Definition of Addiction: Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. This definition as provided by the American Society of Addiction Medicine should give you a very clear picture of how serious addiction can be for anyone that identifies/is identified as an addict.
Compulsive behavior, chronic disease, complexity. Certainly, these words alone should provide some indication that addictions of any kind are serious. However, what those who are addicted do not understand is the very last part of that definition . . . harmful consequences!!!
So, in terms of a teenager, what does the term ‘addiction’ really mean? It is the inability to resist the temptation of the drug or alcohol of choice. It is the constant, persistent craving for the substance. Addiction in teens includes dysfunctional behavior and the inability to recognize or control the behaviors. It is a chronic compulsion to seek out and consume the preferred substance which the body then becomes dependent upon. This very medical sounding definition probably does not give you a clear picture yet as to what a teen addict looks like.
We know that the teenage years between 12 and 19 can be riddled with confusion, strange behavior, spontaneous outbursts, and baffling experiences. In fact, is it more difficult for the teen or the parents? Regardless, there is no competition for who can be more stressed during adolescence. It is, on the other hand, a time when parents need to be the most vigilant, observant and patient with their teenagers. On most days, the lines between normal behavior and what you could call unusual behavior may be blurred. It may be a challenge to look for the signs that your teen may be suffering from a mental disorder let alone a substance abuse disorder.
What should you be looking for to identify if your teen is suffering from a substance addiction?
- Inability to have a conversation. While young people at this age are not necessarily stellar conversationalists, they should be able to hold a relatively organized, meaningful conversation. If your teen is struggling to respond to simple questions, slurring their speech, or seemingly unable to follow along in the conversation, they may have an addiction problem.
- Drug paraphernalia. Have you found odd little things around your child’s room that seem out of place? A porcelain bowl? Tinfoil? Ziplock bags and folded paper? The presence of these items may be a sign that your teen is using drugs or has an addiction problem.
- High-risk behavior. You suddenly notice that your teen is engaging in unusual or risky behavior. They may see themselves as being invincible or immortal. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can blur their perspective and they may not even realize the severity of their actions until it is too late.
- Unpredictability and irrationality. While there is some degree of unpredictability that comes with being a teenager, extreme mood swings, sensitivity and aggression may be cause for concern that your teen is using or abusing drugs.
- Academic changes. A sudden and uncharacteristic attitude about school should be cause for concern. Although this may be symptomatic of other mental health issues as well, parents be conscious that if other signs are also present, they should consider that substance abuse may be the cause.
- Physical signs. It is possible that late nights studying or too many athletic events may cause a teen to look tired, to have bloodshot eyes and be slightly unbalanced. However, with a good night’s rest, they should be looking and feeling better. If these symptoms seem to be consistent and frequent, they may be a sign that your teen has an addiction problem.
Now, you may be thinking “that does not seem like my child at all!” They are not displaying any of the usual or typical signs of addiction and from the outside, appear to be managing school, their social life and sports. No one would ever guess that in fact, they may be harboring a dark secret. Although their body may have already become physically dependent upon the substance, they are able to function very much like a “normal” teen. Of course, the word “normal” when referring to a teen may be debatable by many parents, there are still some characteristics of being a teenager that we can classify as such. A new, slightly disrespectful attitude, defiance, erratic mood swings, the constant eye-rolling and even the change in social behavior and thoughts could all be considered to be “normal” teenage behavior in many a household.
Teens who are in the throes of addiction yet still managing to handle their everyday lives could be considered to be a functioning addict. By definition, the word ‘functioning’ could be replaced with effective, productive, producing, performing and useful. In this sense, a person who is functioning in life is still productive, effective, useful, etc. despite the fact that they are faced with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. It would seem that the two words, functioning and addict, are in fact polar opposites based on what we already know about addiction. However, in the world of substance abuse, addiction may not necessarily be dramatic and debilitating. This is where it may be confusing for parents and caregivers in that a teenager who is a functioning addict may be by all accounts appear to be a 100% NORMAL teenager.
From the outside, functioning teen addicts may appear to be completely normal and healthy. However, their mental disorder has allowed them to create a double life where they can fully function in life while continuing to feed and nurture their addiction. They are extremely skilled at hiding their addiction from others and do not allow drugs or alcohol to negatively interfere with the delicate balance of life that they have worked so hard to create.
So, then the question becomes, how do you know if your teen is a functioning addict? The teen’s behavior may be erratic and at times irrational, yet they always seem to have a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. For example, their eyes are bloodshot, they appear to be on edge and they are extremely irritable. This certainly could be an indicator of drug use. However, if questioned, the functioning addict will weave a tale of being overly stressed about schoolwork, tired and overwhelmed, throwing you off the trail of their drug use. Because your teen has more than likely been upstanding and respectful for the most part, you probably will not even consider that this could be a ploy or excuse.
Functioning addicts become very skilled at the lies that they not only tell you to divert your attention, but they tell themselves as well.
- “There is no way that I use enough to become addicted to it.”
- “I am doing really well in school. Great students don’t have addiction problems.”
- “Everyone in high school does it!”
- “I am under a lot of pressure from my parents and so I drink to unwind once in a while.”
- “I can’t be addicted since I don’t use it every day.”
In reality, a functioning addict is more susceptible to denial and avoiding their problem altogether because they are seemingly managing their life on a daily basis, not allowing schoolwork, sports or their social life to slip. What they don’t realize is that every addict is just one drink or use away from experiencing a catastrophic event that they would stereotype as being typical of an addict. In other words, because they have not yet experienced any significant problems as a result of using, they truly believe that they are not in fact addicted. They have no reason to stop their behavior either because they feel that they are in control of the situation. Little do they know this is just an illusion.
If you suspect that your teen may be a functioning addict, it is imperative to get them assistance through trained professionals like those at Beachside Treatment Center. Unfortunately, it will be much harder to convince a functioning addict who supposedly ‘has everything under control’ than someone who may be experiencing classic symptoms of addiction as described earlier. If at this point you are still unsure if they may be a functioning addict, let’s look at some tips to help you identify the challenges that they are facing:
- A functional addict has the ability to follow through on a promise to themselves or others. For instance, “I am not going to use today” is a very reasonable statement that they could, in fact, live up to. However, this one exception should not be taken as if the teen doesn’t, in fact, have a problem at all. Instead, look at the behavior as a whole.
- Excuses. Excuses. Excuses. A functional addict will have an excuse for everything from why their eyes are red to why they failed that test to the fact that ‘I only do it casually with friends’.
- A teen who is managing their addiction or so they think may often look sick. As a concerned parent, you may take their temperature or ask them questions about their health. In reality, they are sick but not from the common cold. Their sickness is related to the symptoms of withdrawal if they are attempting to stop using or a hangover from the night before.
- Unlike what some people may define as an alcoholic or typical addict, a functioning addict will subconsciously hide their symptoms until they can no longer do so. Because they have been getting away with their secret, their denial is only fueled. They will continue with the charade as long as they can or until that significant event occurs in which they can no longer deny or control their addiction.
- Being well-versed in the art of deception to hide their secret, a functioning addict may actually be hiding the true extent of their disorder even from themselves. Because they have not experienced any hardships because of their using, they believe that they can continue on this path. No one has confronted them or questioned their motives so they believe that there is no reason for change.
- As part of the denial, a teen who is functioning every day as an addict will be able to list their accomplishments and successes easily. For example, I am at the top of my class, a State Champion swimmer and have a perfect attendance record at school. These achievements will be on the tip of their tongue whenever challenged or questioned as another attempt to deny their problem. In other words, how could someone who has accomplished all of these things possibly have a drug problem?
Because of their success in hiding their problem and the denial of actually having one, a functional addict will be the most difficult to convince that they need to seek help. It is important that you become educated about the options available for treatment for a teen who is a functioning addict and you have come to the right place.
The medical professionals at Beachside Treatment Center can provide you with the guidance and support needed to help them understand that they are powerless to their addiction and that help is, in fact, a necessity.
Confronting a functioning addict must be done purely from a place of love and concern and the trained professionals at Beachside Treatment Center can provide you with the support that you need to encourage your teen to get the help they need.