What Are the Early Signs of Addiction (and What Can You Do to Help?)

How can you tell if a friend or loved one is struggling with addiction?

If someone you know is abusing a substance, time is of the essence--They need help, and they need it soon.

We asked these experts what the early signs of addiction look like, and what YOU can do to help.

REMEMBER: If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, reach out to the Recovery X team and we will help you find whatever resources you need to begin your journey to recovery.

Tom Hill,
Vice President for Practice Improvement at the National Council for Behavioral Health

"Addiction is scary and confronting the person with a list of predetermined options or treatment plans can be intimidating to someone who is already vulnerable."

Addiction manifests differently depending on the substance and the individual. Several early signs of addiction include withdrawing from friends and family, losing interest in hobbies, changes in personal appearance, changes in sleep patterns (too much or too little) and socializing with a different group of friends. A person living with an addiction often changes their habits to mask both use and symptoms. Fortunately, the common signs of addiction are noticeable and they send up red flags that intervention might be necessary. The key is noticing signs of distress and responding appropriately.

If you suspect someone you know is using opioids, you could save their life by carrying naloxone and by starting a conversation about entering recovery. If you approach someone about entering treatment or getting help, it’s important to talk openly and honestly, and listen to their concerns. Addiction is scary and confronting the person with a list of predetermined options or treatment plans can be intimidating to someone who is already vulnerable. You should, however, feel confident enough to present your concerns and ask questions about their well-being. Indicate that you have noticed some changes in their behaviors. The National Council for Behavioral Health operates a program called Mental Health First Aid that is designed to help the layperson address addiction in a sensitive, effective manner. The program centers around a mnemonic, ALGEE, that teaches Mental Health First Aiders to:

  • A: Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • L: Listen nonjudgmentally
  • G: Give reassurance and information
  • E: Encourage appropriate professional help
  • E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies

For someone trying to get help for a friend or family member, ALGEE is a great framework to guide the conversation.

Michelli Ramon, LCSW, CDWF
Clinical Director at New Choices Treatment Center

"The first thing any of us can do for someone who needs helps with addiction, is give them reason and hope."

In my experience, the universal sign for struggle in nearly all human beings is the same – Disconnection.  We are wired for relationships, connection and love.  When someone you care about is isolating, struggling with loneliness or unplugging from people, places and things he or she once care about, there is sufficient evidence for concern.  The origins of addiction in any individual are difficult to isolate but we know that disconnection plays a powerful role.  Genetics, traumatic events, significant losses and mental health crises are significant precursors to substance use but, individually do not predict addiction unless combined with disconnection. 

For years we held to the belief that people living with addiction had to want help in order for them to get better.  Today, I know this statement is far from true.  People in active addiction do not have to want help.  In fact, few of them do.  Wanting help requires a modicum of self-worth, something most addicts are short on.  People living in addiction do, however, need a reason to get help and the reasons can be many and varied.  The first thing any of us can do for someone who needs helps with addiction, is give them reason and hope.  That can be as simple as saying to your loved one, “I can’t accept this behavior but I’m not going to let you push me away.  I love you, I know you can do this, I’ll do it with you.  Let’s go.”

Gloria Seel
Senior Director of Addictions at AtlantiCare

"Choose words that convey caring and concern, but not judgement."

Early signs family and friends should be mindful of include significant changes in mood or behavior; changes in appearance and hygiene that indicate someone may not be showering, doing laundry, brushing their teeth, shaving, combing their hair, etc.; and neglecting activities that have typically been valued or important. Missing habit-forming medication in the home or the loved one running out of his prescriptions early are other indicators. Stay alert if the loved one becomes more secretive or if there’s a noticeable increase in alcohol consumption or use.

Is your loved one suddenly staying home to watch TV, when she was always out with friends? Does your loved one look unkempt when he was always the picture of “put together?” Have you noticed your pain medication seems to be missing, and you’re not taking it? If so, your loved one may be struggling with addiction.

Too often, addiction is a taboo subject. Speak with your loved ones directly about the changes in mood and behavior you’re noticing and observing. Choose words that convey caring and concern, but not judgement. Remind her that she is loved and that you’re always there for her. Listen to what your loved one has to say. Encourage him to get involved in recovery – whether with a Recovery Specialist or Peer Mentor, attending a support meeting, or seeking inpatient, outpatient or medication-assisted treatment services. There are a plethora of resources available to those who are seeking help. Involvement with others who are choosing recovery and building a community are key to engaging in recovery.