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How to Talk with a Friend About Addiction

Girlfriends talking to their friend about her addiction


Do you have a friend that seems to be abusing drugs or alcohol? Maybe you feel they actually have an addiction? If after reading this article about the difference between habit, compulsion, and addiction, you are still convinced that a friend may have an addiction, you could very well be right. If you love this person enough, you may feel a strong desire to want to make them change and fight their addiction. It is ok to feel this way but before we go any further, we want you to acknowledge and to constantly remind yourself that the addict is the one who is in control of their thoughts, feelings, and actions as they search for recovery and sobriety.

They are the ones that will have to do the deep emotional and physiological changing and unfortunately you cannot control or do it for them. You cannot cure their addiction with force or manipulation and you definitely cannot love their addiction away.

You can however, talk with them and have an honest conversation, which will most likely turn into many conversations, to help them recognize and acknowledge that they both need and want to get help. Here are some things to keep in mind when you approach this initial conversation.

  • Do not minimize the obvious problem that your friend has with abusing drugs or alcohol. Most addicts will minimize their use and the damage it causes. Ask them questions about how they’re feeling, why they use drugs or alcohol, what specific damages it has caused – to their relationships, work, their physical body – and if they have a desire to stop using. Most addicts do want to stop because they realize there is a problem, they just don’t want to look at it and because shame fuels their addiction, they probably don’t feel like they can change.
  • Be honest and compassionately blunt. You will not be doing them any favors by glossing over or minimizing the problem or the destruction they have caused or continue to cause.
  • Do not delay expressing your concerns. This only allows time for their addiction to be strengthened or to cause more damage.
  • Your job is not to fix their addiction or to take responsibility for their recovery. Make a commitment to them to remain supportive and honest. Additionally, be sure to set, clearly communicate, and hold true to healthy boundaries as they related to what you will and will not do for the addict.
  • Commit to healthy boundaries. You are not responsible nor are you obligated to soften or remove the harsh consequences of their addiction. Try your hardest to have empathy but do not let that empathy drive you to break your healthy boundaries. If you do, you will actually be enabling their addiction and run the risk of becomming a codependent or a co-addict yourself.
  • Commit each day that you will offer empathetic support and tough love. You may receive some push-back, expressions of anger or hurt, manipulation, or emotional and even physical distance from your friend. Remember that their addiction is not about you and you cannot control it. You also cannot force them to acknowledge or process their need for help, nor can you control how quickly it happens.

Educate Yourself on Drug and Alcohol Abuse

You’re more likely to get through to your friend if you have a general understanding of what causes drug and alcohol abuse. Most addicts are afraid to admit that they have a problem out of a fear of disappointment others or admitting to weaknesses within themselves. Some reliable sources of information that might help you and your friend include:

Offer Specific Examples of Their Behavior and Consequences

Don’t expect initial acceptance of your concern as anything serious from your friend. Even when teens or adults comfort other friends, they’re likely to be met with resistance. Be prepared to offer specific examples of behaviors you’ve personally observed, including instances of them drinking too much or abusing drugs. When having that initial discussion about your suspicions of an addiction, try to avoid:

  • Lecturing, demoralizing, or using manipulation or bribery to get them to listen to you.
  • Emotional appeals that create more shame. These may unintentionally backfire and cause them to drink or use more.
  • Having the initial discussion while they are obviously high or have recently had a few drinks since you’re more likely to be met with anger or outright denial
  • Trying to win their trust by drinking or using too

Create a Sense of Comfort and Support Without Judgment

Your friend may be unwilling to admit their problem out of a fear of being judged – or even losing you as a friend. These concerns may result in a barrier against anything you say, or at least make them less willing to admit that your concerns are valid. Counter this possible resistance by:

  • Having the discussion away from distractions and one on one
  • Reassuring them that your friendship won’t change as they go through recovery
  • Letting them know that you’re not passing judgement on their behavior

Insist That Treatment or External Help Is The Best Option for a Lasting Recovery

Your friend may respond to your concerns by insisting that they can stop on their own. This rebuttal is mostly likely reinforced by shame because they do not want to talk about the real issues driving their addiction. Realistically, self-treatment does not work because it is all too easy to make excuses. You can remind them that they probably have had thoughts of quitting already, but have been unsuccessful. Change and recovery are not for the faint of heart. Consistently digging deep within themselves to summmon the courage, bravery, and humility that’s required to seek the help is not easy and is daunting. Remind your friend that addiction is a chronic condition that can be treated by:

  • Acknowledging and addressing the underlying need to abuse drugs or alcohol in order to cope and numb feelings
  • Learning how to identify and stop the shame cycle
  • Developing new coping mechanisms to deal with stress and other triggers
  • Dealing with withdrawal symptoms in a supervised setting
  • Reaching out to others and creating a healthy, non-enabling support system
  • Having compassion, self-love, and empathy for themselves as they are healing

Both teens and adults have difficulty hearing honest concerns about themselves from their friends. Yet, it is often easier for addicts to acknowledge the seriousness of an addiction or abuse problem when that concerns comes from someone who honestly cares about them. It may take multiple conversations and even situations where your friend still abuses drugs or alcohol for them to admit they have a problem. Continue to be a steady and loving support but do not enable their addiction by saving them from undesirable consequences.

Once your friend is to a place where they want to start getting help and even treatment, continue to remind them that you’ll be there for them through throughout the recovery process and then help them celebrate small victories and periods of sobriety.


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