I’ve been talking with clients a lot recently about what to do if someone you love or care for is self-destructing through addiction, or is making it difficult to be a friend because they’re out of control. We all have had some dramatic examples on television and in the news recently which illustrate how crazy addiction can look. Of course, addiction is devastating to a friendship. Frequently, people who are caught in an addiction or compulsion overstress their friends and family, sometimes to a point of dragging them down, too.
Most addiction involves spending money: for drugs, alcohol, or uncontrolled overspending (shopping, gambling, speculative investing, etc.) legal fees from DUIs, lost jobs and income, hospital costs, and myriad other gratuitous costs, so an addict may borrow or cost you money and not pay it back. It also involves betrayal, because addiction is usually a clandestine thing -- the addict knows there's some kind of a problem, even if he or she is not admitting to addiction, and often uses friends to hide the problem.
When a friend learns he or she has been used, the most devastating part is the sense of betrayal. Friendships do survive if the addicted person gets treatment and becomes clean and sober, but it's not easy. While a your friend is out of control, they are not available to be a good friend, so you may need to keep your distance.
To help a friend with a substance abuse problem:
1. Get informed about options. Before attempting to help, make sure you know what the options are for your friend. Al-anon (http://www.al-anon.org/ or 1-888-4Al-anon) is an organization for the friends, spouses and family members of alcoholics, and the other twelve step groups have helpful information about various addictions. To educate yourself and get info for your friend, you can go to the www.AA.org website for helpful information and articles on addiction.
2. Find expert help. An addict or alcoholic has impaired impulse control, so just telling him or her to change won't work. Expert help is needed. You need resources so you can offer him a program, rehab, or suggest therapy. You can find options at http://www.soberrecovery.com/ which has a directory where you can seek services in your area. You and your friends may also decide you need to have an Intervention, which means gettting together in a formal way to confront the person with the problem, and pressure that person to get help. Interventions are most successful when in Interventionist (a therapist who specialized in them) is consulted beforehand.
3. Gather a support system: Find some friends or family members you can trust to be helpful (or who are in recovery themselves), and talk to them to find out what they know about the situation, and if they’d be willing to help. If you’re not sure about the extent of the substance abuse problem, they may be able to confirm your fears, or set them at rest. If you find that your fears are confirmed, make it clear to everyone that your friend has a real problem. Make a plan for what each of you are willing to do to help. Someone who is knowledgeable may volunteer to take your friend to a meeting, or support you in confronting your mutual friend.
4. Create a time and place to talk to your friend. Once the first three steps are in place, you need to talk to the friend. If you, a relative, or one of the other friends can get him or her alone, away from work or other friends, do so. This is a very personal issue, and very painful for everyone involved, so it’s important that you make this first step private.
5. Describe the problem and offer help. Once you get your friend alone, tell him or her what you know about the situation.
* Give evidence, times and dates of instances where you felt this friend was in danger or endangering others, or perhaps risking a job or other friendships. (if it’s drunken, out of control or drugged behavior, a video from your cell phone can be very helpful) This may mortify your friend, but it’s important that he or she knows you know.
*Say you care, you’re willing to help if your friend wants help, and what you can do to help. Don’t just refer your friend to the website or phone numbers. Give him or her all the details you can, and be willing to take him or her by the hand to a meeting or session. The alcoholic/addict needs to know you are willing to support getting clean, abstinent, or sober.
*She or he may tell you I'm fine, I don’t need help. or even be angry at you. In that case, don’t get angry or annoyed. Instead, say if he or she ever needs help, you’re available. Remember, your friend is probably feeling hopeless and helpless, and perhaps even worthless. He or she’ll need friends for support every step of the way.
6. Take steps to prevent disaster. If your friend is endangering himself or someone else (driving drunk with friends or family in the car, for example) you may need to get tough, take the keys away, call the police. If your friend is violent, get a restraining order and call 911 if he or she violates it. This is very difficult, but it could be the event that gets your friend help. If this person's behavior is making your life miserable, you may have to drop him or her as a friend. If you find you must let go, please tell your friend why you’re backing away. Sometimes the loss of a friendship can be the impetus to go to AA or treatment.
7. Get support for yourself. There’s only so much you can do for someone who is self-destructive. It can be very upsetting to watch a friend go through this, and to realize you’ve been abandoned in favor of the addiction; so be sure you have a support system in place while you’re dealing with it. You’ll need others to comfort you, to help you remain as objective as possible, and to keep you from being dragged into the downward spiral of addiction and compulsion.
None of this is pleasant, or easy, but if you honestly believe your friend is self-destructive and our of control, it’s the caring thing to do. Remember that addiction is progressive, and the addicted person is not in charge any more, so he or she can't just stop the troubling behavior.