Friend of an alcohol abuser

Originally Published: November 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 4, 2013
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Dear Alice,

Last year, I became very good friends with a guy on my floor. He was a little out of the ordinary in the way he dressed, as well as in some of his opinions and habits. I had the feeling that he did drink more than he should, and he also did pot. I did not worry too much about it because it appeared to be more of a lifestyle choice than an addiction, and it did not cause him major troubles.

Unfortunately, he started to have academic problems. He did not do his work, missed classes, and eventually exams as well. I still did not relate these things to his alcohol and drug habits, and I hoped that once he got over the adjustment everyone needed to make in freshman year, he would be fine. Well, he wasn't. He did not come back to Columbia this fall, and when I called him, I learned that he had gone through a lot that summer. He was diagnosed with depression and a cocaine addiction, put on Prozac, and sent to therapy. At that point, I thought that he was on the right track because he was also going to get a job and planning to take classes at a nearby college.

However, when he came to visit me a month later, he had already had two beers before he even came here and got more and more drunk as the evening progressed. I would not let him drive home, but he ignored my warnings and left anyway. I was very disturbed because a friend of his had just been in a drunk driving accident. I was very mad at him, told him clearly that I will always be his friend but prefer not to talk to him or see him if he showed up drunk again. He did not call for a while and neither did I. When he called me yesterday and I told him that I thought he should do something about his alcohol problem, he kept repeating his excuses, that he drinks because he is Irish, that he doesn't care if he dies early as long as he had fun in life, etc. On the other hand, he can't find a job and seems to be very depressed. I want to help him, but I don't know how. Any ideas?

— Concerned

Dear Concerned,

You're in a difficult, but common, situation. You're a friend of an addict. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Let him know that you care, but don't take on his problem.

It sounds like you've already got a good start by telling him you don't want to see him when he's drunk. Talk with him when you're both sober, and be clear and specific about what's going on for you and what you see is going on with him. If he doesn't want help, or continues to deny that he has a problem, it is not your responsibility to change his mind or behavior. He's the only one who can make the decision to change.

When you talk with him, consider these steps:

  • Tell him that you care about him, and that you are concerned about how he's been acting.
  • Tell him exactly what he's been doing that concerns you. "You came to visit me after drinking, drank some more, and then drove home."
  • Listen to his response, no matter what.
  • Tell him what you'd like to see him do. "Only come and visit me if you're going to be sober." Or, "I'd like to see you go into rehab, or get some kind of professional help that'll work for you."
  • Tell him what you're willing and able to do to help him. This can range from simply being a good listener, to helping to arrange a meeting with a professional who can help. He may be seeing a therapist, but he might need to be working with someone different — someone with whom he can relate and not manipulate.

Talk with him again if it doesn't work the first time (i.e., he doesn't respond, or responds angrily). It often takes time and repetition for a person with a drug and alcohol problem to accept what you have to say. Let him know that your door is open to discuss this at another time. Make sure that when you have this conversation, it is private, you won't be interrupted, and you're both sober.

You may need help for yourself, if being supportive of your friend becomes too exhausting or time-consuming. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't help your friend. At Columbia, you can contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) (Morningside campus) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) to make an appointment with a substance abuse specialist.

Take care,

Alice