Warning Signs of Drug Abuse: How to Tell If a Loved One is Abusing Drugs

I speak from experience when I say learning a loved one has been abusing drugs can feel like it has come out of nowhere. That often isn’t the case though. There are almost always warning signs. They can be easy to miss but they’re usually there in one form or another. Paying attention and being informed is the best way to determine whether or not your loved one is an addict and is one of the best ways to help them recover. Knowing the warning signs of drug abuse is the best place to start.

Behavioral Symptoms of Drug Abuse

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Probably the most prominent symptoms of drug abuse are the behavioral symptoms. While physical symptoms can be major indicators of a drug problem, they often only really start to appear after the addiction has reached a certain point. Behavioral symptoms are often apparent to those closest to someone who is abusing drugs right away. Common behavioral symptoms that may appear soon after drug abuse begins include:

  • Mood swings
  • Uncharacteristic hyperactivity
  • Uncharacteristic lethargy
  • Secretive behavior
  • Agitation
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Unusual clumsiness
  • Paranoia
  • A sudden and dramatic change in personality
  • Unexplained outbursts of anger or even violence
  • Changes in work or school habits
  • Trouble with the law
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or recreational activities
  • Social changes
  • Theft or unusual financial issues

Theft is a big one – a very big one. If you’ve started to notice money missing from your wallet or things have starting going missing around the home (often small things like CDs, DVDs, jewelry etc), you should definitely be concerned. If other friends or family members have mentioned noticing things are missing after a loved one visits, take that seriously. Someone who is willing to steal from friends and family members is definitely in some sort of distress. It may not be drugs but there is definitely something going on.

Financial warning signs for drug abuse go far beyond theft though. If your loved one is asking to borrow money frequently, even small sums of money and even if the money is being paid back, you should pay attention to that. Is this something new? Has your loved one’s work situation changed? What is the money being used for? Although the money may be paid back and they may only be asking for small amounts of money at a time, when there are other behavioral or physical symptoms present, borrowing money frequently may be indicative of a larger issue.

Social changes are easy to spot but are hard to attribute to drug use initially. Someone who is abusing drugs may withdraw from friends and family members who don’t use drugs and may begin spending more time with other people who abuse drugs. If your loved one is suddenly spending time with people you know use drugs, there may be a cause for concern but it’s important to look for other factors that may connect your loved one to their new social circle. It could be a game, an interest in the same type of movies, an interest in music or even something work related. Being friends with someone who uses drugs does not necessarily mean you are a drug user as well.

It’s important to be careful when approaching your loved one about a new social circle. They may feel judged. They may get defensive. Don’t mistake an angry outburst over friends for an unexplained outburst characteristic of drug abuse. There is nothing unexplained about wanting to defend a friend. We’ve all been there a time or two. When we talk about unexplained outbursts of anger, we’re talking about sudden anger that legitimately has no apparent cause or seems like an over reaction to a very small issue.

It is also important to note the word “uncharacteristic” before lethargy and hyperactivity. If your loved one has always had a little trouble sitting still and has always been ‘wound for sound’ you can’t count hyperactivity among their behavioral symptoms as it would really be considered normal behavior. If that same person suddenly has a hard time finding motivation to get off the couch, you can count lethargy as a symptom. The same can be said for the reverse. If your couch potato loved one is suddenly bursting with energy, seems fidgety and can’t sit still, you can count hyperactivity as a symptom.

A sudden and dramatic change in personality is a big indicator of drug abuse. If your loved one was optimistic and generally a positive person but is suddenly moody, depressed or pessimistic, drug abuse may be the cause. We’re going to discuss other possible considerations you need to consider before assuming drug abuse is the cause of the change in personality in a moment but absent those other possible causes, drug abuse in the likely culprit. Alternatively, if your loved one was a negative person who always seemed depressed, a sudden change toward the positive may also indicate drug abuse. While it may seem like a positive change is a good thing, if drug abuse is the cause, it’s important to remember the possible ramifications of that abuse. Drugs are dangerous and if the positive change is chemically induced, there is no guarantee that positive change will stay positive. In fact, in all likelihood, it won’t.

If your loved one starts missing work or school on a regular basis you should be concerned but if this is not a new thing, the problem may not be drug abuse or the drug abuse may not be a new issue. Trouble with the law is also a big indicator, even if the trouble does not directly seem connected to drugs. Arrests for petty crimes like break and enter or property damage can often be related to drug abuse, especially if the person being arrested has never had trouble with the law before. Getting arrested, even for petty crimes, is often the symptom of a larger problem as is missing school or work. Even if your loved one is not abusing drugs, the larger problem should be addressed as such issues can cause far bigger problems down the line.

Loss of interest in hobbies or recreational activities is a big warning sign but one that needs to be given serious thought. If your loved one has always been pushed toward something – playing sports, playing an instrument, studying a particular subject etc – and they suddenly seem to have no interest in pursuing that interest, it may not be a sign of drug abuse but rather a sign they were never interested in it in the first place and were only participating to appease a parent or another loved one. This isn’t uncommon in teenagers and young adults. Teenagers and young adults are just reaching the age when most of them will no longer want to do something just because it will please their parents. Don’t mistake their sudden need for independence for a sign they are using drugs. Instead, see it for what it is – an expression of their desire to be an individual.

Sometimes though, a loss of interest in a hobby or a recreational activity is a cause for concern. If you’re sure your loved one was interested in something and suddenly doesn’t seem to care about that something, you should be worried. It may be nothing but it may also be an indication of drug abuse or a whole host of other larger problems – depression being a big one. It is possible your loved one has just grown out of an interest in something but it warrants a closer look, especially if this loss of interest coincides with some of the other symptoms we’ve talked about.

Behavioral Symptoms of Drug Abuse: Considerations

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Before we move on to the physical symptoms your loved one may present if they’re abusing drugs, it’s important to take a moment to address other issues that can cause behavioral changes in your loved one. Before you start really considering whether or not the changes in your loved one could be caused by drugs, you need to try to take a step back and look at the big picture. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has your loved one experienced the death of someone close to them recently?
  • Has your loved one lost their job, been demoted, lost hours at work or had their wages reduced?
  • Has your loved one experienced some sort of traumatic event?
  • Is your loved one going through a tough breakup or divorce?
  • Is your loved one under increased stress because of a legal issue, a financial issue or a conflict with someone close to them?
  • Has your loved one made a big change in their life such as a big move, a change in occupation or a return to school?

If you can answer yes to one or more of the above questions, you need to consider the impact that has had on them. Any of the above can cause significant changes in a person’s behavior or social habits. While the behavioral changes we’re about to talk about are certainly troubling, you really need to determine whether those changes have another root cause. If another cause is possible, your loved one may still be in need of help but they will need a different kind of help. You don’t want to add to the stress they’re under by accusing them of abusing drugs.

With all that said, it is entirely possible your loved one has turned to drugs to cope with the stress or depression caused by one of the life changes we talked about above, but it’s always better to give them the benefit of the doubt. Look at the other possible causes first. Ask if they need help coping and make sure they understand that you’re there for them without making them feel like you’re judging them. If you accuse them of using drugs when they’re not, you’re going to lose their trust. If they are using drugs and you approach them in a loving, supportive way and offer them help coping with some of the other things going on in their life, they may feel comfortable enough to open up to you about their struggles with drugs. They may not, but the chance is still there and that’s worth preserving.

Just as it is important to consider other possible causes for the changes in your loved one’s behavior, it’s also important to consider whether or not your own suspicions are coloring how you are seeing your loved one. Don’t mistake things they’ve always done for signs they’re on drugs. This might sound obvious but it’s harder to avoid than one might think. The behavioral symptoms we’ve talked about should only be considered symptoms if they differ from how your loved one typically behaves. For example, let’s say your loved one usually has a hard time finding the motivation to get off the couch. We would not consider lethargy as a symptom of drug use because it would appear lethargy is just part of their normal behavior. If the same person is suddenly bursting with energy and can’t seem to sit still that is a change in their normal behavior and may indicate your loved one is using drugs.

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Physical Symptoms of Drug Abuse

Physical symptoms of drug abuse tend to come later in the addiction, but there are still warning signs you may be able to see in the beginning. It’s been said that they eyes are the windows to the soul but the eyes also offer valuable clues to anyone concerned about a loved one’s possible drug abuse. Glassy, shiny eyes are a good indication of drug use. The pupils also should give you an idea as to whether someone is high. Different drugs cause different changes in the pupils which we’ll talk about in another article but if you notice your loved one’s pupils are far bigger or far smaller than they should be, there is a good chance they’re high. Of course, it is important to remember that other things cause changes in the pupils as well including light level. Don’t just go by what your loved one’s eyes are telling you. Accusing someone of using drugs is something you want to be sure of before you do it. Look for behavioral symptoms as well to back up your suspicion.

Beyond changes in the eyes, there are many other physical symptoms that may present themselves further along in the addiction. Some other common physical symptoms include:

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain.
  • Neglected appearance
  • Unusual bruises or marks on hands or arms
  • Unexplained sores or lesions

As with behavioral issues, it’s important to look at other possible factors to explain the symptoms before assuming they are somehow related to drugs. Weight loss or gain could be a symptom of an illness or a result of a healthier lifestyle. If your loved one has recently started walking to work or to school, that could easily account for weight loss. If they’ve quit smoking or started driving, it could account for weight gain. It’s also important to remember that normal behavior can’t be considered a symptom. If the person you’re worried about has never really taken the best care of themselves in terms of personal hygiene or isn’t really known for their well put together looks, you shouldn’t consider a neglected appearance a sign of drug use. Marks, bruises, sores or lesions are of a bigger concern because they often point to either self abusive behavior, abusive behavior by another or an illness.

The same considerations we spoke of in reference to behavioral symptoms apply to physical symptoms as well. Always give your loved one the benefit of the doubt. Look for other factors that could explain their unusual behavior and make sure they understand that you are there to listen if they need to talk. Generally speaking though, when more than one of any of these symptoms is present something is going on and most often, it is related to drugs. Paying attention to what is going on in your loved one’s life is the best way to be there and ready to help if your help is needed.

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