Recognizing Substance Use in a Loved One

Often, people using drugs or alcohol are unaware of their dependencies or otherwise go to great lengths to disguise their behaviour. The burden of recognizing substance abuse often lies with loved ones – particularly spouses and partners.

Unfortunately, a drug or alcohol abuse problem can go unnoticed for long periods of time, taking partners and family members by surprise when the addiction is finally apparent. After all, how could a substance abuse problem go undetected in the home they share together?

Partners are often the first to suspect a substance abuse problem, but they may feel guilty imagining a scenario in which a loved one could have an addiction. Others may need proof or confirmation before they feel comfortable discussing the topic, which may not happen if the partner is actively hiding their drug or alcohol use.

There are obvious signs of substance abuse or addiction even if the person using is trying to hide them. These signs may be physical, behavioural, or psychological.

Physical Signs of Substance Abuse

  1. Sudden changes in appetite or weight. Some drugs cause people to eat more and gain weight. Others suppress appetite and increase metabolic rates, resulting in noticeable weight loss.
  2. Changes in sleep patterns. Drugs and alcohol can cause someone to frequently wake up in the middle of the night, experience insomnia, or sleep much longer than normal.
  3. Changes in hygienic habits. Complacency or lethargy can cause a partner to stop showering, shaving, brushing his or her teeth, wearing makeup, or caring for his or her appearance.
  4. Impairments. A major sign of substance abuse is a temporary physical impairment. This may be in the form of slurred speech, difficulty walking, poor coordination, or even shakes and tremors.
  5. Lethargy or hyperactivity. Drugs and alcohol can alter a person’s energy levels, causing them to feel relaxed and lethargic or energized and hyperactive. Every substance is different, and some of the effects vary from person to person.
  6. Changes to the eyes. Both drugs and alcohol can cause eye changes such as bloodshot eyes or changes to pupil size.
  7. Changes to the nose. Snorting a substance can lead to frequent nosebleeds or chronic, unexplained sniffling.
  8. Injection marks. Marks on the skin are tell-tale signs of drug use, especially when the marks appear on the arms, legs, or lower torso.
  9. Frequent itching. Scratching or picking at the skin is commonly associated with drug use, particularly due to the release of histamine in the body or the perception that there may be worms or bugs under the skin.
  10. Changes in skin coloration. Some substances, such as alcohol, can cause skin discoloration due to liver damage or other internal problems.
  11. Seizures. Seizures are a side effect of many prescription medications, illicit drugs, and alcohol. Unexplained seizures without a history of epilepsy may indicate a substance abuse problem.
  12. Finding evidence of drug or substance use. One of the most obvious signs of substance abuse is finding drug paraphernalia or empty beer, wine, or liquor bottles in the trash or in hiding places.



Behavioural Signs of Substance Abuse



  1. Suspicious behaviour. A partner who is abusing substances may suddenly engage in secretive or suspicious behaviour. They may lock themselves in a room for long periods of time or appear very private in their actions or intentions.
  2. Monetary changes. It costs money to maintain an addiction. Loved ones may find that money has been withdrawn from cash accounts or cash advances have been taken on credit cards. Cash may go missing, and bills may not be paid on time. Eventually, the family member who is abusing a substance may begin borrowing from friends, selling valuable items for cash, or stealing to get enough money to buy drugs or alcohol.
  3. Personality changes. Drugs and alcohol can significantly affect a person’s personality. It is not uncommon for people engaged in substance abuse to experience major and rapid mood swings.
  4. Diminished interest in hobbies or social activities. Interest or favorited pastimes may now be on the back burner. People with substance abuse problems may appear apathetic or indifferent toward hobbies or friendships.
  5. Changes in friendships. A partner may spend less time with close friends and begin striking up new relationships or rekindling old ones. These may be fellow people who abuse substances or people who enable by supplying the substance.
  6. Sudden reduction in motivational levels. People with substance abuse disorders may suddenly appear to be less motivated to go to work, attend school, or aspire toward goals.
  7. Criticisms from peers and superiors. A person who attends college or works for an employer may begin receiving complaints from teachers, co-workers, and bosses because of poor performance, tardiness, or absences from work or school.
  8. Disputes and contention with others. Substance abuse can lead to extreme responses. A person may notice their loved one is easily irritated or suddenly “explodes” into angry outbursts. Drug and alcohol abuse can also lead to poor management of feelings, resulting in physical fights or heated arguments.