The idea for this post came from me writing about the warning signs of an eating disorder. I realized if there was more openness and honesty about these topics, parents just might stand a chance. And I’m more than willing to be honest with you guys.
This is actually harder for me to talk about than my eating disorder. I suppose it makes sense. I feel like more and more people are opening up about eating disorders, which is amazing. But not many people have the balls to talk about drug addiction.
Probably because of the massive stigma attached to addiction. When people use the words druggie, stoner, crack-head, tweaker a certain image is conjured up. Not a nice one, I might add.
And it’s fair. When addiction has it’s hold on you, literally nothing else matters. Your next breath doesn’t even matter, unless you’ll be inhaling your substance of choice.
I think a lot of people assume that most drug addicts are homeless people walking the streets. They don’t think of people who own their own homes or a mom or someone from church. They picture dirty, thin people with sad, hungry eyes.
But that isn’t how it starts. And for a lot of drug addicts, it all starts long before they ever left home. It starts in childhood or adolescence. So let’s talk about the warning signs of drug abuse.
Physical Signs of Drug Abuse
There are a lot of illicit drugs out there. This means there’s almost no way I can hit everything. And, unfortunately for the vigilant parent, it means there is a huge range of signs. I’m going to try to break them up very broadly and get more specific as I go.
Another thing to note is that some of these physical signs mimic those of anorexia, due to malnourishment. You may want to read that post, as well, to see if what you’re noticing in your child fits those signs better.
Related: Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder
Stimulants (think cocaine, meth, and prescriptions like Adderall) will cause signs of malnourishment. They will lose weight. Their skin, hair, and nails will look unhealthy and be frail.
I think this may be one of the easiest things to spot. For a lot of people, seeing someone today that is obviously underweight instantly makes you wonder if they’re on drugs.
The reason for the sudden and significant weight loss is that you completely lose your desire to eat. In fact, food can even become repulsive.
I don’t want my blog to ever trigger anyone unnecessarily, so I’m not going to talk about numbers or specifics. I will say though that if your child loses a significant amount of weight in a short period of time, there is a good chance there’s a problem. Whether it be anorexia, drugs, or something else entirely.
They may seem jittery, their hands or legs may shake all the time. They may not even realize it, but they seem to be constantly in motion. This is sometimes referred to as tweaking.
They will probably seem distracted, be unable to sit still, and talk very fast. Think of a kid who’s had too much sugar and caffeine, then double that.
They will be preoccupied, unable to focus, and erratic. Some people become more social and talkative, some become more violent and volatile.
You may also notice changes in their skin. Meth can cause people to dig at their skin. Most drugs will also make users forget about personal hygiene. So they may develop acne, or their skin may appear yellow (jaundice).
On the other hand, depressants (think heroin, tranquilizers, and even marijuana) will be quite the opposite. Not necessarily weight gain–although it can happen.
You’ll notice a complete lack of energy. If your child is actually high at the moment, they will be lethargic, perhaps even unresponsive. They will seem like they’re in a trance.
Their eyes will likely seem empty. I look back at photos of me when I was using and there’s a very obvious glaze over my eyes. I look like a zombie.
Your child might isolate themselves, zone out, and sleep a lot. Depending on what they’re using, symptoms can obviously vary. But if your child seems to have no energy or drive, something might be up.
Behavioral Signs of Drug Use
If your loved one is on drugs, certain things are likely to happen. Some of these aren’t very pretty, okay, none of them are. So buckle up.
Drugs cost money. You might wonder how kids without jobs can afford to use. The answer is pretty simple: they get creative.
They steal, they lie, they pawn, they cheat, they may even have sexual arrangements setup. No one wants to think that their kid is capable of that sort of thing, but trust me, you’d be surprised.
Keep an eye out for money disappearing suddenly. That is pretty obvious. But also remember that once you’re consumed by addiction, nothing is too sacred. So if you have valuables, those might disappear as well.
Obviously, most kids don’t want to get high at home and hang out with their family. So, if you feel like you’re suddenly seeing very little of your kid, that might be a red flag.
They also might physically be home, but always locked in their room. Never interacting or wanting to hang out with anyone.
Plus, they will be lying constantly. So look for any tells like avoiding eye contact, changing their story, having stories that sound rehearsed or stumbling through their sentences as if they’re nervous.
Of course, this could be a sign of a mental heath condition, so if your child is displaying erratic behavior but no other signs, you should take them to a psychologist for further help.
No matter what drug they’re on, there will be two sides to your kid now: the high side, and the jonesing, gotta-get-my-fix side. These two sides will probably be very striking.
When they run out of their drugs, or come down, they might feel sick and they will definitely feel irritable. Every tiny inconvenience becomes a massive setback. The only thing they’re thinking about is how to get more.
Difficulty at School or Work
This isn’t a hard and fast rule. One of the reasons I was able to hide my drug use so well is because I had no trouble with school.
I am a natural learner. I love to learn and conquer new problems. So I always made sure I was caught up in school. Some people might call that a high-functioning addict, but I promise, I didn’t feel very high-functioning at the time.
For a lot of people, though, school and work become meer inconveniences to them. Obstacles in the way of getting high.
Pay attention to attendance issues, falling grades, or completely not turning assignments in. Many people are just absolutely unable to hold down a job when using, so if your loved one is constantly changing jobs, there’s a red flag.
Sudden Change in Friends
A drug addict doesn’t have much interest in hanging out with someone who has no interest in using. It just doesn’t appeal to them.
If your kid never mentions friends they previously used to rattle on and on about, something could be up. If you suddenly see new friends all the time, that’s another thing to be wary of.
Try to keep any preconceived notions at bay. You may think, “Oh, my kid has a lot of new friends but they’re all honor roll students from great families! I know all their parents!” That doesn’t mean a thing. No one is immune from addiction. Well dressed kids from the right side of town can also be using.
On the flip side, maybe your kid suddenly has a new set of friends that look like what you believe a drug addict would look like. Maybe they’re grungy, maybe they have unkempt hair. But if that’s the only sign off of this list, it may be your own biases coming through, and nothing else.
Signs Specific to How They Use
It’s unpleasant but really helpful to familiarize yourself with the methods of using and their associated signs. I’ll try to be as thorough as possible, so let’s just dive in.
You can smoke almost any drug. The exception would be pills and club drugs (LSD is generally absorbed in the tongue, ecstasy is usually in pill form but can be crushed up). Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana can all be smoked.
The most obvious sign will be smell. Unfortunately, especially to an untrained nose, some of these scents are quite hard to spot. Marijuana has the most pungent scent. I’m not great at describing smell, but I’d say it’s like a mix between burnt grass (thus the nickname), skunk, and pine. But different strains smell different, too.
Other things to look for are paraphernalia. You can smoke weed out of almost anything. Apples, water bottles, cans, etc. If you spot any household objects with two holes (one to put the weed in, the other to inhale from) that have charred marks or residue that appears to be weed, it’s probably a homemade pipe.
Also look for pipes, broken lightbulbs, tinfoil (or if you notice you’re going through a lot more tinfoil than normal), bongs, and rolling paper. I don’t really want to post pictures of these things, but you can Google at your own risk.
Most people know what a regular pipe looks like. But for crack and meth, different pipes are used. Generally they are made of a thin glass. Some will look like a glass straw, others will have a round bulb on the end.
Methamphetamine has a very distinct chemical smell. It’s hard to spot if you’ve never smelled it before. But keep in mind that any unusual smell could be something to make note of.
If your child is injecting drugs, I’m so sorry. But I’ve been there myself, and while it’s certainly scary, there is hope.
Obviously if you find needles, red flag. If spoons disappear, this is another warning sign.
What happens is the drug is placed in a spoon, broken up if needed, and mixed with water. Then it’s heated with a lighter or torch, and often a small piece of cotton is put on the spoon to help “filter” the mixture and make sure no larger chunks clog your needle. After this, it’s pulled up into the needle. Usually a belt or some fabric is used to tie off the area they will be injecting.
Contrary to what you might think, drugs can be injected into basically any vein. So while it’s definitely important to keep an eye out for track marks, if you don’t see any marks, that doesn’t mean they aren’t injecting.
Often overlooked, snorting can seem like a good choice for hiding an addiction (it has no scent and leaves no marks). However, there are quite a few signs and side effects.
If your kid has frequent nosebleeds and chronic congestion, this could be a sign. Obviously some people have real nasal issues, so use your own judgement.
You also may find shortened straws, or credit cards (or any firm card) with residue on them. The cards are used to form a line with the powder. You may also find loose razor blades used to cut up pills and other substances in order to snort.
Signs They’re High
So, what about when they’re actively high in front of you? What should you look for? What might stand out?
It will vary based on what they’re using, but here are some signs.
- Uncoordinated, trouble balancing, and slower reactions are common with depressants
- Forgetful, might repeat things they’ve said before and not remember what you’ve told them
- May experience paranoia, they may talk about people being “after them”, think they’re being followed, or think their phones or homes are wired
- Changes in speech: on stimulants this will generally be rapid speech, sometimes so fast you can’t follow what they’re saying. With depressants, they may slur their words or trail off without finishing a thought
- Their eyes may be bloodshot. Their pupils might be constricted or dilated depending on what they’ve taken.
- Changes in sleep – they might sleep all day or be awake all hours of the night.
Signs of Withdrawal
Perhaps even scarier than when they’re high is when they’re coming down. They will probably try to hide this, but may complain of flu-like symptoms.
Generally they will swing from burning hot to freezing cold. They may shiver but kick the blankets off because they’re sweating or the blankets burn or feel weird. Honestly, the symptoms of withdrawal are numerous and kind of scary.
They will be incredibly irritable and only be able to think about getting their next fix. They will likely throw up. lt can seem like a very bad flu, but with extreme agitation.
How to Approach a Loved One Who May be Using
First, know that this is no one’s fault. It isn’t your fault they are using. And, although it’s probably their fault for taking that first puff, it isn’t their fault they developed an addiction. Pointing fingers and assigning blame will only result in arguments, aggression, and shutting down.
Make sure you listen to them as much as (or more than) you talk. Addiction is not about the actual drug, but about the escape the drug affords them. It’s important to listen for clues as to what they’re trying to escape.
Reassure them of your love and compassion. Remind them that while you are sad about what addiction has done to them, you love them unconditionally and will always be there for them.
Stay strong. Addicts are masters of manipulation. They will flip things around on you faster than you can blink. They’ll blame you, their circumstances, or anything they can think of. They’ll yell at you for invading their privacy, they’ll deny it, they’ll guilt you into doubting if you have any reason at all to be concerned. Stick with your gut.
Do your research. Will you be trying to get them into a residential facility? Will you start with just therapy? Come up with a plan so that you can present it to them. Then stick to it.
Other Things Worth Knowing
I can’t stress enough that this is an illness. Addiction is a sickness inside your loved one’s brain. It’s really hard for a lot of people to understand this if they’ve never been addicted, but it’s important to accept this.
Your kid isn’t doing this to hurt you, to spite you, to test you, etc. This is not about you. It’s about them.
It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been using. If they just started or if this has been going on for years: there is help. There is hope. They can recover.
I know it’s a knee-jerk reaction to blame yourself. And while there may be things you wish you’d done differently, I can tell you this much:
I would have used no matter what. I remember from a really young age, always wondering what it felt like to be drunk. And as I got older and learned about drugs, I started wondering what those would be like. There was no choice my parents could have made that would have changed my trajectory. No amount of positive reinforcement, attachment parenting, or stricter rules would have had an impact on me. So while I can’t say for sure your kid will feel that same way, I can say it’s very possible that you did your best and this was just something they had to go through.
Your kid needs new friends. I can say with certainty that if they hang out with the same crowd, they’ll have the same results. Depending on how bad things are, you may need to switch schools.
That’s not because there will be no drugs in the new school. It’s because of the peer pressure from those friends. The familiarity.
I would hazard a guess that nine times out of ten, the people who relapsed after the rehab I went to, relapsed because they’d gone back to the same group of friends. If nothing else, try to get your kid away from the people they’re using with.
Was this useful? If so, please share so that other people can learn and be more prepared. If you have any questions or need more info, please let me know in the comments.