Living with a loved one’s addiction can be one of the most horrifying experiences anyone can ever go through. The feelings of frustration, sadness, anger, and helplessness can be overwhelming as you watch someone transform before your eyes into an entirely different person.
There are few things more devastating than having a front-row view of an active addiction.
Here are seven of the most terrifying, but common, behaviors of an addict.
1. They Lie
Addicts lie. But it’s not necessarily out of malice or ill intent.
Their lies are driven by their brain’s incessant demand for chemicals to soothe the survival part of the brain, which is hijacked in addiction.
“When a person is addicted, the primitive survival part of the brain is in the driver’s seat,” explains board-registered interventionist and family recovery coach Ricki Townsend.
“The primitive limbic system seeks drugs at any price, and the rational, caring, empathetic prefrontal cortex is silenced.”
The addicted person’s most basic need—to survive—drives the need for mood or mind-altering substances at any price. And that includes lying to anyone who stands in the way of the drugs they so desperately seek.
As Townsend explains, “The brain is telling the body that it’s going to die. And what would you do if you hadn’t eaten for five days? You’d probably break into someone’s house and steal their food. The addicted brain acts from that same place of fear and desperation.”
Even with that knowledge, it’s scary to watch an addict lie right to your face so convincingly that you start to believe them. You may even question your own perception of the situation.
2. They Manipulate
No one is more likely to be manipulated by an addict than the people closest to them. Parents are often the easiest target for manipulation because oftentimes they cannot imagine that their beloved child is hostage to drugs or alcohol.
“Impossible! I didn’t raise him to be a drug addict,” is a common refrain from a parent.
Because parents aren’t educated about the root causes of addiction, which can include early exposure to alcohol, illicit, or prescription drugs, they can’t even begin to imagine that their child might be hooked.
It’s fertile ground for manipulation.
One way an addict manipulates is by giving smaller confessions of wrongdoing to different family members to cover his lies and odd behavior.
- A teen confesses to dad he has been cutting class.
- He admits to his sister that he tried marijuana.
- He tells his mom that he drank a beer at a party.
In reality, the teen’s small admissions of guilt are helping him cover up evidence of more serious substance abuse.
Addicts may also manipulate by twisting blame and guilt for their behavior on someone else, or by promising to get help the next day… or the day after… or the day after that.
“Typically, they go to bed swearing that they will get help the next day, but when they wake up, their bodies are screaming out for drugs,” explains Townsend.
“While it appears manipulative, they often do have the best intentions of getting sober, but their belief that they are dying wins out.”
3. They Act Unpredictably
Drug abuse can lead to mood swings far outside the ups-and-downs of regular life or normal teen behavior.
At first, opioid painkillers can create a euphoric state, causing a user to be extremely happy and giddy. But when the drugs wear off, users can experience some pretty severe opioid side-effects, such as:
- excruciating muscle and bone pain
- cold flashes with goosebumps
- involuntary leg movements
As addiction progresses, users stop chasing the “high” of opioid use. Instead, they seek opioids to avoid the bone-crushing symptoms of withdrawal.
Wild mood swings can have a devastating effect on the people living with someone who is addicted. They never know from one moment to the next where they stand, and who will appear in their household.
Is it Dr. Jekyll today, or Mr. Hyde?
At the same time, people who are addicted can be very predictable. They are singularly driven by the survival part of their brain.
They will commit crimes.
They will steal Grandma’s jewelry to sell for drugs.
They will use drugs again, even after swearing they’ve quit for good.
And, like any untreated disease, their addiction will run a predictable course: heart disease, diabetes, even overdose.
If left untreated, the disease of addiction will be dangerous and deadly.
4. They become Obsessed
Addiction is best described as an obsession of the mind.
When someone is addicted, their thinking and behavior revolve completely around the addiction: how to get more, how relieved they will feel when they get their fix, how much more they’ll need the next time around to avoid becoming “dope sick.”
An addict’s thoughts become laser-focused on their need for drugs to survive, which overpowers any logic or reasoning. Addiction becomes a pathological form of learning.
It’s a disease characterized by the compulsive repetition of an activity despite life-altering consequences.
For most people, the neural circuitry in the brain maintains a delicate balance between motivation and restraint. But this equilibrium is disrupted in the brains of people suffering from addiction. Research has shown that people with addiction have lower levels of dopamine receptors in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, the region necessary for good judgment, planning, and self-regulation.
The result? An impaired ability to control thoughts and behaviors.
5. They Engage in Criminal Acts
When someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, their value systems take a back seat to “right and wrong.” Essentially, the screaming brain compels them to do whatever it takes to find “life-sustaining” drugs.
A teen who never got into trouble may suddenly start having run-ins with the law.
The quest to satisfy the survival part of the brain can lead them to do illegal things they would have never considered before, such as:
- Stealing prescription pills from the medicine cabinets, purses, and homes of relatives, neighbors, or family friends.
- Lying about pain or causing self-injury to get prescriptions.
- Doctor shopping to try and get more prescriptions written.
- Forging prescriptions.
- Stealing valuable items around the home to sell or pawn for cash to support their habit.
- Stealing money from family members or friends.
- Driving under the influence.
- Shoplifting valuable items to sell or pawn.
- Getting drug money by turning tricks or selling drugs.
- Injecting heroin.
The teen you previously thought incapable of even cheating on a test at school may suddenly find herself with an arrest record and a long line of people whose trust she’s lost.
6. They Shift the Blame
The car accident was the other driver’s fault. The teacher who called them out on unexplained absences has it out for them. They lost their job because the boss never liked them. They took the pills because you put too much pressure on them to do good at school.
Drug addiction steals away personal responsibility.
The addict is a victim, is unfairly targeted, has been set-up.
The more that you try and call an addict out on their behavior, the more the blame-game will be played.
As Townsend explains, part of the reason people who are addicted shift the blame is so they don’t have to confront the horrible truth about themselves. “There is so much shame in being addicted to drugs,” she says. “Looking in the mirror is ugly.”
“Addiction is such a shameful, stigmatizing disease, even when people come by it ‘honestly,’ such as from taking pills prescribed by a doctor. And that shame encourages people to shift the blame and avoid getting the help they need. Blame and shame play a deadly role in the disease of addiction.”
7. They Become Abusive
Because you care about the addict, and you want to try and help her, you call her out on his behaviors, words, and actions. And the addict feels defensive as she lies, manipulates, and shifts the blame.
As the brain starts to run short of drugs (i.e., “withdrawal”), the drug user may behave irrationally, even aggressively.
The addicted brain is a brain that doesn’t work properly. Consider the brain injuries of NFL players, and then consider the damages inflicted by drug abuse.
In both cases, the brain is injured, although it doesn’t garner the compassion or understanding of, say, a visible injury like a broken leg.
That injured brain may react aggressively to those who threaten to stop the flow of drugs. If you are trying to cut off the only thing that offers relief, angry words may be spoken, things can be damaged and broken, and in some cases, people can be physically hurt.
There’s one final thing that addicts to their loved ones that’s worse than any lie or abusive behavior.
Finally, the Most Horrifying Thing an Addict Does…
The most horrifying thing an addict can do to a loved one is to lose their battle with addiction. Every day, drugs cost people their lives.
In the last decade, there’s been a 2x increase in the amount of drug overdose deaths in the U.S.
The biggest contributing factor to this increase is the opioid epidemic, which is claiming the lives of 115 people every day in the U.S. Addiction to opioids cost more people their lives in 2017 than were lost in the 20-year Vietnam War.
This issue has become a public health crisis.
Opioids affect the part of the brain that regulates breathing. High doses of these drugs can lead to respiratory depression and death. Unfortunately, even when used as prescribed, opioids can lead to tolerance – meaning you may need to use more and more of the drug to get the same effects.
A well-meaning individual who takes too many pain pills in order to feel better can inadvertently put themselves at risk for overdose death. The same goes for an addict who needs to take more and more of the drug to get the same high or to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Combining opioids with other respiratory system depressants, such as alcohol, sedatives, or anti-anxiety medications can also increase the risk of overdose death.
According to the World Health Organization, people dependent on opioids are the ones most likely to suffer an overdose.
What Can You Do?
If you’re worried that someone you love may be at risk of substance abuse, there are a number of things you can do to try and deter drug abuse in your own home.
Deadly addiction often starts with medications pilfered from the home medicine cabinet. Lock up your prescription medications, and dispose of any medications that are not currently needed.
Have frank and repeated discussions with your teens about the dangers and highly addictive nature of prescription pills. Many teens mistakenly think a prescription pill is less dangerous than an illegal drug.
If you suspect that your teen/ family member has already traveled the road from drug abuse to drug addiction, seek the support and professional treatment that your family will need to survive. You’re not alone.
Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA Hotline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for free, confidential, 24/7 treatment referral and information for individuals and families facing substance abuse disorders.
Note: this post has been updated for 2020 with more horrifying addiction behaviors and recommendations from an addiction specialist.