Loving someone you suspect may have a pain pill addiction is tough because it can put you in a precarious position. You want to be there for them, but at the same time you worry that a confrontation will scare them away from getting the help they need. What’s more, you’ve spent so many months buying into their half-truths and justifications that it feels impossible to discern fact from fiction. What if your loved one is telling the truth and they “don’t have a problem”? Maybe they’re right when they tell you “you’re just overreacting”?
What makes addiction particularly frustrating for friends and family members is that unlike cancer, which can be diagnosed with a few medical tests, an addiction diagnosis isn’t as clear-cut. No one can say with full certainty that someone has a substance use disorder except for the person experiencing it. Until the person is ready or willing to see the truth, all friends and family members can do is make their best, most educated guesses.
That said, here are seven signs your loved one has gotten in over their heads and may need to seek help for their pain pill addiction.
1. They’re taking painkillers to help manage chronic pain
Despite what many may believe, painkillers are not intended to manage chronic pain, and are not designed to be taken over an extended period of time. Prescription meds were created to provide temporary relief for severe (“acute”) pain; like the pain you might experience while healing from a major surgery.
If your loved one continues to rely on the painkiller long after the injury has healed (or should have healed), then this means they might be physically and/or emotionally dependent. They may tell you they’re still in pain—and this could very well be true—but if that’s the case, then they need to see a doctor who can refer to them to specialist, like a chiropractor, acupuncturist or physical therapist. They should not continue to take their prescription meds, as these medications are highly addictive and if abused, can put your friend or family member at risk of a fatal overdose.
2. They’re taking more than the doctor-prescribed amount
It can be tough to watch a loved one suffer. But it can help to remember that some discomfort and pain is normal after a major injury or surgery, even while on pain meds. It may not be fun, but pain is a sign the body is healing. Even if your loved one is in agonizing pain, however, the solution should never involve taking more than the amount the doctor has prescribed. Your friend may tell you that they need more because pain meds don’t work well on them because they’re “overweight” or “have a high tolerance”, etc. Again, even if the reasons they’re providing are truthful, it doesn’t detract from the fact that justified or not, what they’re doing is called “drug abuse”. They need to stop this behavior immediately—before it develops into an irreversible substance use disorder.
3. They’re getting painkillers from people other than their doctor
If you discover your loved one is receiving medication from someone other than their physician, this should be seen as a red flag. While stealing doctor prescription pads or swiping medication from a sick friend’s medicine cabinet are the more obvious signs, you should also pay attention to the seemingly benign behavior as well, such as ordering meds off the internet or buying leftover medication from someone who no longer needs it. Because no matter what excuse they give you—“I was too sick to get to the doctor to have the prescription refilled”, “I forgot”, “The pharmacy was closed”, etc.—know that what they’re doing is a-typical behavior. While this sign alone doesn’t guarantee they have a substance use disorder, it should definitely put you on high alert.
4. They frequently appear drowsy
Pain medications are made from opioids, which in addition to being highly addictive, are a depressant that causes the user to feel sleepy. Someone abusing an opioid painkiller will nod off at inappropriate moments, like at a dinner party or in the middle of a conversation. If your loved one has droopy eyes and frequently looks like he or she is about to fall asleep, this is one of the biggest physical signs that there might be a problem.
5. They become angry when you try to discuss the issue with them
If you’ve tried asking your loved one about their pain medication use in a friendly and non-accusatory tone of voice and he or she has gotten disproportionately angry with you about it, then this could be a sign that you’ve struck a nerve. People who don’t have a problem typically won’t mind answering a few questions because they have nothing to hide (from you or themselves). Someone who has an addiction will react defensively and even hostilely towards any line of questioning that relates to their using out of fear that this will lead them to have to stop.
6. They don’t seem like themselves anymore
Perhaps you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you just have a sense that your friend or relative isn’t acting like themselves anymore. Maybe they’re moodier than usual or have withdrawn from friends or activities they once enjoyed. Maybe they aren’t taking care of themselves like they used to and their appearance has become disheveled. Whatever the reasons, trust your instincts. If you have a sense that someone you care about is in trouble, it can’t hurt to intervene and get him or her help. Even if it turns out that they don’t have a pain pill addiction, if they are sleeping all the time or aren’t attending to their responsibilities, they’re clearly struggling regardless of what the underlying issue is.
7. They always have an excuse
You might have bought into their excuses at first, because, after all, the reasons they gave sounded reasonable. But after the 10th, 20th, or 100th time they’ve blamed someone else or some outside hardship for their problem, you start to wonder if perhaps you’ve wandered into a web of lies.
Here are some examples of comments someone with a pain pill addiction may say:
“I don’t have a problem; you’re just overreacting.”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“Everyone takes a few pills sometimes. It’s normal.”
“You don’t understand. I’m still in lot of pain. I need the pills! If I don’t take them, I won’t be able to go to work/school.”
“My doctor said I still have to take them for a few more weeks.”
“I just fell asleep because I was tired. Work is stressful right now and I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Again, trust your gut. If what their saying just isn’t adding up, that’s probably because they’re lying to you and themselves.
When the Signs of a Pain Pill Addiction Become Clear: How to Get Your Loved One Help
Help yourself first
Before you can help your friend or relative, you need to help yourself. While it’s normal and entirely understandable to be feeling angry and hurt over your loved one’s behavior, until you’ve worked through those emotions and are able to see your loved one’s irrational actions from a place of objectivity and compassion, you won’t be in a position to help. Join a support group or speak with a therapist before confronting your loved one so that you’ll be best prepared for the difficulties that lie ahead. Confronting an addict and convincing him or her to seek help is an emotionally trying experience and you’ll want to make sure you have all the education and support you can get ahead of time.
Seek assistance from a professional
Don’t think you have to deal with this on your own. Why reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to? 12-step support groups, addiction specialists and rehabilitation facilities have been helping friends and family members just like you for decades. They can use their experience and knowledge to help you develop a strategy for getting your loved one off the medications in a safe and healthy way. They’ll also teach you and your loved one painkiller-free alternatives to pain recovery, such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga and healthy eating.
If you or a loved one needs help recovering from chronic pain or overcoming an opioid addiction, Las Vegas Recovery Center can help. Our chronic pain treatment center is overseen by pain expert and internationally renowned physician and addiction specialist, Mel Pohl, MD, DFASAM. Contact our 24-hour admissions line to learn more about our services, staff and how we can help your loved one as they begin their journey towards long-term recovery.