Helping a Friend in Trouble

Do you have a friend who…

- Gets drunk or high on a regular basis

- Drinks and drives

- Is getting into trouble with the law

- Sneaks prescription or over-the-counter medications from his parents’ medicine cabinet

- Goes to frequent “pharm” parties and takes different combinations of prescription drugs

- Says things like, “I can stop drinking or using drugs any time I want to,” but doesn’t

- Lies to you or avoids you in order to get drunk or high

- Has given up activities, friendships, and hobbies he used to enjoy

- Pressures you or others to drink or do drugs

- Has frequent hangovers or blackouts and can’t remember what she did the night before while drinking

- Doesn’t seem to care about anything but getting drunk or high

- Talks about suicide or feelings of hopelessness or depression

These are all signs of a problem. Most people don’t ask for help, and many don’t even admit there’s a problem until they hit “rock bottom.” It’s especially difficult for teens to see the signs of a problem because they think they can control their use, or that addiction isn’t something that could happen to them.

People use drugs and alcohol for all sorts of reasons. Usually, there is some emotional void or dissatisfaction toward life, and often there is an underlying mental illness like depression. Some teens think drugs will help them perform better in school, get in with the popular crowd, become a better athlete, or get attention from family or friends. Some are exceedingly stressed, socially isolated, or depressed and are looking to escape their worries.

Whatever the reason, your friend is turning to drugs or alcohol to meet some personal or emotional need. Ask yourself, “What kind of friend are you?” The kind who roots on or ignores friends who are doing drugs, failing classes, and destroying relationships? Or the kind who sees a problem, figures out what to say and do, and takes action?

The potential consequences are too severe to risk doing nothing. Talk with your friend about what’s happening in his life and help him find ways to meet his needs in healthier ways. Drugs don’t solve problems – they simply mask feelings and issues that will worsen if they aren’t addressed. See if your friend would be willing to talk to someone about his drug or alcohol use, and offer informational resources like this one that he can find on the Internet.

From personal experience with parents and teachers, you probably know that lectures and speeches won’t get you very far. Instead, offer tons of encouragement, praise, and understanding. You’ll have to summon every ounce of patience and compassion you have to get through to someone who doesn’t want help, but you’ll rest easy knowing you did the right thing.

Here are some guidelines to consider in planning how to approach your friend:

- Timing is important, so talk to your friend in a private place when he is sober and you have his full attention.

- Calmly talk about your feelings and concerns in a caring and understanding, but assertive, tone of voice, without hurling accusations or blame. Facing a drug problem can be scary and will require a great deal of honesty and accountability on your friend’s part. Conflict can be a real turn-off, especially for someone who doesn’t want to admit she has a problem.

- Give specific examples of occasions when you were worried about your friend’s drug or alcohol use, and express your sincere desire to help. Highlight the aspects of your friend’s personality that you miss when they are clouded by drugs or alcohol. Then actively listen to his response.

- If you can, offer to go with your friend to get help from a trusted adult, a doctor, or a treatment program. If she won’t get help, plan a time to have a follow-up conversation.

Be prepared – your friend will probably do everything possible to deny or hide the problem, including getting mad at you, blaming others, or giving excuses. Remember that you can’t force your friend to get help and it’s ultimately his responsibility to get his life back on track.

If your friend continues using and won’t accept your help, talk to an understanding adult you trust, like a parent, a friend’s parent, teacher, or school counselor, and together figure out what steps you should take next. Ask this person to keep the conversation confidential. Perhaps your friend just needs a wake-up call; maybe he would benefit from attending a few Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings; or maybe the problem is serious enough to warrant professional help.

There’s a difference between ratting someone out and getting them help. All you can do I be there to offer support and encouragement. After all, you may be the only one willing to reach out and help, and your concern may be just what your friend needs. Your friend may not appreciate your efforts now, but he may be thanking you for saving his life down the road.

For additional support, find a local Al-Anon or Alateen meeting, where you can learn more about coping with alcohol and drug use problems free of charge. Your friend’s drug or alcohol habit may be putting you at risk, so always remember to put yourself first. One message you’ll hear repeated over and over again is that helping others is often the best way to help yourself.