If you have a friend you suspect suffers from alcoholism or another addiction, naturally your inclination is to want to do something. Perhaps you used to be drinking buddies and as you put aside some of the old ways, you watched your friend only sink deeper into them.
The first step, if you suspect that a friend is struggling with a drinking problem, is to learn about alcoholism. Alcoholism is a tricky disease and most of the approaches that are actually effective are paradoxical and counter-intuitive. When you learn about the disease, what it does to the victim and how people recover from it, you are in a better place to approach your friend and to do so with the necessary compassion, wisdom and understanding.
So often we are caught up in having fun and in our own experiences that we fail to fully notice the behavior of others around us. Think back on instances in which your friend has demonstrated a lack of judgment or control while drinking. Without being obnoxious, casually observe his or her behavior at parties or when out on the town. Does his or her drinking consistently exceed that of others in the group? Do they approach drinking with a unique urgency? Is drinking starting to cause problems in their personal and/or professional spheres? Have there been run-ins with the law?
Don’t Get Caught up in Your Own Denial
We hate to call anyone an addict or to have to face up to the fact that our closest childhood playmates, college buddies and family friends are addicts. We want to believe that their problem is a minor one, that they’ll get it together, and that our lives and friendships will return to normal. While it isn’t your job to diagnose your friends and acquaintances, if you suspect there is a problem, there probably is. As you learn more about alcoholism, you may be able to spot the telltale signs. Don’t ignore them for the sake of maintaining camaraderie and good times. Alcoholism, as it progresses, will take it all and more.
Don’t Take it Personally
Many people mistakenly think that over-consumption of alcohol, and the inappropriate behavior that accompanies it, is a conscious and premeditated choice that the individual is making. As you learn about alcoholism, you will begin to see that it is indeed an illness and, in most cases, totally outside of the victim’s control. Would you fault a cancer patient for having cancer or for manifesting the symptoms characteristic of the disease? Alcoholism and the behaviors of alcoholics are perplexing and maddening, but they are not intentional or driven by malice. The individual is in the death grip of something he or she cannot control, despite any appearances to the contrary.
Have a Heart-to-Heart
This can also take the form of an intervention. Without accusation, compassionately express your concern, what you have observed and your wishes for your friend’s health and well being. When you talk to your friend about the drinking, have a few specific examples in mind. Do your homework and provide your friend with information about AA meetings in your area or in-patient rehab if appropriate. Offer to accompany your friend to a meeting or an informational appointment with a rehab facility.
It helps to realize in advance that what you say is not likely to effect recovery or transformation in the life of the addict. This is, however, still a very important conversation to have. First, if the addict is in denial, it really won’t matter what you say—your words are falling on deaf ears. But outward denial can often be a cover for inward suspicion. Your friend may suspect or even know that he is an alcoholic, but he may not yet be ready to admit it or to get help for it. If you broach the topic, you may provide an opportunity for an honest discussion about what’s going on and what positive future action may look like.
Don’t Expect to Be the Superhero
Realize that even if the conversation goes splendidly and your friend admits the problem and his or her need for help, this does not equate with recovery. You may walk away feeling noble, and they may walk away and into the nearest bar. Many addicts know they are addicts and that they need help. They may agree with you on that point, but they may not yet be desperate enough to get help getting sober. Resist the temptation to feel defeated when they don’t move forward on their commitments to clean up their act. Just remember: it isn’t personal.
Read more on Helping An Alcoholic Friend, Part 2.