Signs of Addiction and Drug Use

With the back to school bonanza already in full swing, I thought this an opportune time to educate parents on addiction’s early warning signs – behaviors your teen or young adult may exhibit that betray a closely-guarded secret.

One element substance abuse research agrees upon is early intervention. That means the sooner you determine there’s a problem and act, the better the chance addiction won’t claim another victim.

Now I’m certainly not trying to use scare tactics here. In all likelihood, your son or daughter will never develop a substance abuse disorder. But there are behaviors that, if exhibited, point towards a compelling chance addiction is emerging. Or already present.

When the school year starts, many parents feel mixtures of unease and confidence, conflicting emotions each jousting for influence. Will my daughter succeed? Will my son surpass my expectations? Surely I’ve prepared them to steer clear of the inevitable debauchery they’ll encounter.

Your kids will likely party in high school. They’ll almost certainly cut loose in college, or at the very least, experiment with drink or drug or both.

Truth is, you’ve likely imparted all the wisdom that your not-so-little loved one needs to succeed. But any responsible mom and dad recognize a check-up here and there is necessary, especially when intuition or evidence yields probable cause. I’m not advocating going into total control freak mode. A simple conversation can be an excellent way to forecast the weather, so to speak.

My job involves counseling family members with addicted loved ones. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. And I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours on the phone and in-person with impacted family members setting up sound long-term recovery plans. After several appearances of Huffington Post Live, I thought it was time to shine the light on a rarely discussed topic – drug addiction’s early warning signs.

Addiction manifests in all sundry shapes, sizes and slopes. And please don’t associate the reality of substance abuse with what you might have watched on the popular television show Intervention. That show tends to capture out-of-this-galaxy drug dependence in the final act of substance abuse’s tragic comedy.

In my experience, addiction is subtle – a friend that slithers into life with phenomenal conversations, exhilarating experiences and memorable moments. It’s a partner-in-crime as it slowly weaves its way into every thread of your nature. Before you know it, you’re hooked like a fish in a farm pond.

I’ll start with addiction’s warning signs, and then I’ll share my own story that highlights all the listed behaviors. After you familiarize yourself with the warning signs, try to see if you can spot them in the story I tell.

Early Warning Signs of Addiction and Drug Use


For high school this is pretty straightforward, so I’m not going into it much. Is your child/young adult a lone wolf? Maybe one friend, two at the most? Or do they seem to enjoy being alone too much?

Don’t be afraid to ask their teachers how they interact socially. Isolation is a major red flag when it comes to addiction, though it often appears in the later stages. This was true in my case. Until the age of 16 or 17, I had plenty of friends. Once substance abuse took hold, those friends wisely walked away.

For college, talk to your young scholar on the phone. Ask about their friends, what they do together. Is your daughter in a study group? Is your son keeping his commitment to the debate team?


For high school, does your teenager seem to become emotionally volatile? Does he or she just generally demonstrate a bad attitude?

My coaches in high school sports always called me “uncoachable.” I had an attitude that I knew better, and I let them know it.  It’s not uncommon for active addicts to play the expert-on-many-subjects card.

A sudden change in consistent attitude is a dead giveaway that something is awry, and it often involves drinking and drugs.

For college, when you make check-up calls, does your loved one grow standoffish? Do responses to your questions often involve runaround answers or accusations you pry too much? Sure, they’ll assert independence. But an open relationship with even one parent can be the difference between addiction and addiction averted.


For high school, you know your aspiring adult better than they know themselves. A sudden change – whether it’s friends or grades or fashion or music – might be a sign that substance abuse is the culprit.

For college, a change in academic performance is an “all hands on deck” red alert. It’s time for a serious conversation. And don’t underestimate your little Einstein either. Photoshop can do wonders for Johnny’s GPA.


For both high school and college, most developing/established addicts make excellent attorneys. I was MVP of my Mock Trial team senior year. It was my first year on the team, and I was stoned at every practice.

Make sure your son or daughter’s words match their actions. This is an addict’s weapon of choice in attempts to cover the tracks – words dupe countless family members everyday into thinking everything is okay. If their words don’t match their actions, it’s time to dig deeper. Don’t turn a deaf ear to that parental instinct. Addiction utilizes every weapon at its disposal to maintain anonymity.

For college, the same principle applies. If your budding scholar said he/she would be participating in campus clubs, follow-up on their progress. There’s a wide range of clubs to keep college kids active in healthy ways. Did they start off engaged and excited about organized collegiate activities, only to slowly/quickly lose enthusiasm?

Finances and Lies

For high school, follow-up on where your son or daughter is going and who they’re with. Don’t do it all the time, unless a pattern of deception has been established. But every now and then, a check-in ensures smooth seas. It keeps the roots of trust firm and fed.

For college, it’s a bit trickier. Your academic ninja likely isn’t living in the house with you. You ARE, however, likely contributing to some/all of tuition and living expenses. An investment like college should come with serious oversight.

What would you say to a friend who is spending 5-6 figures on a business investment and letting an 18-22 year old run the company with little oversight?

Do you pay their cell phone bill? Monitor it. Provide living expenses? Make sure bank accounts are jointly held– that means you enjoy total oversight on their spending habits.

Notice withdrawals from ATMs at odd hours? Red flag. Asking for more money on a consistent basis with fabulous excuses? Red flag.


For both high school and college, if you start to uncover evidence of substance abuse, remember an addict always resorts to the silver tongue. They’ll likely make wonderful promises. They’ll pull your emotional strings. If all else fails, your son or daughter might even resort to the opposite and threaten you.

After I’d exhausted all my empty promises, I told my parents that if I didn’t “pay up” to some bad people, their house might be in danger. Don’t let idle threats like that frighten you. Virtually no drug dealer is going to shoot up a house over a few hundred bucks. And if a threat is made, it’s time for your adult child to find new living arrangements. Immediately.

Besides, my “pay up to bad people” routine was a lie anyway.


This is the most obvious warning sign. Is your son or daughter hanging out “with the wrong crowd?” Do their friends tend to smell like Pepé Le Pew’s cologne? You know exactly whom I’m referencing here.

Bonus tip: Music festivals are today’s Woodstock. If your in-good-standing/not-so-good standing student travels to music festivals like Bonnaroo or Hangout or electronic dance music raves, I can almost guarantee hard drugs are involved.

My story... Can you spot the warning signs?

Now my Mom and Dad raised me to be an incredible man, not an 18 year old wanna-be Spicolli. Mine was a childhood of dreams: fantastic family vacations, extracurricular endeavors encouraged and church every Sunday. MTV was even blocked, though my brothers and I still watched Beavis and Butthead through the static.

My mother painted ethics across my soul’s genetic makeup like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. And my Dad exemplified a man’s man. He was a phenomenal provider, passed along the value of hard work and encouraged whatever pursuits we enjoyed with vigor. His sense of humor could make the stoic Ben Stein laugh. Hard.

Sure we argued at times. I was a bit of a handful in the classroom, but never anything too serious. Early in childhood, some teachers suggested I exhibited behavior problems. I did. But I made my way through high school with both academic and athletic accolades.   

So I’m relatively certain three days before I was departing for a top 30 liberal arts college, Mom and Dad were mortified to hear the news from a friend’s mom that she discovered my 2 stash of marijuana – pot I painfully watched her flush down the toilet.

That pot was going to be my seedy startup. I was going to become the Tony Montana of Greencastle, Indiana. My dreams of drug money, however, fittingly turned into unconventional toilet paper.

My folks obviously questioned my readiness for the demands of higher education. But addicts, as you may know, possess a sinister talent – a silver tongue ready to appease any doubts. Though I’m certain uncertainty remained, off I went, unknown to me, to a half semester of absolute failure.

I started DePauw University on half scholarship, accepted into an Honors Business Program and a golf team member (almost, I was too stoned at tryouts to make the team). I spent a half semester smoking enough pot to make Cheech and Chong jealous. Never one to fear arrest, I grew a pot plant in my dorm room. Horticulture was not my major.

To give you an idea of how awful I was as a short-lived freshman at DePauw, my roommate wrote an article about me. I link to it with the absolute hope you won’t read it.

I ironically withdrew from DePauw on my birthday – almost three whole months of living pseudo-independently from my parents (they still paid all the bills). I spent Thanksgiving break home alone. In their anger, my family decided to exclude me from that great American November feast with relatives in Chicago.

Now that may sound cruel to do to a freshman college dropout. But how would you feel if your son spent months lying to you about his academic performance? From my perspective, a solo Thanksgiving was lenient.

Here’s where the story gets a bit complicated. Take a flashback with me to my junior year in high school. I’ve been on the honor roll every quarter. I played #2 on the varsity golf squad. I didn’t skip classes. And I was drug-tested.

My Old Man was outraged. The test, of course, came back negative. My drug and debauchery loomed on the horizon, but hadn’t quite arrived.

You see my high school didn’t drug test randomly. The school tested only on suspicion a student used narcotics. Teachers and administration conferred for several months before deciding to test a student. My Dad was furious because if the school thought I had a drug problem, they should have forewarned my parents.

What my parents didn’t know is that all the behaviors of addiction existed at school. I slept during most classes. When I wasn’t sleeping in class, I humored my fellow students with sarcasm and ill-willed wit directed towards teachers. Break and lunch time was spent in the bathroom with my only friend chewing tobacco. I completely isolated from my classmates. And as most addicts lament once sobriety takes hold, I didn’t quite fit in anywhere.

I was not nerdy enough for the nerds. Didn’t play the right sport for the jocks. Was smart, but not smart enough for the geniuses. Funny, yet overshadowed by those far wittier.

In a sense chewing tobacco was my first drug of choice. Tobacco doesn’t show up on a drug test though. And no one considers people who use tobacco as drug addicts in the strict sense of the term.

I started smoking pot shortly after the drug test. I drank heavily whenever the possibility presented itself. Ever the man of means, I double-o seven’d a way to print fake IDs. I became the go-to guy for approximately one day. Once all the guys purchased their fake IDs, I’d served my purpose.

Though grades didn’t suffer, my performance on the golf course plummeted. I continued to isolate, rebel, lay down sarcasm and distribute an aura of blah.

All these behaviors intensified leading up to the two-ounces-of-marijuana-in-the-toilet day. Maybe, just maybe, if my Mom and Dad read an article like this they would have done what needed to be done: put me in an inpatient treatment center.

I probably wouldn’t have stayed sober. But learning the fine art of sobriety is like learning to ride a bicycle – most flounder and crash a couple times before learning to ride without incident. Early intervention isn’t part of my story.

But my saga maintains a happy ending. I use the word “maintain” because I am now in recovery. I finally graduated college with a degree in liberal arts, magna cum laude. I now advocate for those both in active addiction and recovery on national media outlets. And I enjoy an incredible job at a nonprofit addiction recovery center in Tennessee.

One of the main reasons I claim those achievements today is my family decided to stop tolerating my addiction. But their tolerance of my addiction could have stopped much earlier. This isn’t me blaming my family. It’s simply the truth, though my parents undoubtedly acted as best as they knew.

Most parents don’t know addiction’s early warning signs. Even those that notice something awry tend to deny their son or daughter have a substance abuse. So let’s look at some early warning signs (behaviors is an equally applicable word).


I can’t emphasize this enough: this article is not intended to be a scare tactic. Its purpose is to educate you so action can be taken prior to a serious problem. If your loved one exhibits one warning sign, it’s probably not enough to sound the alarm. But several behaviors might indicate a serious problem.

Don’t wait if you think your loved one is struggling with drugs. Get quality addiction treatment. Do your research on candidate rehab facilities. Read reviews on treatment center’s Facebook pages. Ask to speak with past clients.

Do NOT make hasty decisions when it comes to where you send your son or daughter or drug and alcohol treatment. I know it’s usually a crisis situation. But do your research, follow the advice of the staff and hold your loved one accountable to following the facilities’ plan of action.

Finally, avoid large, for-profit addiction treatment networks. You might have seen one of their commercials on television. These places usually have a motto, “fill beds, make money and save lives.” Notice which term falls last on the list?

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