Is Someone You Know Relying on Drugs or Alcohol to Get Through Their Days?

Stressed out drug user

Most people know that using drugs is both dangerous and destructive. But every year, it still happens that millions upon millions of people engage in drinking or drug use for the first time.

Here’s how many Americans get started each year:

  • 4.9 million people aged 12 or older have their first full drink of alcohol
  • 3.5 million people start using marijuana
  • 1.6 million begin misusing a prescription painkiller
  • 1.2 million use a hallucinogen for the first time

You can see these numbers and others in the following chart from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. graph
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Could someone you know be among these millions? It’s very possible that someone you know relies on alcohol or one of these types of drugs just so they can get through every day. You might not even be able to identify this cause of problems that start showing up, not until their drug or alcohol use begins to severely damage their life. Let’s look this subject over and see if there are ways to identify those who are getting themselves trapped in a pattern of drug or alcohol use. The earlier they can get help, the faster they can get back to a healthier life.

Why Do They Start?

There must be reasons that seem valid to the individual when they start. And then once they start, there must be reasons they continue. And there are.

Among youth asked why they started using marijuana, the most commonly used illicit drug, they answered:

  • Boredom
  • Feel good or get high
  • Experiment
  • Fit in with a social group
  • Cope with anger or frustration
  • Escape problems
  • Relax
  • Get through the day

These reasons are common among people that start to use drugs. Some drugs have specific uses, of course. For example, ecstasy (MDMA) is primarily a party drug so people who initiate the use of that drug might be going to parties or nightclubs with friends. So they want to use the same drug everyone else seems to be using. Stimulants are popular among students who think that studying all night before a test will give them an academic advantage.

Then Why Do They Continue?


They continue because the drug or drink seemed to make something better. The user got relief from some sensation or situation they didn’t like. That’s the very short answer. And that’s the deceptive allure of drugs or drinks.

Here are some of the forms that relief can take.

  • Using drugs feels more exciting than a person’s day-to-day life
  • They don’t feel stressed and can laugh a lot
  • They have tons of self-confidence when they are high
  • They can study for hours without getting tired
  • They’re the life of the party (or think they are) when they are a little drunk
  • They feel they can easily attract the attention of the opposite sex when they are high or drunk
  • Their problems go away for a while
  • They forget losses or pain from the past
  • Present time pain is dulled

There are two major drawbacks to this “relief,” however. One is the mental, moral and spiritual deterioration that begins to occur when drugs are used or when alcohol consumption becomes excessive. The other is the physical toll that drugs themselves take on a person. Plus when drug or alcohol use becomes chronic, the person’s lifestyle is generally on a downward slide and that accelerates the physical damage done by drugs.

Once their drug or alcohol abuse becomes chronic, they also face painful withdrawal sickness if they try to stop. That's another deterrent to their getting sober and another daunting barrier to be faced if they want to get their lives back.

What Can This Reliance on Alcohol or Drugs Look Like?

Do you see any similarity to people you know in the following examples?

1. An accountant with access to his client’s funds is faced with a stagnant business and a failing marriage. He begins to use cocaine and pain pills to blot out his despair. He soon runs out of money for drugs and begins to siphon off small amounts of his client’s funds. No one seems to notice so he continues stealing small amounts. His drug use and debts escalate and he’s tempted beyond his ability to resist. He starts stealing larger amounts of the client’s money. The missing money is detected and he is arrested. Until he was found out, his drug use kept him from ever worrying about the crimes he was committing.

Arrested boy

2. A high school student excelled in his studies and on the football field. But he was very bright and bored and his parents didn’t pay much attention to him. They never bothered to explain why drug use could create problems—they just said, “don’t do it or you’ll be in trouble.” He started smoking marijuana and drinking after school. He hung out with his drug-using/drinking friends evenings and weekends. The dullness created by alcohol and marijuana use dulled his interest in studies and athletics. His grades and performance on the field began to slide. Coaches and parents responded by imposing penalties. He became even more unhappy and used more substances to make the upsets fade away. He was dropped from football and penalized by his parents and ended up rebelling even more. Finally, he was arrested for drug possession.

3. A salesman hoped for advancement and a big paycheck but he wasn’t as good at sales as the others in his company. Every month, he was disappointed by his low sales numbers. He was bullied and ridiculed by some of the other sales staff and he took this hard because it damaged his self-image. Then he discovered cocaine. When he used coke, he felt great. When he was high on cocaine, he had the self-esteem he lacked when he was sober. But he didn’t have enough money to maintain a cocaine habit. He began to transfer money due to customers and vendors to his own account. Eventually, the paranoia and exhaustion created by heavy cocaine use made his problems obvious and he was fired.

Could these people’s drug use have been detected before everything blew up in their faces? Perhaps, by looking for early signs such as these:

  • The accountant was evasive when talking to clients. When asked for financial reports, he kept making excuses about why he couldn’t present them on time. His family might have noticed his bills kept mounting and going past due.
  • In addition to falling grades, the student began skipping football practice and when he did go, he didn’t listen to the coaches. He spent endless hours in his room when he was home and avoided family events.
  • The salesman was erratic both at work and in his personal life. When he had recently used cocaine, he was brash and confident. When he was out of the drug, he was mean-spirited and sulky.

In many cases, these people who became trapped in addiction have earned our trust. It’s hard to believe that they can’t now be trusted. That old trust can be a barrier to really seeing what’s going on with this person. But when signs like these show up, it’s vital to find out the real reason for the change.

More Examples

Cocaine addict, salesman
  • A co-worker who used to meet you occasionally for drinks now seems to spend all weekend in bars. You hear he got fired from the new company he went to.
  • A teenage girl is so shy she can’t comfortably meet new people. She discovers ecstasy and now goes to raves and parties all night. She has a new sexual partner every weekend.
  • A nurse who’s always been reliable now takes an unusual number of sick days. Her co-workers cover for the fact that she keeps making mistakes.
  • A husband was a good provider for years but now he’s been fired from three jobs in a row. A conversation with his wife reveals that their relationship is strained and he’s been rough on the kids.
  • A stay-at-home mom stops taking care of herself and no longer takes her kids to sports or social activities. She never wants to go out.

There are other problems that can cause these kinds of dramatic life changes but if you see them in your family and friends, you might want to put substance abuse on the list of possible causes.

Learn about the signs and symptoms of drug use so you have a chance to identify which drug might be causing the problem. If you discover that the person’s problems really do stem from drug addiction, an intervention might be needed if they resist an offer of help. Addiction can be overcome, and you can have your friend or loved one back in your life when they complete an effective rehabilitation program.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.