How to help a friend who’s struggling with alcohol?
1) Dear Alice,
I have two friends who I think are drinking too much. I don't know what to do. They are very defensive should anyone say anything to them about their excessive habit, and a lot of our friends are giving up on them. This has become a daily thing and their schoolwork and friendships are all suffering. They are both 21; one recently broke up with his girlfriend of several years and the other has been single for a while and he hates it. I know that has a lot to do with it. Please suggest some non-intrusive ways to help them. I'm really at a loss.
A concerned friend
2) 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 school 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?
Dear Concerned and A Concerned Friend,
It sounds like you both really care about your friends and have their best interests at heart. Having a conversation about alcohol and trying to support your friends may often be difficult. However, the conversation may be worth having if you believe that your friend could be in trouble or would benefit from knowing that there are people that support them. Keep in mind that patience, boundary setting, and remembering to take care of yourself will be important throughout this process. It's ultimately up to your friends to make the decision of whether they’d like to accept help and change. Read on to learn more about steps you may take to help your friends.
To start, consider educating yourself about alcoholism. Learning about alcohol use disorder and types of alcoholics may help you identify your friend’s problem behaviors, signs and symptoms, and specific ways you could support them.
If you choose to have a conversation, doing some preparation beforehand may help you to feel more prepared and lead to a more productive and less intrusive chat. To do this, you can write down your concerns to reference during the conversation. The environment in which you choose to have the conversation will also be important. Try to have the conversation when your friend is sober and select a private and quiet space so they may feel more comfortable during the talk. When having the conversation, you may also consider:
- Using direct, but empathic "I" statements. For example, you might say, "I understand that you are struggling, and I am concerned about you."
- Expressing your concerns directly—don't talk around the issue or use coded language. Try focusing on concrete, observable behaviors and the consequences they may have already experienced or ones they could experience if they continue down the current path.
- Listening to your friend’s thoughts and concerns without interruption and following up by asking how they’re feeling and how or what you can do to help.
- Bringing up treatment options and tips for selecting treatment.
List adapted from American Addiction Centers
While having the conversation, there are things you may want to avoid in order to keep the talk from turning sour or leading your friend to feel attacked, defensive, or believe you’re trying to force them into doing something they’re not ready for. Try to avoid:
- Giving ultimatums and threats.
- Lecturing and criticizing your friend.
- Blaming and using stigmatizing words like "addict" or "alcoholic".
- Confrontational interventions. Research shows they’re unlikely to help and could worsen the situation.
- Instead, you might suggest that your friend speak with a mental health or health care professional if they don’t want to speak with you.
List adapted from American Addiction Centers
It may take several conversations before your friends decide they’re ready to change their behaviors, let alone to begin considering treatment. It can also be important to remember that even if they start treatment, they may struggle with relapse or mental health issues. In those cases, often the best form of support is just paying attention to their situation and acknowledging any wins they have. It’s important to recognize when your attempts to be there and provide support have also caused you to get swept up in the ups and downs they may be experiencing. That said, setting boundaries in your friendship and taking care of yourself is also important. Examples of reasonable boundaries include refusing to do any of the following: lie about your friend's drinking, provide them with alcohol, or argue when they’re drunk. Making excuses or fulfilling responsibilities for your friend when they’re incapacitated may cause them to take longer to realize the consequences of their actions and therefore may delay their attempts to seek help.
For more information or support, consider checking out the following resources geared toward family and friends trying to help their loved ones:
Originally published Apr 20, 2000
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