Big, Flashing, Neon Signs (And Little, Hidden Ones, Too): How To Know A Loved One Might Be Struggling With Addiction

by Daniel D. Maurer

Addicts and alcoholics can be sneaky. I sure know I was. Others might care less whether or not you find out they’re abusing substances.

With both types of people, one thing is certain—if you become a threat to the continued use of a substance of choice (and if the person is genuinely addicted to that substance) that person will do all they can to remove that threat.

The action they take will either mean that they will stop answering your phone calls, texts, or emails, or they might try to hide or diminish the source of the problem the best way they know how.

In my case, I fit the second definition—I was a scheming, devious bastard. Nothing . . . nothing was going to get in the way of my little secret. I did all I could to hide my use. And I have to admit that I did a fairly good job at it—I kept drinking and abusing opioid prescription medication (my “little hobby”) for nearly twelve years.

Eventually, I had to go to rehab. I attended three inpatient treatments and the last one finally stuck. But I didn’t get to that point until I had run out of options and my health was spiraling precipitously into the flaming wreck it truly had become.

Fortunately, many people don’t have to get to that point to achieve lasting sobriety. I’m in the camp that believes that low-bottom drunks (like I was) can attain a successful recovery sooner, if only they recognize that the path they are taking is leading to an inescapable mess. With my case, I didn’t. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Parents, friends, spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends cannot control the actions of a person they care about. However, I firmly believe that interventions and strict boundaries can positively confront a person’s behavior to effect real change for the people we love.

The good news is that there are signs to look for. Some are big and flashy—think “a giant, blinking neon sign.” Others are more subtle. In either case, the person you care about will only ultimately benefit if you know about these indicators.

In fact, you might just help save their life.

Obvious Neon Sign No. 1: Personality & Behavior Changes

Although the “most obvious” sign will be different for every person, two common indications of a drug or alcohol problem stand out above the rest: personality changes & changes in behavior.

Since alcohol and mind-altering drugs directly affect the brain’s reward system, it stands to reason that these chemicals can change a person’s personality. Some signs to look for include:

• Sudden lack of motivation to engage in work

• Social withdrawal, including hiding or secretive behavior

• Argumentative or demanding

• Loss of morality or decline in inhibitions

• Sudden development of unhealthy friendships to obtain alcohol or drugs

• Change in sleep patterns (sleepiness or insomnia)

• Obnoxious, loud conduct

• Overexcitement and hyperactivity (fast, rambling speech)

• Hears voices or acts strangely

• Abrupt depression followed by an unexplained optimism (mood swings)

Obvious Neon Sign No. 2: Sudden, Physical Changes, and Health Problems

For the fourth book I’m currently writing which deals with the psychological concept of resilience, I interviewed a mother who had lost her son to addiction. One consistent indicator she had noticed with her son is how his appearance had changed—what once had been a strapping young man, at the peak of his health, became a sickly, gray-skinned, hollow ghost.

Addiction is a disease of the mind and spirit, but it also adversely affects the abuser’s physical health. Since conditions other than addiction can impact a person’s health, it’s important to understand that drugs and alcohol often adversely change it suddenly. Here’s a list of things to look for:

• Sudden, unhealthy change in appearances such as cuts, bruises, or burns

• Poor hygiene

• Continually seems sick or often takes the day off from work

• Vomiting or excessive use of antacids

• Complaint of headaches (or excessive self-medication with OTC drugs)

• Doesn’t remember the previous evening (blackouts)

• Unexplained, sudden exhaustion

• Strange patterns of sleep or insomnia

• Excessive thirst or hunger

• Doesn’t need to eat or sudden lack of appetite (especially when it accompanies hyper behavior)

• “Nodding out” or inability to focus

Subtle Sign No. 1: Hiding or Minimizing Use

Some signs of drug or alcohol abuse aren’t red flags like those I’ve listed above. The first of which is the person you care about will begin to take great pains to either hide or minimize their substance use.

Here are some behaviors to look for:

• Missing prescription medication

• Discovery of empty liquor or pill bottles (you may have to search hard—we’re great at hiding these!)

• Discovery of drug paraphernalia (pipes, spoons, syringes, or plastic bags)

• Suddenly locks doors

• Excessive use of air fresheners or perfumes

• Eating pickles (I’m serious—it’s the best way of killing the alcohol smell on your breath!)

• Promises to cut down or minimizes use

Subtle Sign No. 2: Change in Activities

Some subtle signs blur into the obvious (and vice versa). However, it’s still worth mentioning that addicts and alcoholics place the use of their drug of choice above any other activity.

Be aware of:

• A sudden loss of interest in activities that once brought joy

• An uncharacteristic loss in reliability (breaks promises)

• Vanishes suddenly and lies about what they were doing

• Unexplained absences at school or work

Subtle Sign No. 3: What Does Your Gut Tell You?

The last point I would like to lift up is a bit different than the previous indicators. However, it is probably the most important:

People who are adversely affected by another person’s addiction often suffer from the same lack of insight and minimization that the alcoholic or addict themselves espouse.

In fact, this characteristic of telling yourself things like:

The drinking’s not as bad as I thought; she seems better today, or;

He wouldn’t ever inject drugs—he only takes painkillers for his back . . .

. . . is precisely the same minimization and misunderstanding of the deadly nature of addiction that the person who suffers from substance abuse claims.

he truth is that your gut instinct probably knows better than you are willing to admit. Do you think the person you love has a problem? Yes? Then they probably do!

Trust your gut. You may just be able to help the person more than you think.


If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction and need treatment, we would love to talk with you and see how we can help you. PLEASE CALL 844.310.5975. Our counselors are available to guide you through the process.


Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer openly living in long-term recovery. He is the author of Sobriety: A Graphic Novel, a Hazelden Publishing, youth and young adult recovery resource. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more information on Dan and his work, see:


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