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Doorway to the Unknown: How To Tell If A Loved One Might Be Addicted

Doorway to the Unknown: How To Tell If A Loved One Might Be Addicted
Written by Seth Fletcher on August 14, 2019
Last update: March 9, 2023

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.

A Family Consumed By Addiction

Simone stared at the curious fresh welts on Peter’s arms and legs. These were not the marks she was used to. They looked like lots of tiny spikes. The bruises she viewed as “normal” were from automotive fan belts. She wondered what could have caused these new ones, so she asked her older brother. She found out that their mother had stricken him with a new instrument. The weapon? The tail of a stingray. Yes, the one from the ocean.

If you’ve done a double-take upon seeing this, you might think you’re reading fiction. Well, you’re not. These are actual people, and this is real life. You are witness to an insidious practice that often triggers addiction: child abuse. But this is just one component of a deadly disease. For many drug addicts, the disorder has already pervaded their entire lives and destroyed countless relationships. An important first step in preventing this is knowing how to identify early warning signs of substance abuse before it’s too late. Let us learn from Peter’s story.

Peter’s drug of choice was methamphetamine hydrochloride or informally, crystal meth. This stimulant is quite addictive. Its tolls on physical and mental health are irreversible. His addiction started in the 1980s, then was at its worst throughout the 1990s. With the help of family members, he participated in one treatment plan after another. After his most successful stay in rehab, he enjoyed two years of sobriety. He suffered a relapse, however, and it has been a downward spiral ever since. His advancing years mellowed out the addiction, but at 53 years old, he’s still grappling with it today.

The onset of symptoms

The first signs of trouble surfaced during Peter’s teen years. His sister Simone observed the slow progression of these changes.

“He became really smelly because he stopped showering. He lost a lot of weight because he didn’t eat much. Surprisingly, he had lots of energy and was always hyper. His eyes protruded and his teeth rotted quicker,” she recalls. “After he had done a bender the previous night, he would be excessively thirsty the next morning. He could drink an entire litre of water in one go. We wondered what could make him that thirsty. Then one day, we found out.”

One of Peter’s drug addict friends visited their family home. Simone observed in this man the same strange behaviour of glugging litres of water all at once, so she confronted him and he admitted the truth.

Another strange thing Peter did was to put a lighted lamp at the head of his bed. While that in itself wasn’t weird, what Simone found creepy was that the lamp would follow him wherever he went— day or night. Whether he was sitting on a chair, sofa, or even on the floor, the lamp would be placed above his head. He didn’t do anything intricate, like miniature boat building, so extra illumination wasn’t necessary to his daily activities. “Perhaps he needed his head heated up,” Simone snickered. She always wondered what the purpose was, but never brought it up.

After the meth wore off, Peter got cranky and irritable.

“He always looked angry, even when there wasn’t anything to be mad about. He was never like that when he was young, before the substance abuse problem,” Simone stressed. “He was never hungry and yet he had so much energy, he was bouncing off walls. He would pick fights with our other sisters and me for no reason.”

The quarrels would involve not just verbal slinging, but also physical blows.

“There were a couple of times we had to call in the local authorities to help,” Simone sobs. "Do you know how painful it is to turn in your own brother to the police? We had to do this because many times, he left us with no choice.”

Addictive behaviour arising from inferiority complex may have roots in child abuse

Throughout the years, Simone and her three sisters watched helplessly as their brother wasted away. He was aging prematurely and suffering internally, but they couldn’t do much about it. When they were all still living in the family home, their father left their mother for a younger woman, leaving their mom to take care of the family business—a successful auto parts supply store. Their mom ran this on top of her own business undertakings, travelling extensively. As a result, she got totally exhausted and brought the stress home with her. She took it out on her children. Unfortunately, Peter bore the brunt of it because he was the only one not doing well in school.

Simone recalled how her mother used to beat Peter with a fan belt from their auto parts store. She first saw the contusions on his skin when they were at school because the boys wore shorts for their uniform in the warmer months. She wanted to admonish her mother, but didn’t because she was afraid of being hit as well.

One day, Simone saw a different kind of bruise—an unfamiliar pattern. When Peter told her about the stingray, she could hardly believe it. How was this possible? They lived far away from the beach. Then she saw it. Their mom had brought an actual dried stingray home from their store. It occupied pride of place on the mantle above the altar.

When Simone asked her mom about it, she was told that it was a gift from a relative at their seaside hometown. The stingray was meant to be some kind of talisman to bring fortune to their business.

The blessing of rehabilitation

The most helpful treatment program Peter attended was a free one offered by an NGO in a distant city – their equivalent of Beverly Hills. The organisation was sponsored by wealthy patrons. It was at this treatment centre where Peter met – apart from various celebrities from their local Hollywood – his close friend, Paul. This friendship was a lifesaver for Peter... for a short time.

Paul helped him find a job as an auto insurance adjuster. Peter wasn’t able to graduate from high school, but Paul put in a good word. Helping out in their family business had made Peter quite knowledgeable in the automobile industry. He excelled at his job. They even gave him a service vehicle for his rounds. This job lasted for two years. Until the next relapse.

“He just didn’t show up for work,” Simone recalls.

Apparently, he started showing up late and continued to do so even after repeated warnings. He would disappear for hours with the service vehicle on unofficial trips, though he did return it before he went AWOL.

In contrast, Paul – Peter’s friend from rehab – had a different story. He had a wife and child. Adamant about the recovery process, his spouse arranged for the entire family to migrate to Australia. The objective? Move her husband away from all influences that drove him to addiction. The solution? Change the environment, dump addict friends. It worked. Paul is now drug-free.

The irony, though, was not lost on Simone. Paul’s wife was a pharmacist. Some of Peter's contemporaries in the NGO rehabilitation program included police, members of the military, public defenders, and politicians for parents/relatives. These are people who enforce the law or have the power to change it. Even they are helpless in the fight against addiction.

Shooting with the stars

Why is crystal meth so popular with performing artists and other creatives? It is sought after for properties that promote abilities essential to a successful career in the entertainment industry – namely, the ability to stay awake and be active at odd hours, and the capacity to function without eating much. Shooting for movie/TV productions usually takes place at night or dawn. Crew members need to keep up with gruelling schedules.

Apparently, crystal meth use is not limited to entertainers or the wealthy because it is affordable. Many regular folks who need to work longer hours or who do graveyard shifts need to stay alert much longer. So they reach for the drug instead of, or in addition to, caffeine. For the poor, it provides escapism as it induces euphoria, albeit short-lived.

Crystal-clear consequences

As Peter has been using crystal meth most of his adult life, its effects have been devastatingly extensive. He was jailed several times, with different time spans. Every time he was incarcerated, his mom bailed him out. But she had her limits. It was time for tough love.

“At one point, she didn’t want to rescue Peter anymore,” Simone recalls. “He didn’t respond to ultimatums. So she let him rot there.”

This led to Peter’s longest stay in jail: one year.

Even though Peter was in and out of rehab, following a prescribed treatment plan was beneficial for him every time. His stay varied from a few weeks to six months. Each time, he would emerge refreshed and positive. But he kept relapsing. Every relapse made him worse off.

Peter couldn’t use the NGO-sponsored program more than once. The next best thing was to attend paid alternatives. These, like the one sponsored by City Hall, charged a fee for food and board, training, and uniforms. Patients weren’t allowed to wear their own clothes; they had to be distinguished from staff. Patients also couldn’t cut their stay short – under threat of having their eyebrows shaved off.

Family squabbles

To this day, Peter continues to live with the burden of his disease. His oldest sister had conveniently moved away years ago and became a successful entrepreneur like their mother. One younger sister committed suicide, cause unknown. Nina, the youngest, a single mom with two kids, continues to live with him. The sisters had some construction work done to the family home to divide up the property, giving Peter a separate entrance. But Nina has to share the courtyard, garage, and utilities like water and electricity. Simone and her husband bought the lot next door. The couple act as referee whenever an altercation arises between Peter and Nina.

After his stint at the insurance company, Peter was unable to hold a stable job due to his resurrected drug use. So, taking advantage of the section of the family home his sisters allocated to him, he rented out part of it. This allowed him to continue his drug habit.

The latest dispute between Peter and Nina involved utilities. Angry because of an unintended offence by Nina, Peter cut the water line to her part of the house, so she ended up doing laundry at Simone’s. Next, an intrusion from his nephew infuriated Peter, so he attempted to cut their electricity as well. Instead of hiring a professional, he chose to do this himself. As a result, he ended up being electrocuted. One of his tenants, upon checking to see why only their lights went out when the rest of their neighbours’ were still on, found Peter unconscious on the floor by the mains. Thanks to him, Peter got to live another day.

Apprehension for the future

One would think Peter would take this as his umpteenth chance. But he didn’t. Simone says she used to be ashamed of Peter and refrained from bringing him up in conversations. The family tried to hide him during gatherings after a series of events that involved tantrums resulting from arguments between him and his mom, during which their mother berated him in public, a huge source of humiliation for Peter. “Now, I don’t care anymore,” Simone says, resignedly.

But she admits to still worrying about him and dreads having to take care of him when he becomes totally incapacitated in old age.

“Even now, he moves ever so slowly, dragging one of his legs around because it hardly works anymore. He refuses to seek help for medical problems. He has lost most of his hair and he’s become so thin. We would have loved to see him married, but he was never successful at romantic relationships. There was a girl once, who was brave enough to show up at our house. She was clearly into him, but he didn’t have the guts to face her. I ended up entertaining her until she left. Before he got tenants, he was totally dependent on us. We fed him, clothed him, paid for his rehab, medical bills, and TV shows, which he watched day and night until he fell asleep. What does he expect: that we also find a wife for him? What is he, nuts? Who, in her right mind, would want to live with a person like this?”

Dig deeper: examine the past for root causes

Looking back, Simone thinks the addiction is so difficult to eradicate because it might have been caused by the verbal and physical abuse their mother inflicted on Peter. She heard him express this resentment to their mom years ago: “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be this way.” Asked if he was affected by their mom’s passing, Simone shook her head: “He was relieved to see her go. I think he even wished it.”

Simone has set aside her shame to share their story, to show how substance use disorders not only affect the user, but also cause rifts within the family and disrupt the lives of everyone involved. This extends beyond family members to include anyone whose life is touched by the drug/alcohol abuser.

Advice to families impacted by drug and alcohol addiction

Simone points out one glaring fact about her siblings: “We were never close. If we were, Peter would have had the love, care, and support he needed... and still does. We were always just reacting to him. Like little kids, we would often complain: ‘But he started it!’ And most of the time, our reactions were justified. He did terrible things to us, many of them unmentionable. You would cry if you learned the details of the stuff we fought about. If Peter had gotten married, he probably would have been able to kick his habit, like his friend did.”

Simone acknowledges that Paul’s wife and kid were the main driving force to his quick recovery. “We weren’t able to provide the same to our brother,” she admits.

Simone appeals to families working toward addiction recovery to overlook, if they possibly can, their addicted loved one’s transgressions – something she and her sisters found difficult to do with their brother.

“Once you can do this, it will be easier for you to offer unconditional love and encouragement. Our compassion disappeared when we got trampled on. Our father made his exit. Our sister ended her life. Even our own mother stopped bailing him out of jail. She finally gave up, losing her battle with breast cancer. We blamed her death on all the stress from Peter’s addiction. But you can do better. Learn from our mistakes. Do not give up on your suffering relative. Any solid relationship is a powerful tool against chronic diseases. If you have it, use it.”

When Your Beloved Becomes Unloveable: Recognizing Drug or Alcohol Abuse

These are the symptoms of common substance abuse disorders [1]. Many of these overlap and can cause one other.

Environmental changes

  • Neglect of personal space (bedroom/bathroom/wardrobe)
  • Missing medications, alcohol, cleaning products
  • Missing money and belongings

Behaviour changes and mental health issues

  • Neglect of physical appearance, hygiene, health
  • Delusions
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Refusal to get help or treatment
  • Mention of suicidal thoughts
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks and responsibilities, like finances
  • Becoming secretive
  • Irritability
  • Violence, or outbursts of anger
  • Obsession with, overuse of, or dependence on a substance
  • Depression, lack of motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Euphoria
  • Fear or paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Inappropriate laughter (marijuana)
  • Talking too loudly (marijuana)
  • Destructive behaviour, like risk taking and dangerous activities
  • Avoidance of social events or recreational activities previously enjoyed
  • Drop in performance at school or work
  • Trouble with the law
  • Relationship problems, including codependency

Physical changes

  • Blackouts
  • Flushed, puffy face
  • Bloodshot (marijuana) or protruding (stimulants) eyes
  • Dilated (hallucinogens) or constricted (opioids) pupils
  • Glassy, blank stare (marijuana)
  • Persistent cough, runny nose, sore throat
  • Rashes around the mouth or nose (inhalants)
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive sweating (opioid addiction)
  • Sniffling (opioids)
  • Nausea and vomiting (alcohol, opioids)
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Itching (heroin)
  • Dry mouth (heroin)
  • Needle marks on hands and feet (heroin)
  • Sudden appearance of skin conditions
  • Erratic movement, like twitching (opioids)
  • Slurred/incoherent/repetitive speech (alcohol, hallucinogens)
  • Mobility problems, like slower gait, abrupt falls, becoming accident-prone
  • Sudden vision problems
  • Loss of focus/trouble concentrating (depressants)
  • Lack of (stimulants), or excessive (opioids) sleep
  • Lack of (opioids), or increase in appetite
  • Unexplained loss of, or increase in weight
  • Hyperactivity or lethargy
  • Trembling, seizures, hallucinations
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, clothing

Changes exclusive to chronic smokers [2]

  • Smoky smell on breath, hands, clothes, belongings, personal space
  • Stained fingers, nails, teeth
  • Yellowing of centre of moustache
  • Bluish-black discolouration of lips
  • Darkened gums
  • Premature wrinkling of skin
  • Presence of respiratory ailments, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

After making observations and you’re still unsure, ask your family member directly. Transparency is an important first step toward healing. Once you’ve determined an addiction is present, start acting early on. Here are some effective ways of dealing with substance abuse problems:

  • Get rid of prescription medicine you don’t need. Lock up the medicines that you have to keep. Same with household chemicals.
  • Recognize the triggers that bring on symptoms.
  • Explain the dangers and risks of substance abuse.
  • Expect excuses to avoid treatment. Seek the aid of an interventionist. They can play an important role in addressing resistance.
  • Consult support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • The best way to tackle the disease is by seeking professional help.

See our other articles for treatment options and where to find clinical trials, therapists, social workers, counsellors.

Sources used for the article

  • [1] National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Belmont Private Hospital, Queensland, Australia
  • [2] Chauhan, Vivek; Sharma, Rajesh; and Thakur, Suman. “Tell-tale signs of a chronic smoker”. Lung India. Jan-Mar 2013, 30(1): 79–81.
  • Photo credit: Morocco door by Kees Kortmulder


Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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