Watching for Peers Struggling with Addiction

Talking to someone about finding help for their addiction may seem like the last conversation you want to pursue—especially if that person isn’t a close relative or friend. Even though conversations with people close to us are still difficult, approaching the subject as a coworker, classmate, or peer can feel even more invasive and uncomfortable. Perhaps you justify procrastinating that conversation because it seems like “none of your business.” Maybe you assume something like addiction would never happen to that person, and it must just be you reading into the problem. They are probably going through a phase, right? Or maybe they just get carried away once in a while, right?

Unfortunately, we’re good at making excuses for why we never ask people if they need help. The longer we delay those conversations, the deeper they may dive into the consequences. If you’re concerned about someone, listen to your gut. Here are five things to watch for in peers who may be struggling with addiction.

  1. Taking a drug after it’s no longer needed. As opioid abuse grows on a national scale, more attention is being directed toward pain management and painkiller addiction. If you’re seeing someone continue to pursue refills or additional prescriptions for painkilling solutions, they may be depending on that drug long after the window when it was safe to consume.
  2. Changes in behavior. Substance abuse can have dramatic impacts on someone’s attitude and behavior. As their focus becomes absorbed with finding and using drugs, common changes in behavior include failing to keep commitments, not fulfilling personal and social obligations, showing more signs of irritability and anxiety, lack of attention to personal care and hygiene, and unusually missing work days for illness or repeated excuses. Even if someone feels they can mask their using for a while, the effects of those habits begin to spill into social and professional arenas.
  3. Withdrawing from others. When someone’s substance abuse is progressing, the common response is to isolate themselves from other people. When friends or family members question or challenge the person’s habits, the addict’s defensive mechanism may be to escape or withdraw from those relationships, gradually losing connection. Substance abuse thrives in isolation and drives users away from supportive communities.
  4. Keeping secrets. Any sort of harmful drinking or drug problem is often layered with secrecy. The secrets typically start with someone hiding how much they are drinking or using to prevent others from noticing a problem. Perhaps the addict goes missing for periods of time without warning or communication. They may develop a habit of making excuses for missed appointments, meetings, or events, trying to cover for time spent chasing and consuming drugs and alcohol. The secrets grow deeper when a loved one also begins covering for the addict’s unusual behavior, hoping others won’t notice anything has changed.
  5. Loss of interest. As someone is withdrawing from other people, they may also be showing a general loss of interest in things they once enjoyed. Just as an addict withdraws from loved ones, the addict may also withdraw from engaging in former activities, such as hobbies or social events. As their tolerance rises and their cravings grow more severe, they lose the sense of pleasure they once took in doing other things.

As you watch for these signs, consider the red flags you’re already seeing. If you are watching someone exhibit unusual changes in their personality, priorities, and behavior, think about how you can express your concerns. Learn how to start the conversation about getting help.