5 Signs of Substance Abuse in a Family Member

5 Signs of Substance Abuse in a Family Member

Living in limbo. That’s where you’re at now—floating around between the not-knowing and the knowing. Perhaps your loved one struggles with substance abuse but perhaps, with fingers-crossed, not. 

There’s comfort to be found in the in-between, in the not knowing. 

But there’s purpose to be found in discovery. After all, if your family member struggles with addiction, your concern could lead to treatment—and treatment to recovery. 

You’re already here. Let’s take this brave first step together. We’ll talk about the common signs and symptoms you can look for to uncover substance abuse issues. We’ll also discuss a few things to keep in mind as you process this information. 

Ready? Let’s dive in. 

5 Common Signs of Substance Abuse

As you work through the symptoms below, you might benefit from grabbing a notepad and a pen. Jot down any thoughts that stand out or questions you’d like to research later. 

We’ve grouped the common signs into a few categories: 

  1. School and work 
  2. Behavior 
  3. Health 
  4. Personal life 
  5. Finances 

Use these as a framework for observation. Consider how your loved one fares in each of the areas listed below. 

Substance Abuse Can Result in Problems at School or Work

When a teen slacks off at school or an adult seems to lack enthusiasm for work, it can be easy to write these actions off as a phase or temporary setback. And they may be. Still, it’s worth paying attention to prolonged periods of disinterest. 

More specifically, The Mayo Clinic advises looking out for students who regularly skip school and adults who routinely “can’t make it” to work. You may also observe problems in report cards and job evaluations. 

Be mindful of subtle changes and pay attention to how a person speaks about school or work. Constant negativity, complaints of reprimand and apathy about poor performance are a heads-up that, at the very least, you need more information. 

Substance Abuse Can Cause Changes in Behavior

Consider the person and personality of the family member you suspect may be using drugs or drinking too much. Do they carry on as they always have, or does something seem off?

Research tells us that addiction rewires the brain. As a result, things that once brought joy no longer hold the same appeal. The substance of choice eventually reigns supreme in a person’s mind and priority list. And there’s more. 

These changes in hardwiring instruct the brain to be on high alert for danger. A sad irony, no doubt. After all, addiction-induced anxiety can be quelled only by engaging in the very real danger of more substance abuse. 

With these facts in mind, it’s no wonder addiction can show up in behavior changes like:

  • Mood swings that come often and seem unreasonable given other circumstances
  • Irritability, especially in people with an otherwise cheerful disposition 
  • An increasing desire to be alone and a reluctance to connect with others
  • Secretive behaviors such as locking doors or refusing to answer questions about plans 

Of course, as the person who knows your family member best, changes in behavior as a result of substance abuse may show up in different ways as well. The key is to look for obvious and sustained differences in the one you love. 

Substance Abuse Can Create Physical Health Issues

Let’s take a break from all the sly, subtle signs of behavior and motivation and move toward the symptoms we can easily see. And while it might seem a little too obvious to include this in our list, we’re all guilty of living with people without looking. Right? 

So take a look. Depending on the substance, you might notice visible exhaustion, relentless energy, slurred speech, yellow fingertips, track marks on arms, bloodshot eyes, involuntary eye movements, nosebleeds, dry mouth, mouth sores, tooth decay, irregular heartbeats, chills, sweating, tremors, falls, accidents or extreme changes in weight. 

While some of these signs point to obvious drug or alcohol problems, other changes represent symptoms found as a result of many different causes. That’s why it’s important to consider the whole picture when looking for clues of substance abuse. So let’s keep moving! 

Substance Abuse Can Lead to a Neglected Personal Life

When a person spends a lot of time doing drugs and drinking alcohol—or thinking about doing drugs and drinking alcohol—other responsibilities are bound to suffer. It’s inevitable. 

But it’s not just a simple exchange of time, although that does play a role. News in Health explains that addiction damages the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that helps a person decide what’s best, right and most efficient from one situation to the next. 

Research also shows that drugs, in particular, cause fuzzy thinking. That’s why a person with substance abuse issues may be forgetful, absentminded and irrational. 

As a result, you may notice misplaced priorities on behalf of a loved one in the following ways: 

  • Going days without a proper shower
  • No concern for a pleasant appearance with regards to clothes or grooming
  • A home or room that’s untidy, perhaps even to the point of being unsanitary
  • A lack of effort to maintain close friendships and personal relationships
  • A stack of unpaid or even unopened bills

Keep in mind that the brain of a person who struggles with addiction won’t allow them to look at this list and see each item’s value and importance. That’s why you’re here! 

Substance Abuse Can Cause Financial Struggles

Finally, it should come as no surprise that a person struggling with addiction will also acquire a few money problems along the way. That’s because drugs and alcohol are neither free nor cheap—and the need to use with greater frequency can deplete even the cushiest of incomes. 

You might notice a regular request for cash, with no clear purchases to follow. Or it may just be that money, and other valuables start to go missing and never found. Bank accounts showing large or suspiciously regular withdrawals of cash are also worth investigating. 

Beyond this, your loved one may struggle to make payments, afford food or buy necessary items like clothing or shoes. A spouse, partner or parent might tell you there’s not enough money in the budget for your regular expenditures but be unable or unwilling to explain why. 

What to Do With Your Suspicions of Substance Abuse

If, after reading through the common signs above, you believe your family member may be struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the question becomes: 

How should I process this information?

We believe it’s important to keep three key things in mind: 

  1. Your loved one needs your care. 
  2. Your loved one needs your grace. 
  3. Your loved one needs your confidence. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these categories. 

Your loved one needs your care. 

Before you move from fully not-knowing to knowing for sure about any addiction issues, you must remember that you are dealing with a real person—one who likely has responsibilities and a reputation to uphold.  

With this in mind, resist the urge to share your thoughts with more people than necessary. You might reach out to a trusted friend or family member to discuss the best next step. Counselors here at The Right Step DFW are happy to help you process this as well. 

And while, yes, the family members of people in substance abuse treatment absolutely need the freedom to be vulnerable for their own mental health, we’re not there quite yet. By keeping this new information confidential, you can more readily gain the trust of your loved one and allow him the space he needs to begin healing. 

Your loved one needs your grace. 

Before researchers understood the scientific implications of drug and alcohol abuse, most people assumed ongoing addiction to be a moral failing, something that desire could cure. Now we know better. 

Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. puts it this way, “A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.” Willpower isn’t enough. 

When a family member struggles with substance abuse, you may be tempted to show them some tough love. After all, you wouldn’t want anyone to think you condone addiction. Can we make a request? Do your best to show kindness and understanding instead. 

Love doesn’t mean you accept the behavior. It simply means you accept the person. 


Your loved one needs your confidence. 

The hardest part of this process comes when you decide to take the first step toward getting help for your family member. It is, after all, when doubt begins to creep in. 

Maybe you’ll think: 

  • What if I’m wrong?
  • It’s not my business, really. 
  • If she needs help, she’ll ask! 
  • I’ll just sneakily make it extra difficult for him to be alone. 
  • These things work themselves out, don’t they?

Unfortunately, they don’t. Your concern—and acting on that concern—might just be what saves your loved one’s life. So decide today that you’ll move forward in confidence. 

You can do so by researching treatment options, talking with a counselor about what you can expect and making a detailed plan for how you’ll talk with your family member about it all.   

If you see the above signs in your loved one, it may be time to get help. 

The Right Step DFW and our caring staff are ready to answer any questions you have.

Call us today at 844.768.1161

By Stephanie Thomas

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