Drugs, Alcohol and Substance Abuse

What is it?   What does it look like?   How do I know if I, or a loved one, can be classified as a user?

When we or those close to us, begin to use substances which affect our mood, behaviour and ability to think and behave rationally, then this is usually a clear sign that some form of substance abuse is taking place.

Bridging the gap between an occasional user, and someone who has become dependent (or addicted) to a substance, it not nearly as difficult as one might think. This is often one reason why young people especially, are so vulnerable; many think they will be able to “control” their intake of these substances and be able to “choose” how much to use. However, the reality is that the majority of drugs – and substances used as drugs – are highly addictive and the body begins to crave and desire the substance more and more, often independently of a person’s logical thinking about them.

The most frequently used illegal drugs include cannabis, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and LSD. Prescription drugs, perhaps initially prescribed by a physician for a specific purpose, can also become addictive, as can over-the-counter medications such as cough syrup.

“Prescription drugs” include medicines such as Ritalin – usually used to treat ADHD – various forms of tranquilisers, anti-depressants and strong pain medication.

As soon as a person begins to exceed the recommended dose on a regular basis and begins to feel they “need” the medication to get through a meeting, the day, an event etc. the chances are, dependence is formed/forming.

Other substances which are used as drugs include surprising items, often easily found in the average home. Solvents are the most disturbing group partly because they come in many guises; from gas lighter refills, to something supposedly as innocent as a tin of aerosol containing hair spray, tins or tubes of glue, paints and thinners or even correcting fluid.

It is the sheer ordinary nature of these items that makes them so dangerous, and this is also the case with alcohol. While alcohol is generally fine in moderation – perhaps a glass of wine with dinner, a cocktail at a party or a liqueur at the end of a meal – it too has addictive properties, both physically and psychologically. Similar symptoms can define a user, although they can also be much harder to recognise, as alcohol arguably has more acceptance in our culture and it can be harder to tell when a little has become too much.

While nothing can replace open communication and ongoing discussions between friends and loved ones, at times, relationships may have already begun to deteriorate making honest conversations very difficult. In such cases, there are certainly signs that may suggest that a loved one has become dependent on drugs, alcohol or another substance.

Signs of drug, alcohol or substance abuse in others:

  • -Withdrawing from interests or activities that were previously enjoyed such as sports or hobbies.
  • -Significant and sometimes sudden changes in energy levels, perhaps to excessive lethargy and general melancholy or a more manic, “hyper” demeanour.
  • -Poor performance at school, university or work, frequent lateness, inability to concentrate, unfavourable reports.
  • -Mood swings and/or violent or volatile behaviour.
  • -Deteriorating relationships with family and friends, sometimes replacing old friends with a “new crowd”.
  • -Excessive secrecy about plans, activities or friends.
  • -Evidence of drug/alcohol/substance abuse such as pipes, rolling papers, tin foil, getting through excessive amounts of hair spray (for example), additional alcohol bottles or cans in bins or recycling that are unfamiliar.
  • -A general neglect of personal hygiene and grooming.
  • -Unusual or uncharacteristic run-ins with authority such as teachers or even the police.

If you suspect YOU are a user, consider these:

  • -Are you regularly using any of the substances mentioned above?
  • -Are you finding yourself unable to concentrate or participate in school, work or family life without using more of the substance?
  • -Are you spending all your money on these substances, perhaps falling behind on bills, mortgage or other essential payments?
  • -Are you already, or have you considered, stealing, or some other criminal activity, in order to fund the habit?
  • -Have you begun to “borrow” regularly from friends and family, always promising to pay it back, but starting to fall behind on this too?
  • -Do your friends and acquaintances mainly include other users or suppliers of drugs?
  • -Have you begun to argue frequently with family and loved ones, particularly about your whereabouts and activities?
  • -Do you suffer from physical symptoms such as paranoia, bloodshot eyes, rashes around your mouth (if inhaling solvents), problems with memory, extreme changes in appetite, increased heart rate?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you should seek further help and advice immediately.