How Do You Talk to a Friend About Substance Abuse?
The chances are good that at some point, most of us will be concerned that a friend or family member has a problem with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes this will be obvious, such as when you see her drinking or using every day, she lets her substance use get in the way of other responsibilities, she tries to quit but can’t, she seems to be using more and more, or you notice dramatic changes in her appearance or personality.
Other times, the problem might be more subtle. Many people who struggle with substance use issues are experts at hiding it. They may seem to live perfectly normal lives despite a hidden but growing addiction. This is especially true if the substance in question is alcohol. Alcohol is so common in western cultures that it’s often hard to tell when normal use has slid into addiction. If you suspect a friend or family member is struggling with addiction, it’s a good idea to discuss it with her. This may be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. Here are some tips for making the conversation go better.
Wait until she’s sober.
Confronting someone in the middle of a bender is a recipe for disaster. There are two reasons for this. First, you are likely to be annoyed or angry. If your spouse had a few drinks before picking up the kids, or your friend cancels on you because she’s too high to leave the house, you’re not likely to be in the most compassionate frame of mind.
Second, someone who’s under the influence is not likely to hear what you’re saying. It could go wrong in any number of ways. She may get angry or defensive, or she might not respond coherently at all. In any case, the discussion is not likely to be productive. Waiting until she’s sober will give you a chance to consider what you want to say, and she’s more likely to respond in a coherent way. And if she’s hungover on a Wednesday morning, she might even see the logic in what you’re saying.
Speak from a place of support and compassion.
The last thing you want to do is judge, or approach the discussion as a confrontation. This talk should be completely about your concern for her welfare and your willingness to support her. People struggling with addiction often feel judged and disparaged already. They are often quite hard on themselves and they may feel oppressed by intrusive, self-critical thoughts. Joining that chorus of criticism is not likely to do much good. Instead, put yourself in her place. Keep in mind that you want what’s best for her, and let her see you’re genuinely concerned.
Focus on behavior.
This is not about who she is, but rather what she’s been doing. Focusing on behavior has two main advantages. First, it allows you to be specific. Criticisms like “You’ve really been screwing up,” or “You’re so nasty when you drink” are vague and open to interpretation. Observations like, “You missed your job interview last week because you were drunk” are specific and hard to deny. Focus on things she actually cares about, which might not be the same things you care about.
Second, criticising actions rather than the person feels less like an attack. People who struggle with addiction often feel a lot of shame and criticising them directly instead of criticizing their actions only contributes to that shame. People typically feel unable or unwilling to change who they are, but they are often willing to behave differently.
Listen to what she has to say.
This should be a discussion, not a lecture. That means listening to what she has to say after you express your concerns. Rather than judging, try to understand. The more you listen and try to understand, the more she’s likely to open up and talk about what’s been going on.
The discussion doesn’t have to be definitive.
Don’t expect the discussion to go like they do on television. It’s unlikely your friend will suddenly see the light and start packing for rehab. Aim to open the topic of discussion and get her thinking about your concerns. Pushing for a commitment to get treatment, or even just for an acknowledgement of the problem may be counterproductive. It’s more important to keep communication open so she knows this is a subject she can discuss with you.
It often takes someone a while to come around to believing she has a substance use issue. It might take several tries quitting before she accepts she does have a problem that she can’t deal with alone. She might get angry or defensive. Try not to take it personally. You have a much better chance of getting through if you stay calm.
Be willing to help.
You can’t do the work for her, but you can support her in recovery. There are many ways you can help. You might help her research treatment centers or make an appointment for her with a doctor or therapist. You might go with her to a 12-step meeting. You might drive her to therapy or treatment. You may have to participate in family therapy. It may help to avoid drinking in her presence. Having the support of loved ones and positive social connection in general is one of the most important aspects of recovery. Be sure she knows you are willing to make an effort.
Talking to a friend or family member about addiction is never easy. The important thing to remember is that you care about her and want her to be happy. Approach the conversation with openness and empathy. Even if it doesn’t work at all, making the effort is better than standing by while someone you care about struggles.
If someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.