There is a saying, “You can’t see the forest through the trees”.
Interestingly, this message translates into my experience with a loved one’s addiction. I could not see the disease through the persona of my child. Looking back, the signs of substance abuse in a loved one were all there; isolating from family and friends, temperamental, anxious, dishonest, paranoid, severe headaches. Admittedly, I had my suspicions and could not fully understand why I fell short in pursing them. Dare I say that my ignorance about the disease of addiction and its destructive course never entered my mind.
Fast forward a decade from those early days when I buried my head in the sand in the presence of signs of substance abuse in a loved one. Thanks to time spent in Al-Anon rooms, reading Al-Anon literature, and listening to hundreds of stories, I have gained insight into how difficult it is for so many of us to accept and process the signs of substance abuse in a loved one. What stands out is the cunning nature of the disease of addiction. It is similar to many diseases where the signs and symptoms are subtle and become progressively more severe over time. What sets addiction apart is the group of behaviors that characterize the progression of the disease. Over time, our loved one manifests dramatic changes (mostly negative) in attitudes, interests, attention, hygiene, tolerance, and over-all demeanor. I remember thinking that my child had been turned into one of the ‘pod people’ from the movie, The Body Snatchers.
Distinguishing Use and Abuse
In light of the overwhelming number of people who are using drugs (prescribed or otherwise), it is hard to distinguish over-use from abuse. Both have a negative impact on a loved one’s ability to function or perform activities of daily living; including, but not limited to, engaging in family matters, attendance at school or work, or simply showing up without some drama. Typically, the signs of substance abuse in a loved one do not remain subtle or short-lived. If confronted, they have multiple rationalizations for their behaviors and have no tolerance for discussions about their drug use.
The signs of drug abuse in a loved one can be camouflaged by very high functioning abusers. Not all of our loved ones spin out and hit bottom: instead, they bounce off the bottom! In the eyes of many family members and dear friends of an addict, this may be interpreted as a loved one ‘in recovery.’
Not so!! The disease of addiction is pervasive. It is not uncommon for an old timer to share a story with fellow Al-Anons about a loved one in recovery who has gone missing. They deny any reason to believe that he/she is using, but admit that they are feeling very uncomfortable about it.
Today, if I am wondering about signs of substance abuse in a loved one, ‘trust and verify’ is re-defined in my playbook . I trust my intuition, (not the addict) and verify what is and what is not my business with a fellow Al-Anon.