Addiction: A Guide for Friends and Family (5)

Written by David Partington

You can download the PDF of this resource here.  

Facing up to the fact that your child or partner may be using drugs will be a profoundly difficult time for you. This section is written in the hope that it is not true and that what caused you to be suspicious is unfounded. But if your worst fears are confirmed, I can assure you that there is hope, real hope; many people do break free - with lots of love, and especially 'tough' love. Here, practically, is how that can happen for you.

How can I tell if my child or partner is using drugs?

One mother described to the Sunday Times what she felt was a terrible mistake but, I believe, was actually of very great importance:

‘Five weeks ago ..... I found some cannabis tucked into my 16 year-old son's bedroom    drawer as I was putting away clean clothes. Then, further down, in among a secret stash of page three pictures, there was a tiny, very tiny, packet of white powder: cocaine. Over the past 18 months Jack had become so arrogant and difficult he was almost unbearable. He was moody, frequently exhausted yet couldn't sleep.  Often I would hear him moving about the house at night. I had asked him, as tactfully as I could, if he was taking drugs, and was dismissed with outbursts of anger. Over the summer I even discreetly examined his tanned arms for needle marks, feeling faintly ludicrous.’ 1

The facts for this mother were clear-cut. But for many people the evidence is not as conclusive. It is so very difficult to be absolutely sure that your child is actually using drugs for one very significant reason -  most of the evidence often relates to the ‘normal’ process of adolescence. But acknowledging this fact there are still ‘pointers’ which are often evident, over a period of time, if someone is abusing drugs.

Emotional signs of drug abuse

Teenagers go through some wild mood swings in the space of only 24 hours, let alone over several months. However, drug abuse can result in: 

·         Changes in personality related to the particular drug they are using. Stimulants will make them hyperactive so that they are not only restless in the day but at night; hallucinogens like LSD can cause children to become paranoid so that they feel everyone is out to make life as difficult as possible; depressants will make them very sleepy and possibly cause slurred speech.

·         Radical mood swings, which can include excessive irritation, outbursts of anger, and restlessness.

·         Being 'over-tired' with no real reason.

 Physical signs of drug abuse

Again, dramatic changes in appearance are the norm during adolescence, but drug abuse may be involved if there is: 

·         Very erratic food consumption.

·         Dilated or constricted pupils of the eyes.

·         Red blotchiness around the mouth and nose.

·         Excessive acne – but please don't get over suspicious about this one without a lot    more clues!

·         Irregularity of periods.

External indicators relating to drug abuse

These factors may be more indicative of someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol: 

·         Disappearance of clothes or other personal effects, especially your clothes and personal effects.

·         Pocket money gets used very, very quickly (i.e. within the first day), or there is evidence of heavy borrowing.

·         Hanging out in strange places, especially at school.

·         Increasingly erratic attendance at school; no interest in getting work done.      

·         Very limited attention span.

·         Interest in highly paid jobs.

·         Poor attendance at normal work place.

·         Involvement with old friends replaced by a new group of associates.

·         Different vocabulary becoming apparent.

·         Losing interest in long established hobbies.

·         Wearing sunglasses, to hide constricted or dilated pupils.

·         Radical changes in clothing style or wearing jewellery.

·         Smell of glue on clothes.

·         Heavy use of aftershave or perfume to hide smell of glue or alcohol.

·         New taste for peppermints - this can indicate that smoking is an issue.

·         ‘Strange’ smells in bedroom, or window kept open wide for lengthy periods of time.

·         Appearance and disappearance of new clothes or other goods indicating  shoplifting.

·         Secretive phone calls especially from people who don't know your child well.

·         Avoiding family contact.

 Specific evidence of drug use

This is dealt with in more detail in our ‘Pills, Poppers, & Caffeine’ section, but evidence would include: 

·         remains of cigarette ends or ‘joints’.

·         strong, sweet, aromatic smoky smells.

·         ‘strange looking’ tobacco.

·         pills or powders.

·         needles or syringes.

·         blackened foil or spoons.

·         small square of blotting paper with futuristic designs.

 Like you I hope you never find anything more shocking than the fact that your 15 year old has thrown Eric, his teddy bear, in the dustbin. But, if you do, there are still ways in which you can minimize the potential damage. After all, the alienation of your child is the last thing that is needed if you are to help them break free of their possible drug abuse.

Keeping a sense of proportion

Our individual responses to finding out that a child is abusing drugs or alcohol are rarely what we think they would be. Faced with the evidence, many a parent who imagined they would go frantic has been amazingly calm. With others, however, it has been the complete opposite and frenzy has been the result. Some of course, react with studied indifference on the basis that they use drugs themselves and do not see any problem! Anger however often comes in, sooner or later, along with a whole range of other emotions, questions, and responses, including: 

·         Personal recrimination - spending hours going over personal failures.

·         The ‘scapegoat’ routine - whose fault is it really?

·         How could this possibly happen to me?

·         What is going to happen to our child?

·         Coping with the humiliation.

·         Working out what to tell and who to tell.

·         Feelings of brokenness, pain and failure.

·         A deep sense of inadequacy.

·         Struggling to cope with everyday routines.

·         Desperately wanting to share but overwhelmed by the shame.

·         An overwhelming compulsion to deny what we know to be true.

·         Feeling desperately disappointed in, and let down by your child.

·         Feeling a lack of control over your child.

 Finally there is the heartbreak of betrayal and the strong belief that everything we have ever done has been a complete waste of time.

Initial responses

Probably the strongest compulsion most people have is to shut the problem out and just hope it will go away.  Others react by sitting the abuser down, telling them what's wrong, telling them how to put it right and then assuming the problem is dealt with. Anybody who has been there will tell you that neither of these options work. There are, however, some basic rules that will help ensure that any relationship is maintained and even improved before getting down to dealing with the situation.  What happens at this point is going to make a fundamental difference to the next six months to two years.

Don't lash out - at anyone, but especially at the child who is abusing. Do everything possible to keep on talking with them as constructively as possible. If you can't respond positively, say nothing; but if you have to say something, think seriously about writing it down and giving it to them later. Either way, try to convince them that despite their actions you still love them as your child or partner.

Face the truth about yourself - do not deny the situation or what it is costing you. Do not be tempted to look too far into the future; if you do you will get overwhelmed. Share about the situation with someone if it's at all possible - especially about how YOU feel.  If you don't have someone close then talk to your doctor, a minister of religion, the Samaritans, or one of the major organisations listed in the Resource section below.

Being forced to acknowledge personal failure is incredibly difficult for anyone; but facing the truth about ourselves really does give us the liberty to help others more effectively. Actually acknowledging our own vulnerability can be tremendously liberating to others, especially to the person with the drug problem. 

Face the truth about the time needed to sort the issues out. We live in an age of instant gratification, instant answers and trite sound bites. But the fact is there are no quick answers for the problems of a person abusing drugs or alcohol. The issues are invariably complex, and it is going to take a lot of time to sort out attitudes and patterns of behaviour which have become deeply rooted.  Breaking free is going to be incredibly time-consuming - especially for you. 

Remember there are other people in the family - others who need your love, acceptance and time. They are just as important as the person who is abusing drugs, and it's worth making the decision to cope, just for them. They are especially important if the majority of your time does get filled in helping the family member with the drug problem. You cannot split yourself in two, but you can do all you can to tell them, as often as possible, that you love them and that they are still vitally important to your life, as well as ensuring you spend time with them. 

Practical steps to help

The list of things you can do to help someone in the family is extensive, but remember, take one step at a time.

Establish if they really want help. It may be that they don't think they have a problem or, if they do, they don't want your help - yet. If they do not want help, remember that there are plenty of other things you can do to build for the future.

Keep communication open. Whatever happens do not compromise on this one: stay in touch, insofar as it is down to you. Keep talking, even if they don't want to stop using drugs. One day they will want to make changes, and they need to be able to talk to you when that day comes.

Listen. Whilst it is easier to talk than to listen, really work at listening. It may be that you are the first person willing to take time to listen to them for years. Remember that really communicating that you are listening, takes effort. Give them eye contact so they know you are interested. Don't butt in, wait until they want to hear your perspective. Work hard at hearing what they are really saying, and not what you think they are saying.                                                    

Be vulnerable. Acknowledge your own mistakes, and accept responsibility for your part in who and what they are. You haven't got a lot to lose, but you do have everything to gain. Tell them how you used to feel with your parents; how you rebelled; what you really feel about issues; why you behave the way you do.

Tell them you are sorry. Very, very few people have ever done that to them before. Other people have been too insecure to tell them they are sorry. Telling them you are really sorry for what you have done wrong will do more to communicate your real love for them than many other things you do.

Learn to trust them. It is very difficult to learn to trust someone who has betrayed you and caused you hurt and pain. This is especially true of addicts or alcoholics who, in order to buy their next fix or drink, will often manipulate and ‘con’ anyone they can. However, it is important that they hear you say, ‘I will take what you say to me as being true about you personally, although when it comes to what you say about other people or your physical needs, I reserve the right to get further evidence.’ It all sounds a little formal, but the principle behind it is important, so say it the best way you can.

Don't allow yourself to be conned and manipulated. Don't give or lend money, because it may be used for drugs or alcohol. If they need something then buy the article - food, clothing etc.

Be firm and set out the rules. Set out some rules and maintain them fairly and consistently until you believe it’s the right time to change them. Do not allow them to do things which are unacceptable to you and other people in your family, e.g. using drugs in the home. Similarly, refuse to do anything that may support their drug use, e.g. buying them drugs or alcohol. Reinforce the standards you want in your home if they want it to be their home as well. Don't allow them to use unacceptable, obscene or profane language or vulgar behaviour. Tell them you don't want them to be dirty and smelly, and insist they use the bath/shower.

Take time out for yourself. Coping with a child who is abusing drugs or alcohol is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Get space for yourself at some stage each week.

Get support for yourself. There are many people who will provide an opportunity for you to recharge your emotional or spiritual batteries, and who can understand what you are going through. Many people in churches, synagogues and other places of worship are no strangers to problems - try them. Self-help groups for those in the same situation as you can also be very, very helpful. There are national addresses and telephone numbers below who can give you details of resources close to your home. One woman wrote about the difference this made to her and her husband: ‘We took ourselves off to meetings of Family Anonymous. I felt guilty because I thought it was all my fault. I was working full time and had not spent enough time with my two sons. My sponsor there was quite the opposite. She stayed at home and had devoted herself to her children and yet she had a child using drugs. You can't imagine how reassuring it was to discover that it wasn't all our fault. Richard and I ditched our social life, and for about four months we went to five meetings a week in an effort to get some sense back into our lives.’

What to do in emergencies   

What follows is all about how to face up to the issues of calling the police, dealing with medical emergencies and the most difficult decision of all - telling someone to leave home. Before I offer some guidelines I would strongly emphasise again, based upon my personal experience with many hardened addicts, that they are far more aware of the issues involved than they would like you to think. What I mean by this is that they always know, before you do, when they have crossed an unacceptable line. They know when they are pushing the limits, and they know, even if they won't admit it, that you are justified in taking the action you need to take. No addict, no matter what drugs they are on, has lost sight completely of what is right and wrong. Do your best, but when it comes to the point where other people’s lives are more important than the drug user, then act decisively.

When to Involve the Police

If you have to even think of involving the police, then the situation has become very serious. The need to do so is invariably related to:

Drug use at home. If you have rightly made it very clear that using drugs at home is unacceptable, and your child continues to do so when you have asked them to stop, then you may have to call the police. Don't make a major issue out of it, but very calmly make it very clear that if they use drugs in the home one more time you will very definitely phone the police or go to the police station to ask their advice. Having said this you must then do it if those circumstances arise.

When the life of yourself or someone else is threatened. There is very little point in debating this one. You simply have to accept that no one has the right to threaten anyone’s life, whether they are an addict or not.

When you and other people are being ‘ripped off’. Stealing from one's own family means that the person doing it has reached the stage where you have no option but to involve the police. Simply warn them that if they steal or ‘con’ anyone known to you personally, then you will advise the police.  Again, having said this, you must remain true to your word.

Medical Emergencies

If as a result of drug use a person is becoming disruptive (usually alcohol or tranquillizers have this effect), you need to take them somewhere quiet, and dimly lit, and persuade them to sit down. If they want to lie down, or if they fall asleep, put them in the recovery position, which means laying them on their stomach with their face to one side. Stay with them if at all possible; but if you have no choice but to leave them, then check every 15 minutes to ensure they have not become unconscious (see the following section, Typical Features of an Overdose). When dealing with people who are experiencing acute medical problems having taken drugs it is VITAL to try to determine the following information:

 1) Is the person an experienced user?

2) What did they take (or what did they think they took)? If they have friends with them check with them what it was; it might be that they know something which the user doesn't.

3) Ask how much they took. (Again enlist the help of friends in confirming this.)

4) How did they take it?  It is much more common to overdose by injecting or swallowing than by smoking.

5) MOST IMPORTANTLY -   Alcohol is extremely dangerous when mixed with drugs. In many overdose fatalities the actual quantity of other drugs consumed might be minimal, but the addition of alcohol can make it a lethal combination.was the drug taken in combination with alcohol or whilst the person was under the influence of alcohol?

Typical Features of an Overdose

1) Friends start to express concern.

2) They have taken more than one drug. Alcohol is particularly dangerous when combined with 'downers' (e.g. tranquillizers, heroin, DF118 barbiturates).

3) There is slurred speech, drooping eyelids, or they are staggering around.

4) They have very dilated pupils if they have used stimulants, OR very small (pin-point) pupils following opiate use.

5) They are unconscious. The way to establish whether someone is deeply unconscious, rather than asleep, is to give them a ‘Chinese burn’, pinch their earlobe hard or, as a last resort, rub your knuckles very hard up and down their sternum or (even more painful) to one side of their sternum.


If, in checking what drugs have been used, you don't understand the jargon or slang, ask them for the medical name for the drug. Pass this information on to the ambulance crew, doctor, hospital - whoever is helping.

Generally people will tend to get into serious difficulties only when using 'downers' (tranquillizers, opiates or barbiturates). It is only possible to overdose on 'uppers' (cocaine, amphetamines) if a massive dose is taken. It is difficult to overdose on LSD or Ecstasy.

If You have to Call an Ambulance

Do not debate about whether to tell the hospital what the real problem is - it may cost the person their life. If you find the user unconscious and have to get them to hospital, take with you, or give to the ambulance crew, any packets or syringes (handle these very carefully and put them in a can or box), or even samples of vomit. It’s not very pleasant, but once again may save their life.

David Partington 

This feature is written by David Partington. David is general secretary of ISAAC, the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition,  

 © David Partington 2011.