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Is Your Loved One Using or Not Using?


Illustration © Eleanor Davis

An Easter Dilemma: "I suspect my son was high at Easter…"

A father recently wrote to tell me the story of a family gathering in which his son may have been high….

…So Friday night, my son gets to the family home before us. My wife and I arrive late, around 9 p.m. We all chat for a bit and in about an hour, my son starts to speak with a bit of loss of focus, and with the mannerism that he would exhibit when he was actively using. Not fully blown, but just around the edges. It surprises both my wife and me, but then he says he's pretty tired as he has taken the Seroquel that is prescribed for him and it's making him tired. So, we all go to bed. I sleep until about midnight then lay awake the rest of the night, thinking of his behavior as that old dread moves in.

By morning, all seems OK, we all get up, head to breakfast and split up for the day. Close to 5 p.m., my wife speaks to my son who says he wants to go to a meeting and then return to the house. Sometime after 6, he calls and says he's on his way home, I say great dinner is almost ready, he says, "Good, I am on my way and I am going to take it easy on the ride back," or something like that. Immediately, it doesn't sound quite right to me.

He arrives 45+ minutes later, and it is apparent that his manner has changed. His pupils are dilated to the maximum. He is, at first, overly friendly, effusive and animated. We sit down to dinner, and this continues and the stories start. He recounts that the meeting he went to was "special," not everyone gets to go, he had to be sort of "invited" because "you don't know who will be there." He describes it as an AWOL group of AA*, I guess. He says he's "excited" about it. Then he goes on to say he and others were stuck in traffic in a small side street and some guy a couple of cars ahead was fighting with his girlfriend, others saw it, the cops came and he had to give a statement, blah, blah. Again, these are mannerisms we have witnessed before when he was actively using. Stories, the animation, pupil dilation … so during the course of the dinner, I become certain. I am getting quieter and more reserved. Neither my wife nor I detect any alcohol odor.

Dinner finishes, and at some point while he and my wife are still speaking, my son says something about how my wife and I are acting and asks if we want him to use a breathalyzer. I was not with them at that point, nothing comes of it. We all settle down to watch Lord of The Rings a bit and go to bed. Another pretty much sleepless night. As usual, my wife and I decide we just want to get through Easter Sunday with her Mom and my family, we don't want any problem with him.

We get up Sunday morning and all is well. My son is fine, says he is excited to see everyone. He says, "The best part is I am not hung over and trying to hide it." You know, all the right platitudes. Anyway we get to church, my niece comes by with her kids. Then the three of us leave for the nursing home where my mother-in law lives, we see my son’s cousin with his three kids and wife. They leave, and we (my wife, my son and me) take Gram to the restaurant for brunch. There we meet two of my sisters with their husbands, my son’s brother with his wife and baby. We all have a great time – a couple hours of normalcy – so wonderful to experience. My son has not seen most of these people since at least Thanksgiving. The last time he saw my little sister was when he had an overdose admit to the ER in October. By mid-afternoon we leave. My son goes his way and we go ours. He calls my wife while driving to say how nice it was to be together, he is quite happy. Last night I send him a text and encourage him to remember what he learned during the day: the love, joy and happiness of family, the peace of truth and the power of hope.

Ok, so much for recounting the events. Now I must sort out my feelings about his behavior, figure out a way to address it and continue to encourage him down the path. I feel as though we must to speak with him about Saturday night and probably Friday night too; only I don't know how. Tell him how his behavior conjured up the apprehension and anxiety of his active use days. Clearly, something is going on if his pupils were that dilated. I have no idea what meds he is on that might do that. So, I still have some "sorting out" in my head to do. I am frustrated, angry, ready to leave him to his own failure. I don't want to do this anymore, tired I guess.

But, I am so grateful for yesterday, our Easter miracle Sunday. It was such a good day. I hope he sees that.

Illustration © Eleanor Davis

Responding to Your Loved One's Use

It’s hard not to closely follow your Loved One’s behavior when you have doubts. In this father’s retelling, I felt myself going through it with him, every twist and turn, and the emotions and sleeplessness that accompany them.

I'm sure the parental sixth sense was correct and located some use, probably not alcohol but something, and maybe just his prescribed meds. The son could also be suffering more mental illness than anyone realizes and his buoyancy could be the result of some mania. It's hard to know. The dad wants to speak to his son about the weekend, but if he does, the message should be limited: you made us anxious and suspicious. Next time this happens, I’m afraid we’ll have to cut things short. We can’t go on as though nothing is happening. To do so is to encourage you. It turns us into supporters of your using.

Another effective thing to have done was in the moment the parents saw the behavior that signaled trouble was coming on. In that moment, there is a decision to make: Is our son using? If no, not enough evidence, then you go on with the weekend as planned; but, if yes we believe he is using, then the evening ends for the son. He is asked to leave or you find a way to cut things short. Perhaps something like: “Son, we believe you are high, so you need to go. We’ll finish our meal and take you home.”

The eve of Easter doesn't go as planned for you and the family, but it can go on without the son. You can say: “Perhaps if you straighten up, you can join us for Easter Sunday tomorrow.” This isn’t about punishing the son, but it is about removing the reward of family and dinner when he’s high. “Straighten up and you can join us for church and brunch tomorrow.”

A Simple Question: Is Your Loved One Using or Not Using?

In Modules 5: My Loved One isn’t Using Right Now, Now What and Module 6: My Loved One is Using Right Now, Now What…. The key question we stress you should ask yourself is whether your Loved One is using right now. There is no room for answering this in the grey zone. The answer is either yes or no. Yes, you take the son home. No, you continue with Easter Eve. For your actions to be clear, your answer needs to be either yes or no, otherwise you may send a mixed message, as you labor as to what to do in response, as this family did. Certainly, you can’t be sure whether or not he is in fact using, but you need to weigh the evidence and still answer the question yes or no, given what you see and feel.

Easter Sunday was beautiful. The son didn’t seem high. Everyone enjoyed a rare couple hours of family life and family love. The son calls afterwards to say how happy the day had made him. When we talk about adjusting your responses to whether or not they are using, it will look like this. One day, high, he is asked to leave the dinner table, the next day, sober, he enjoys the attention and connection of family.

The parents now have more information about their son. He may be using drugs again. Let this serve as a reminder that trouble may be on the horizon, making it essential for you to keep your plans flexible, always have a Plan B on hand when you see each other, and to redouble all that you do to take care of yourself.

*AWOL groups are not AA, but are groups of people who meet periodically to discuss the 12 steps or Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Loved ones can cause us a lot of pain and suffering. A dear friend of mine wrestled with her addiction for years before succumbing. I often rejoiced in all those time well spent. Yet, my suspicions remained.

    At first I would simply say…”Gee, it would almost seem as if you might be under the influence right now.” And she would deny it vehemently. And I simply let it go.

    Such incidents increased in number and duration. How I wish I had drawn a line in the sand, instead of letting her slip away.

    Signs of relapse may seem so subtle that one doubts one’s self. Addiction left untreated does not heal itself. Ultimately the chains of addiction can become too strong to break. I have learned to go with my gut instinct and not simply pray that I was wrong in my assessment.