance, seeks out situations where he or she can experiment, or experiences episodes of bingeing or loss of control, an early addiction problem may be indicated.
Once an individual moves past the experimentation or early phase of addiction, he or she will typically begin to alienate friends and family. Addicts tend to surround themselves only with others who either encourage or emulate their addictive behavior. An addict typically won’t put himself in frequent social situations or circumstances where he cannot use his substance of choice or perform his addictive behavior. Initially, alienation may be infrequent, but it will typically progress over time. An addict will try to hide the addictive behavior from loved ones—especially those who may try to intervene or stop the behavior. It’s not abnormal for addicts to completely cut off or diminish contact with their families, friends, spouses, or children.
Another way to recognize an addiction problem is to pay attention to the individual’s health. Whether the addiction is substance-based or behavioral, the addict will almost always experience a decrease in quality of health. Constant illnesses, injuries, or chronic fatigue may be indicators of a problem. The skin, hair, teeth and nails of an addict may also be in poor condition, especially when the individual is abusing highly dangerous substances like methamphetamines or cocaine. The person may also have an irregular sleep schedule or will constantly miss work and other important obligations.
It’s also important to consider the individual’s mental and emotional health. Sudden changes in mood or irritable, aggressive behavior are symptoms often associated with addiction. It’s also possible the person will become extremely depressed, apathetic, or suicidal. In general, if other factors contributing to mental or physical health issues are absent, it’s likely that a substance abuse or other addiction problem is present.
In the middle or later stages of an addiction—although sometimes in the early stage—the addict will probably experience negative consequences as a result of the addictive behavior. These consequences may be limited to an addict’s personal life, although it’s not uncommon that the individual will experience professional or legal ramifications as well. Some common consequences include:
- Dropping out of school or poor grades
- Missing work or neglecting important obligations
- Disintegration of relationships with friends and family
- Loss of good standing in community or tarnished reputation
- Accidents, injuries, or hospitalizations as a result of addictive behavior
- Citations, arrests, or jail time
- Eviction from place of residence or failed mortgage payments
- Loss of job or parenting rights
While similar issues can occur in the lives of non-addicted persons, it’s important to gauge whether or not the consequence is a result of an isolated incident or a growing problem with the addictive substance or behavior.
Despite the concern of friends and family, an addict will almost always deny the severity or seriousness of the addictive behavior. Making excuses is common among addicts. The person will usually have a number of reasons to justify or minimize the addictive behavior. While a non-addicted person can usually recognize a negative behavior and choose to eliminate it, this is typically not the case with an addict. Rather than admit the presence of a problem, an addict must convince himself and others why it’s acceptable to continue the behavior. This is why staging an intervention or attempting to force an addict into treatment often fails. In most cases, an addict must want to change in order for recovery to be successful.