Identifying substance abuse and initiating recovery

Another summer gone. Hopefully, the season brought good times, merriment and memories with friends and family. For some, though, it may have been a time when you watched a friend or partner go too far, maybe have “one too many” … or even a few too many nights of one too many. When does drug and alcohol use become a problem, and what can I do about it?

Warning signs

While it is true that the physical and psychological effects of different drugs and alcohol vary, they share several common symptoms that offer telltale signs of a problem. Although people use drugs and alcohol for a host of reasons, when someone you know experiences any of the following, it’s time to pay attention:

— Neglecting responsibilities (this includes work, school and home life) — Taking dangerous and unnecessary risks (putting yourself at risk sexually, driving under the influence) — Acting in a way that is impulsive and unpredictable — Encountering legal problems as a result of drug or alcohol use (DUI, theft) — Ignoring activities that were once pleasurable (socializing with friends, hobbies) — Experiencing problems in relationships (fighting, loss of friends, break-ups) — Losing control of use (tolerance, withdrawal) — Continuing to use despite physical and emotional pain

It is estimated that a person with a drug or alcohol problem has significantly affected at least four to 10 people in their lives. While we may be able to view a person’s behavior through a somewhat-objective lens, it is often more difficult to see the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on those who care about the person. Realizing someone you care about has a problem can be terrifying and daunting. Family, friends and those who love and care about the person often feel helpless and hopeless. I frequently hear from people who desperately want things to change and improve: “This person needs help, what can I do?”

What to do

When someone you care about is experiencing problems with drugs and alcohol, you may want to consider the following to help:

— Communicate your concerns. Share your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Speak up! Find an opportunity when neither of you is under the influence. — Intervene early. Statistics show greater success rates for sustained recovery with early intervention. — Use specific examples. “Last night when we were out, I offered to get you a cab, but you drove instead.” Avoid blaming the person. Instead, use “I” statements: “I’m seeing your life falling apart, and I’m scared for you.” — Avoid covering or rescuing. Although it may be hard to allow it to happen, the person should experience the consequences of his/her drug or alcohol use. Protecting the person may only prevent him/her from getting help or support. — Avoid self-blame. You can encourage and support individuals to examine their behavior and get help, but you can’t force people to change. No one can control the decisions a person makes. It is not your fault or responsibility if someone continues to use or doesn’t get help. — Identify resources. Whether a person chooses to go to rehab, relies on self-help programs, goes to therapy or takes a self-directed approach to treatment, support is essential. — Take care of yourself! Try not to get so caught up that you neglect your own needs. Consider your own physical and emotional safety. Find someone to talk to.

As September is National Recovery Month, let’s celebrate “recovery” on a wide spectrum. After all, it is not just about healing one’s self, but healing friendships, relationships, families and communities.

Information about treatment and support is available online. In Philadelphia, Mazzoni Center ( offers individual and group treatment options specifically tailored for the LGBT community and can refer individuals to outpatient services and resources in the area. For more information, call (215) 563-0663 ext. 274.

Judy Morrissey is the Mazzoni Center’s behavioral health services director.