How do I know if someone is an addict?- Part one- The stages of substance use

How do I know if someone is an addict?- Part one- The stages of substance use

Did I get your attention? Just so you know, I never ever label anyone an ‘addict’. I’ll explain why in part two of this blog. For now, forget the labels and read on…


Let’s face it, most of us have overindulged with alcohol and/or drugs in our time. Many people do this either regularly or occasionally and this causes minimal or no problems. It is difficult to recognise in ourselves that we might be going too far because ‘everyone is doing it’. ‘Such-and-such-a-body drinks more than me’. ‘I’ve been round and had nothing before (*reality check* – it was once) many a time and watched everyone get wasted’.


What I’m getting at here is that it’s easy for people to deny they have a problem. Sometimes we don’t recognise it in ourselves. Sometimes we don’t recognise it in others. Sometimes, others recognise it in us. We might recognise it in someone else that doesn’t have a clue!


Some people use drugs or alcohol and, other than tiredness and feeling a bit rubbish, get on with life as usual (ba****ds!). For others, it causes problems in daily functioning.


It is these people who often deny they have a problem and make excuses to deflect from the fact that they need to part ways with their substance(s) of choice. This is often too difficult to face for many and requires a whole lifestyle change and a lot of energy.


The starting point


The first port of call is to get clued up on the different types and stages of substance use. (Just so you know, I refer to substance use to include both drugs and alcohol)


To simplify…


I believe that if drugs or alcohol are causing problems in somebody’s life, then they need help. Depending on the stage of substance use they are at, their current lifestyle, their mental and physical health, motivation to change, Adverse Childhood Experiences and other life experiences, the help they need will vary.

Everyone’s recovery journey is unique and not everyone will want to stop.


The language of substance use


Firstly, there are differences between the language of substance use. Some terms commonly used are ‘problematic substance use’, ‘addiction’ or ‘dependency’, and, as they are used interchangeably, it starts being confusing!

Problematic substance use refers to drug or alcohol use which is affecting one or more areas of a person’s life. This could be work, relationships, health or anything else. People often don’t realise that the reason they are having problems, is due to their drug or alcohol use. They often don’t understand the impact of their particular drug on the way they think, feel and behave.

Dependency– is where an individual requires a drug, in order to function. In my view, this can be either physical or psychological. For example, some people use drugs to mask their feelings and some people use drugs to either mask their physical pain, or have what we refer to, as physical withdrawals when the drug starts to leave their system. Dependency is mostly attributed to drugs that cause physical symptoms in the body when someone tried to stop using them.

Addiction is where a particular behaviour is compulsive or habitual, despite the fact that it is having a negative impact on an individual’s life. The way I describe it is that the drug is in control of the person, rather than the person being in control of the drug.

Someone can be dependent and addicted to certain drugs (such as alcohol and heroin)

Someone can be addicted but not dependent on other drugs (such as cocaine and caffeine)

Someone can be dependent but not addicted (such as someone who is taking medication for pain)


Stages of substance use


Here’s a handy diagram to help you to start thinking about the above. Notice that ‘addiction’ is not referred to here as ‘addiction’ is not actually a diagnosis used for someone having problems with their substance use…

spectrum of pschoactive substances

Diagram source:


Beneficial use would generally be medicinal but, as stated, includes other benefits. Many substance users may say their drug use is beneficial for them. This could be true, but it could also be an excuse for continuing use. The minute the substance starts causing problems for them is the minute the negatives outweigh the positives.


Non-problematic use would be those people who manage their substance use with limited or no impact- This is sometimes where family members find out and start panicking. Talk to your loved one and get the facts. They might be taking them but managing their use well.


Problematic use (harmful use) can range from someone having a few problems or lots of problems- you may know more than your loved one that their substance use is causing them problems.


Dependence is where someone can no longer easily choose to stop taking their drug of choice. The individual’s priority is to source and use their drug and activities are centred around it.


Where is your loved one on the spectrum?


As I bring part one of this blog to a close, where do you think your loved one is on the spectrum of psychoactive substance use?


Head over here next week for part two where I will be focusing on the diagnosis of substance use.


I can help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area or via Skype worldwide.

I also have an online therapeutic programme. Take a look at my services here

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Sign up to my mailing list here to keep up to date with Vesta news and get my free Ten Steps to Family Recovery download.


Take care,


Drugs, alcohol and lies

Drugs, alcohol and lies

It’s tough for family or friends of people who use drugs to understand why their loved one lies to them about their drug or alcohol use (I’ll refer to drug use from this point on, to include alcohol). It’s also incredibly frustrating because when we know someone is lying to us, it’s always really hard to call someone out about their lies because it’s all a bit embarrassing. Either that, or when we do challenge someone about catching them out, they are likely to react with anger or denial which can provide a great excuse to go and have a drink.


Why do they lie?


We know that when people are addicted to a particular substance, they struggle to find interest in anything other than their alcohol or drug of choice. This means that they are likely to do anything to get their drug, which inevitably includes lying through their teeth!

Here’s the reasons why your loved one is lying to you:

  1. Avoiding help- even if someone is aware that their drug use is causing problems, it is a HUGE hurdle to admit it to themselves, let alone anyone else. This means that in order to stay comfortable, it is easier to lie. Admitting it, getting help, being challenged, is not a nice place to be.
  2. Denial- it’s so much easier to deny drugs are a problem. It feels much safer and denial means that a loved one can continue using their drug of choice, which is their priority. It’s easier to blame every man and his dog for the problems that go on than the drug. It is important that the drug is protected, as, for whatever reason, your loved one is benefiting from their substance. It is helping them to get away from something, or it is giving them something they need.
  3. Fear- It is far too scary to admit drugs are a problem or to think about making the changes your loved one needs to make for themselves. It is easier to lie to others and ourselves when we feel frightened about facing up to something.
  4. Loving the drug- People who use drugs cannot imagine their life without their drug so they truly believe it is a part of their life and that they need it and want to continue using it.
  5. Shame- Loved ones go through periods of wanting to change. During these times, they will experience shame about using their drugs, how they have treated their own family and friends, their desperation. Then, it can becomes clear that burying their head in the sand and lying to themselves about the situation is much more manageable than face up to their lives and the hurt they have caused other people. Some people even start to believe their own lies!
  6. Survival- yep. Right down to survival mode… Lying is simply a way to survive and help people feel safe.


How to handle lying


  1. Call it out compassionately- This is cringeworthy, but you’ll get used to it. Use positive communication such as I-messages to feed their lies back to them. This is done in a way that is non-confrontational and gentle which focuses on YOUR feelings, not their behaviour.
  2. Remember it’s not you, it’s them substance- try not to take it personally as your loved one is avoiding reality and thinking they are making it easier for you if you don’t know the whole truth.
  3. Enabling (bleugh! Hate the word)- if you want to help your loved one do something that they are not capable themselves of doing as an adult, then feel free. Do not protect them from the negative consequences of their substance use. Avoid lying anf covering up to friends and family, don’t cover for them and don’t clean up messes. This is hard, but, if they don’t see the damage their substance use is doing, and you start lying too, then this gives a message to your loved one that lying is acceptable. This is always done with a balance of being kind and compassionate.
  4. Create open communication- I have supported many people that use the strategies I suggest, but this does not mean ignoring your loved one! It is absolutely crucial that positive communication methods are used. What we are aiming for is to reduce the covering up and lying, and create a secure environment where your loved one feels they can come to you and speak to you without judgement.
  5. Acceptance- accepting your loved one’s substance use, instead of fighting against it will save your energy and allow you more time to use effective strategies to reduce or stop their substance use and to learn how to put your self first and lead a better life. This will tip the balance so that your loved one learn that being sober is an attractive option.


I can help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you live your most happiest and peaceful life.

I have a closed Facebook Group Not My Addiction, for professional women living with a loved one’s alcohol or drug use.

If you are affected by a loved one’s substance use, come and join me

Take care,


The seven stages of family recovery

The seven stages of family recovery

I’ve made some connections this week with The National Family Support Network in Ireland. They provide information, support and advice to family members living with substance misuse.  If you live in the UK, ADFAM do similar work here.

A study was undertaken in Ireland in 2007 by Dr Carmel Duggen, for the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD). She looked at the ways people coped with a family member’s heroin use. She identified seven stages that family members go through, regardless of their economic or social background. It was found that going through these stages helped affected family members to move on from a role of a victim into a role of support and recovery. This applies to their own recovery, regardless of whether their loved one chooses to continue using substances or not.

This study identified seven different stages of how family members eventually come to manage heroin use within the family. This way of thinking is now applied to family members in a wider context who are living with a loved one’s drug or alcohol use.

There are lots of models to explain recovery and, as you probably know, the cycle of change is a fabulous one. I wrote a blog about it here. It really is a good idea for people living in this difficult situation to familiarise themselves with tools to use that can help.

The stages


Here is my interpretation of the stages in line with the Vesta Approach’s method of supporting family recovery.


Stage One: Unknowing

This is when families are not aware that a family has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Either that, or they don’t know the signs. As this period goes on, the substance use will usually worsen prior to the realisation that something is wrong.


Stage Two: Coping Alone

Once a family member finds out about the problem, They will often try and cope with the situation alone, trying all sorts of methods to help them to change. This is so hard to do when you are not a trained professional and when you worry about what people think or try to hide the problem. The best thing to do is to ask for help.


Stage Three: Desperately Seeking Help

Families at this point reach out for help from services as a reaction to their loved one’s substance use. This is difficult because they do not know where to go for help. In my experience, many families think rehab is the only answer and focus on help for the person using substances rather than themselves. Getting help for yourself is the best course of action because you cannot force your loved one to get help. Trust me, it doesn’t work.


Stage Four: Supported Learning

Family members begin to research addiction, substance use or the drug their loved one is taking. They may be starting to get some structured help and support for themselves. Families will start to learn about how to respond and not to react when their loved one uses their substance and learn new and effective strategies to cope. Strategies will always be unique to your situation.


Stage Five: Reclaiming the Family

At this stage, affected family members have engaged in support for themselves and begin to understand that they cannot change their loved one, they can only change themselves. NFSN say, ‘Part of this is separating the needs of the family and their own needs from those of the drug user. Families begin to separate the family dynamic from the drug dynamic and start to address the wider family needs.’ So, this is a case of practising the new strategies over a period of time, setting clear boundaries and giving own needs priority attention.


Stage Six: Supporting Recovery

Families have found the strategies that work for them and have learnt the skills to change the environment in which they live so that they can influence change and tip the balance so that drug or alcohol use becomes less attractive than sobriety. Strategies such as ‘rewarding your loved one when sober’ or ‘withdrawing when your loved one uses’, while, at the same time, providing love, support and encouraging their loved one to make better choices.

Stage Seven: Contributing

Once a family member is in a recovery process from their loved one’s substance use, they will be able to support others who are going through the similar experiences. I set up a mentoring programme in a previous project. The families can contribute by telling their own story and guiding others through the recovery process which is invaluable to those who are struggling to cope themselves.


Tell me in the comments what stage you think you’re at.


I can help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area or via Skype worldwide.

I also have an online therapeutic programme. Take a look at my services here

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

I have a closed Facebook Group called Vesta Confidential. If you are affected by a loved one’s substance use, come and join me.


Sign up to my mailing list here to keep up to date with Vesta news and get my free Ten Steps to Family Recovery download.


Take care,