I found evidence of drug or alcohol use: Now what?

Your worst fears have been confirmed. You’ve found evidence of drugs or alcohol that a loved one has been hiding from you. Now what? We outline four (4) steps you can take here. Then, we invite your comments or questions at the end.

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You Found the Evidence. Now What?

So, for the past few weeks you’ve been going through your loved one’s clothes and room, looking for signs that they are using drugs or drinking. Then one day you find what you were looking for.

Here, we review what to do next. We help you form a plan. Rather than react, you can follow these suggestions and then feel in control of your actions. More here on what to do AFTER you find evidence of drug or alcohol use, with a section for your questions and comments at the end.

The moment of realization: Finding the goods

For Barbara J., a mother we worked with, this moment happened when she lifted her 23-year-old daughter’s mattress and found four-dozen empty pint-size bottles of hard liquor.

It’s hard to put into words all that she must have felt in that moment. Barbara remembers that her legs went numb. Her first thought was to chase down her daughter and scream out, “You’ve been lying this whole time! What is wrong with you, are you mad? How dare you treat us like we’re fools?”

But she didn’t. Rather, she took a picture of the bottles and shared it with us.

Staying in control: You need a plan

Families who find evidence of drug or alcohol use need a plan that goes way beyond the day-to-day reactivity caused by the chaos of life, especially when someone is struggling with alcohol or drugs.

This situation is an extremely challenging one to find yourself in. For starters, you may not feel proud about the snooping. However, we believe going through their things is reasonable – after all, it’s not a “fair fight.”  What you find informs a plan. It is key information that will help you assess whether your loved one is using or not.

4 steps to take AFTER you find the evidence

So, what can you do if your worst fears have been confirmed? Here are four (4) simple steps you can take. We suggest the following.

1. Keep it to yourself.

It’s not going to be easy, next time you see them, to avoid a confrontation about what you found, but it is absolutely essential. Keep the information to yourself.

2. Observe and assess their behavior.

And when you see them next, ask yourself this question: “Are they using right now or are they not?” This is the key question you’ll want to ask yourself each and every time you see your loved one. Is he using, or is he not?

But how to tell if a teen or adult is using drugs is a subtle affair. So, put the other things aside (the lack of a job, the sloppy clothes, or flunking out of school…) and focus on what is right in front of you: Ask yourself:

  • How does your loved one look?
  • Is she making that little smile that signals she’s been smoking?
  • Are his eyes drooping?
  • Is he avoiding looking at me?
  • Is her energy normal?
  • Is he on time?
  • Does his voice sound strong?

3. How you answer determines how you’ll act.

How you act is within your control. It changes the immediate environment surrounding your loved one and influences their relationship to the drug or the alcohol.

4. DON’T ask them if they’re using.

For months, Barbara’s daughter had been adamantly denying any drinking at all. The bottles under the mattress proved this untrue. Sure, if asked, her daughter would say they were old or they weren’t hers. But the chances were very good that stashing empties under the mattress was symptomatic of an ongoing problem.

Sizing up your loved one doesn’t include asking them if they’re using. That typically leads to two kinds of answers: 1) defending the right to use or 2) denying the use. Asking has the effect of pinning someone to the wall. Your loved one will feel cornered. Defending or denying is not what we want your loved one to focus on or to articulate.

Putting it into practice

With this information in hand, Barbara looked more carefully at her daughter, especially in the morning when her daughter was getting ready for work. Where before, she had ignored the little signs that her daughter was hungover, she now ruled it in.

Barbara’s daughter worked the second shift and then often went out afterwards, returning home between 2 and 4 AM. Barbara treasured their morning hours together, wanting to use that time to connect with her daughter. After all, it was the only time they got to see each other, given their respective schedules.

But after finding those bottles, she realized her daughter was drinking way more than she first thought, and that being hungover was probably the norm. Barbara learned to disengage from her daughter on those mornings when the signs of a hangover were clear.

Did this one step radically change things? No. But it was an important move towards unblocking the situation.

Changing your behavior can lead to an opening

Mom had always been predictably there for her no matter what. Desperately wanting to stay connected with her daughter, she had gotten in the habit of being cheery and chatty on those mornings.

When Barbara began disengaging from her daughter when she looked hungover, it had the desired effect of isolating her daughter. In other words, Barbara was removing the reward of her cheerful company, because her daughter had been using.

Barbara had been ignoring the signs her daughter may have been drinking. She wanted nothing to be wrong. Finding those bottles made her reassess her daughter’s state on those mornings. Barbara let go of her stubborn attempts to make everything seem normal, when all signs pointed to her daughter fighting off a hangover.

It was a subtle, yet profound, shift in their relationship. Mom wasn’t so reliably close-at-hand anymore.

And the photo? We suggested she hang on to that disturbing photo. When the time was right to talk treatment, the photo might prove to be useful.

Need more information or help?

To read more about helping a family member with addiction or intervening so an addict hears your message, please check out Dominique’s articles on Addiction Blog. Or leave us your questions in the comments section below. We’ll do our best to get back with you personally and promptly.

About the author
Dominique Simon-Levine is a Ph.D. substance abuse researcher, who is in long-term recovery. She runs an award-winning program for families called Allies in Recovery. Founded in 2003, Allies in Recovery has helped hundreds of families to climb out of the abyss of addiction. Her work is featured on HBO and on alliesinrecovery.net.
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