Recognizing a substance abuse problem in a loved one can be very difficult. Individuals who abuse substances often hide their behaviors from family members and friends — if asked, they’re likely to deny they have a problem. Relatives of those struggling with substance abuse must sometimes work hard to uncover the addiction. Becoming attune to substance abuse signs and symptoms can help you recognize these problems in the people you care about most.

Neglecting Beloved Activities

Priorities shift when a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. The more dependent on a substance someone becomes, the less important other activities may seem. As the addiction becomes more serious, the individual will likely spend less time on hobbies. Eventually, those favorite activities will become all but irrelevant.

Changes in Appearance, Style and Self-Care

Someone who is addicted to a substance may change in appearance in a variety of ways:

  • Weight loss: Weight loss is common among people who have an addiction, because substance abuse sometimes involves drugs that speed metabolism and suppress the appetite at the same time. In addition, people who engage in drug-binging behaviors may avoid eating during an episode. 
  • Poor grooming habits: Appearance can change in other ways due to substance abuse. Just as someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may lose interest in his or her hobbies, he or she may also lose interest in grooming and self-care. Showering, washing laundry, shopping for clothes, getting haircuts and other regular grooming habits may start to feel unnecessary for a person who is addicted to a substance. 
  • Change in eyes and skin: Pupils dilate or become very small when certain drugs are involved. Red or glassy eyes can also indicate a problem. 

Occasionally, substance abuse can lead to changes in skin — including the development of sores, yellowish skin or track marks in various places on the body. The type of physical changes that the person goes through will depend entirely on the type of substance being abused.

Drinking or Taking Drugs in Secret and in the Morning

A person who is addicted will often not admit to the frequency with which he or she is normally engaged in drinking or drug-taking behaviors. This can lead to a decrease in social drinking or drug use, and more use of drugs or alcohol while alone. Loved ones may not witness this substance use directly.

The telltale signs include empty wine bottles or pill bottles appearing in the trash can, smell of alcohol on the breath, and behavior changes. Often, those who have been taking drugs or drinking alcohol in secret will not have a good explanation for where they've been, and they'll avoid saying what they've been doing.

Difficulty in Relationships

Almost everything becomes more difficult when a person is addicted to a substance. Interpersonal relationships that were once satisfying and healthy may suddenly become strained. Addictions can lead to a downward spiral of problems including unreliability and unpredictable priorities. This often causes arguments among loved ones, and can even have serious consequences such as divorce.

Financial Problems

Substance abuse can be expensive. Purchasing a constant supply of drugs can drain checking and savings accounts, and can make employment difficult. For people who work an hourly job or who are self-employed, a problem like substance abuse can be financially devastating. Sometimes these money problems are obvious, other times it is subtle — such as credit card debt.

Often, people who struggle with substance abuse will do so for years. Relatives and loved ones of people suffering from substance abuse must attune themselves to these signs, so they can learn to recognize the problems and work with professionals to get help.

Taylor Wood is Executive Director at Buena Vista Recovery. He attended Arizona State University for business and education, and was introduced to the recovery industry in 2012. Wood has established a dynamic way of helping patients that brings about change, hope and joy.

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