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Signs & Red Flags

Many parents of addicts look back and ask ourselves what signs we somehow failed to recognize. In hindsight most of us would say it was a combination of thinking the behavior was due to normal teenage changes, or ignorance, denial or embarrassment.  The signs are there and they’re different for each person.

Addiction still carries a huge social stigma. But until we look at the possibility that our loved one could have a drug problem, the addiction will only get worse. The longer they use, the longer we ignore the signs, the longer we fail to act – the more difficult the challenge of recovery becomes. If our loved one was diagnosed with a tumor, kidney disease, or a broken leg, we would act immediately and wouldn’t ask if they wanted our help. We would confront them and coerce them by whatever means necessary to get the treatment they desperately need. But with addiction we often fail to act – out of fear of the unknown, and out of embarrassment.

The time to act is now.

Drug use and the signs are all part of the progression from drug use, to drug problems, to drug addiction.  And nobody is suggesting that exhibiting one or more of these signs means your loved one is using or addicted to drugs. But they do suggest that you take action by doing everything possible to get a full understanding of what's going on then, if necessary, seek help. Addiction doesn’t happen over night but it starts with the first sign, then maybe a second…from skipping a single shower to not bothering to change clothes for several days. 

As drug use increases the user/addict becomes less able to cover up, hide or mask their use and exhibits more “signs” – get help NOW.  If they’re demonstrating these signs – seek help immediately.  When you start seeing multiple noted behaviors – your life (and theirs…although they don’t know it) become insane – almost unmanageable.

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Trust your instincts – Nobody knows your child like you do. If your gut tells you something is wrong, chances are they're right.  Get to the bottom of the issue and make sure you’re 100 percent satisfied with the explanation.

Ryan had a flat tire and no car jack and called for my help. When I arrived I knew something was wrong – I suspected he and his friend we high but wasn’t sure.  Rather than follow my gut, leave his car where it was and drag him home, I helped put the spare on and went home, leaving him and his friend to continue their evening. Later, during one of his treatments/recoveries, Ryan told me they'd been high and the flat was caused by hitting the curb.
Encounters with the police Contact with authorities is not normal teenage behavior, so don’t ignore it.  A Minor in Possession (MIP) charge, driving under the influence (DUI), finding “just a little marijuana,” petty theft, shoplifting or school truancy are all huge indicators.

One summer evening Ryan was dropped off at my house, yelling “(a friend) just stole my car!  (A friend) just stole my car”.  After some time and several phone calls we decided to go to the police. We entered the police station and they immediately took Ryan into custody. I was dumbfounded – we were at the station to report his car had been stolen car, yet they took him away!  Later, the police told me the place Ryan had been was a known drug house and I needed to watch Ryan very carefully and be aware of the time spent with these "friends."  When I voiced my concerns to Ryan, he assured me that everything was fine…that it was his friend's older sibling who'd had several run-ins with the police.  I also had several conversations with one of the parents at the house, who reassured me the police looked for any excuse to harass them. In the end the police were right – Ryan’s friend has been to drug treatment several times and is now in jail because of his addiction.
Poor personal hygiene – Failing to brush teeth, wash or comb hair or take daily showers or wearing the same clothes for days.

Ryan went from a kid who would take his cordless toothbrush to a restaurant and brush immediately after eating, to going days without brushing his teeth, showering or changing his clothes...from a kid who wouldn’t answer the door without checking his hair, to someone who would crawl out of bed dressed in yesterday’s clothes and just leave the house. 
Drowsy/dopey/listless demeanor – Granted, very few people – least of all teenagers – jump out of bed in the morning to head off to school or work.

But what about being unable to wake up, or find interest in fun or pleasurable activities, or nodding off during conversations?

As his addiction grew, Ryan spent more and more time laying around sleeping. Earlier I had written this off as a symptom of depression but as time went on I could no longer ignore the real reason. 
Physical changes – acne, dry mouth, itching, weight change, nausea and vomiting

From the time Ryan was 4 years old until e was about 10, he had gastro intestinal problems, characterised by “spontaneous vomiting”.  Also as a  teen he would have acne breakouts which was controlled with treatment.

When the nausea and vomiting reappeared I chose to believe his acid reflux had returned. The acne flared up again so we resumed dermatology appointments. But as his addiction grew and my understanding increased I realized that these were symptoms of heroin/opiate use, especially when coupled with other signs such as drowsiness and hostile outbursts.

I thought I had captured the intended moment – a proud young man, with a grin on his face, finger pointing to me to acknowledge his accomplishment and my presence. But despite all the positives the photo captures, I hate it with my whole heart and soul. I unknowingly captured a telltale sign of his addiction – the water bottle he held. Even if he wasn’t high at that moment, a symptom of opiate use is constant thirst and dry mouth and Ryan seldom went anywhere without something to drink.
Paraphernalia – Burnt/missing spoons, candles, cotton balls, pens – so many common household items can be used for drugs. Empty pens are used for snorting, aluminum foil, pop bottles, bottle caps – yes, even the plastic ones – can all be used in some form or fashion. 

I couldn’t comprehend my son, my flesh and blood, “shooting up,” so initially I convinced myself that he was being truthful when he told me that syringe caps or a belt I found in the bathroom belonged to a “friend” trying desperately to get clean.

A recovering friend of Ryan’s recently told me that before her drug use she never wore a belt; in fact, she hated them. As her addiction grew she always made sure she had something – a belt, a wrap, a purse strap – to “tie off" with. Like so many other signs, nobody ever noticed her wardrobe change.
Physical/verbal outbursts – Irritable, hostile, angry emotions are not unusual for someone in the process of withdrawal.  Physically their bodies need the drug and psychologically they are desperate to satisfy the cravings, so almost anything is possible.

There were too many of these drug outbursts to count.  One minute everything was fine and then, perhaps with a simple denial of money or use of the car or whatever, a raging maniac appeared.  A few times I was afraid of what Ryan might do next. He once threatened to hit me with a golf club and all I could say was
"You'll have to live with your next decision" - he struck the closet door instead.  Other times he tipped over chairs and furniture, dumped a bag of rice all over the floor and tossed flour in the air. Another time he tried to grab the keys out of my car as I drove down Schoenherr Road. As I struggled physically with Ryan and tried desperately to stop the car, ending up in the left turn lane, I remember the stunned look on another driver's face as she drove past.
Acceptance of drug use by others and annoyed when confronted by their position – News reports, newspaper articles

Any downplay or minimizing drug use, perhaps a comment about a news report or a friend who has got in trouble or arrested. 

Comments like - "Marijuana isn’t that bad and should be legalized" or "(drug users) are only hurting themselves" or "it's my/their life - it's nobody else's business".
Uncharacteristic behavior/actions/decisions – When their behavior or decisions leave you wondering, "how can they think/believe that?" your child might have a problem.  Nobody knows your loved one better – you know when their actions are off-the-wall.

After the car theft incident Ryan told me, “The cops wanted me to take a drug/alcohol test but I refused – I didn’t do anything wrong”.  He then went on to tell me that when they refused to let him go to the bathroom, he “sure showed them" by peeing all over the cell.  I remember wondering: who is this kid?

Another time, while driving home with Ryan I stopped by a local auto shop to purchase new wiper blades. Ryan asked me to leave the keys so he could listen to the radio. When I returned, Ryan and my truck were gone. He had taken off and left me stranded about three miles from home.
Lies/manipulation/theft – Drug users will lie even when confronted with indisputable proof. Everyone is fair game and nothing is sacred anymore. They'll tell you anything, beg mercilessly, then take the clothes off your back (assuming they have value at the pawn shop).

I’ve lost count of the number of power tools Ryan pawned. Even after his death I’ve gone to use a tool only to find an empty case. Jewelry and music CDs – anything with pawn shop value – have also gone missing.

I once returned home to find groceries I'd purchased and unpacked earlier in the day on the floor, back in their bags. Ryan had found the receipt in the garbage, rebagged the items and tried to return them but failed because I'd paid with a check.
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