Signs of Alcohol or Drug Abuse

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Dr. Roger P. Watts is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who practices as a Chemical Dependency Professional II at a world-renowned treatment facility in ...Read More

There are tell-tale signs that a person may be abusing or dependent on alcohol or other drugs, but it is often surprising how people who know these addicts or alcoholics miss the typical signs. Substance abuse counseling can help, but only if the person is involved with counseling and that generally requires them to have symptoms. Rehab treatment is the answer for this problem, but the signs of relapse should be showing themselves long before rehab comes into their life.

The physical signs of substance abuse fall into the category of what most people think of when they think of substance abuse. The watery eyes that are either pin points or extremely dilated, the smell of alcohol on the breath, poor sleep habits (either too much or too little), stumbling and bumbling walking, slurred speech, weight gain or loss, scratching uncontrollably, or inability to wake a person from sleep are generally obvious signs anyone can see are part of a problem of substance abuse. The trouble is, many people confuse these signs with other disease symptoms, like diabetes (sleep, weight gain, tremors) or strokes (erratic behavior, slurred speech, dilated eyes) or even multiple sclerosis (difficulty walking or talking). But, generally the physical signs of excessive drug or alcohol use point in only one direction…abuse or dependence.


The mental signs of alcohol or drug abuse are more subtle. Depression or excessive elation, mood changes, suicide talk or attempts, refusing medications, defensiveness, secretiveness, lapses in memory, impulsivity, poor physical self-image, or anger, are some signs that a person is not coping well with life. There is a tendency for alcoholics and addicts to avoid the problems of life through their substance use, and that can be evident with psychological signs that might be coupled with physical signs. But, it’s important to not incorrectly attribute mental thoughts or behaviors as being psychologically caused when, in fact, they are the result of either using alcohol or other drugs or withdrawing from them.

There are social signs as well. A person becomes either more or less social, changes their personal habits with hygiene or studying or work commitments, or becomes less socially responsible. They may intentionally miss social commitments because they want time alone to drink or take drugs. They may be more withdrawn in normally interesting or upbeat social situations. Where once they were outgoing they are now isolative; where once they stayed pretty much to themselves, they are now social butterflies. Friendships change with alcohol and drug dependence as a person spends more and more time with people who support their habit and less time with the usual crowd of people who are healthy. Interactions change, peers change, their attitude toward the law may change, and they may go from being pro-social to becoming anti-social in their attitudes and behaviors. You may not get to know their friends any more as they try to keep their new drug-related social life a secret from healthy people.

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There are financial signs (they are either poorer or richer depending if they are spending more on drugs and alcohol than they have in the past, or are dealing drugs), their spending habits change – they particularly become more miserly because they need to hoard cash for alcohol and drugs. The spiritual signs are more subtle than most. The person usually begins to drift away from religious or spiritual practices to which they once were devoted. They live less by healthy principles and adopt negative attitudes and values. They are less honest and open and sometimes adopt the code of the street where it is “dog-eat-dog”, or “survival of the fittest.”

There are relationship signs as their relationship with you deteriorates. There may be sudden or gradual changes in the way they relate to family and friends. Home environments become more chaotic. They will exploit family members or friends for money, property they can exchange for alcohol or drugs, or even their affection to help them continue to use. All chemically dependent people want and need enablers to help them use alcohol and other drugs and those enablers are often unaware of their role with the person. And, there are vocational signs of drug or alcohol use. The person may be chronically late for work or late coming home. They may be missing from the office or job site during the day. Their output suffers and employers put them on notice for failure to meet standards. Their long lunches turn into marathons of drinking. They lose their job and claim to you that they don’t know why. They may be chronically unemployed or under employed.

These signs and symptoms are evident to anyone who may have been exposed to alcohol or drug use by a loved one or close friend for any length of time. The important thing to watch for is patterns of change, and not making the mistake of assuming that there is another, less obvious cause for the behavior than the fact the person is either intoxicated or in withdrawal. Using these signs and symptoms can go a long way to forming effective interventions to force an alcoholic or drug addict to confront their own use and denial and get them to rehab treatment faster.

Keep Reading By Author Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.
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