Signs of Drug Addiction

From the expanding legalization of marijuana to the ongoing headlines about the opioid crisis, drug abuse and addiction are incredibly widespread. In fact, there’s a good chance this issue has impacted someone you know, maybe even in your immediate family.

In most cases a full-blown drug problem develops or unfolds in four distinct stages. Each represents a deeper and more serious level of danger, with teens being especially vulnerable. If you see signs of an addiction beginning to develop in your child, you need to intervene as early as possible.

Stage 1: Experimentation. During this phase drug use is occasional, sporadic, and often unplanned, likely precipitated by peer pressure at social gatherings. These experiences usually involve the so-called “gateway drugs”—cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and possibly inhalants. Kids who are experimenting with drugs find it easier to achieve a “high” because tolerance has not been developed.

Stage 2: Regular and Habitual Use. In this phase alcohol and other drugs are used not only on weekends but also on weekdays, and not only with friends but also when alone. Intake may increase as tolerance develops. Fellow drinkers and drug users become preferred companions, and teens may stay out later at night, overnight, or all weekend. At this stage watch for signs of hangover; declining academic performance and unexplained absences; lack of interest in outside activities; withdrawn, sullen, or hostile behavior; lies and deception; and the disappearance of money and other valuables.

Stage 3: Crossing the line. At this point we can picture the drug abuser as standing waist deep in the mire of addiction and steadily sinking. Alcohol and drugs become the primary focus of the user’s attention. Becoming high is a daily event, and it can only be achieved by using harder, more dangerous, and more expensive drugs. Users who reach this point may be arrested for possession, dealing, or driving under the influence.

Stage 4: Drowning in addiction. At this point, intoxication or highs are almost constant while school, jobs, and other responsibilities fall by the wayside as the addict’s health and physical appearance deteriorate. Guilt, self-hatred, and thoughts of suicide increase, and the adolescent abandons any apparent interest in spiritual matters. The addict may also begin to use injectable drugs like heroin, become involved in casual sexual relationships (sometimes in exchange for drugs), and sink even deeper into theft and other criminal activities. At this stage recovery is nearly impossible apart from treatment programs and professional intervention.

If you or someone you love is struggling in this area, especially the latter stages, we recommend you seek the help of a professional counselor as soon as possible. In addition, we encourage you to read Kathy Pride’s book Winning the Drug War at Home, or download the program Offering Hope to Families Experiencing Drug Addiction, both of which are available from Focus on the Family’s Online Store.