Helping a Friend With an Addiction
When a friend shows signs of abusing alcohol or other drugs, it's hard to know what to do or say.
What's scary is that drug abuse can lead to addiction. Drug abuse refers to a conscious decision to use an illegal drug or a medication in an unsafe way. Addiction means having no control over whether you are going to use the drug.
Although addiction begins with drug abuse, it doesn't mean just using a lot of drugs. Researchers have found that drugs not only interfere with normal brain functioning, but they also have a long-term effect on brain metabolism and activity. At some point, changes occur in the brain that can turn drug abuse into addiction.
Addiction can be physical or psychological, or both. With a physical addiction, a person's body becomes dependent on the drug, needing more and more of it to get the same effect. When the person stops using the drug, he or she may develop withdrawal symptoms.
With a psychological addiction, a person's mind craves the feeling that the drug gives. The person can be overcome by the desire to get the drug.
"Chemical dependency [addiction] is a medically proven disease, just like heart disease. And it's just as life-threatening if left untreated," says William C. Moyers, vice president of external affairs at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn. "While the symptoms are mostly physical, people with alcoholism and drug problems also experience emotional and social symptoms, often hurting their friends and families and jeopardizing their jobs. It's hard to be a friend to someone abusing alcohol or other drugs, yet this is the time when your friend needs you most."
In a nationwide survey of people in recovery, 69 percent said they got help because a friend or relative was honest with them about their drinking and other drug use, and 41 percent said they would have sought help sooner if someone had voiced concern.
The suggestions below may help you save a friend's life.
Sort out the confusion
When deciding whether to speak to your friend, you may have some reservations, such as the following:
"It's none of my business how often my friend drinks or gets high. I wouldn't want anyone telling me what to do." According to Mr. Moyers, "Addressing a friend's substance abuse is critical. Thirty-five percent of hospitalizations are due to the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and chemical dependency is a leading cause of death in America."
"I'm sure my friend's family would say something if it were that bad." If your friend's drinking or drug use has gone on for some time, family members may have learned to ignore it to protect themselves. "Sometimes families are the least able to offer help," says Mr. Moyers. "As a friend, you may have far greater impact, especially since most people prefer to confide in a friend when they have a problem."
Assess the problem
How much your friend drinks or uses drugs is less important than the impact of the use. If your friend has alcohol- or drug-related problems, he or she needs help. Here are symptoms to look for:
When a person has a psychological or emotional craving for a drug, you may see some or all of the following symptoms:
Sees drugs as the solution, not the problem
Takes the drug in larger amounts or over a longer period
Is always preoccupied with obtaining drugs
Steals or sells possessions to buy drugs
Is anxious, irritable, depressed
Has withdrawn from others
Has lost interest in school, work or hobbies that were once pleasurable
Socializes with others who abuse drugs
Has mood swings
Has problems functioning, such as poor job performance, failure to fulfill family responsibilities, difficulty in relationships with friends and others
Engages in dangerous behavior, such as driving while intoxicated
Has psychological withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug
When a person’s body becomes dependent on a drug, you may see some of the following symptoms:
Health problems; is sick often
Needs more drugs for the same effect
Weight loss or weight gain
Has physical withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug
How to talk
Don't try to talk when your friend is drunk or high. It's also a good idea to meet on neutral turf, but not at a bar or anyplace else that serves alcohol.
Talk about the effect your friend's drinking or drug use has on whatever the person cares about most, such as career or children. Your friend may not be concerned about his or her situation but may care deeply for the children and what the problem may be doing to them.
"Before your meeting, call the local number for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) in your area to get a schedule of meetings," says Mr. Moyers. "If your friend readily admits to having a problem and wants to do something about it, offer to provide a ride to a meeting or set up a contact in AA or NA." If one particular group's dynamics don't work for your friend, try another one.
If your friend does not want to go to AA or NA, talk to other people who know and care about your friend to see if they have other ideas.