How To Talk About Chemical Dependency When A Friend Is Misusing

Why Share Your Concerns About Chemical Dependency

If a friend, loved one or colleague became ill, you wouldn’t hesitate to offer your help and support. But what if that same person showed signs of a drinking problem or drug abuse? Would you step in as quickly to offer help? Would you know what to do or say?

Chemical dependency is a medically diagnosable condition, clinically known as “substance use disorder.” Like other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or asthma, chemical dependency can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Alcoholism or other drug addiction impacts physical health, mental health and behavioural health—and it’s often the behavioural aspects of the disease that can be most apparent and troubling to friends and family. That’s because people who are actively addicted can behave in ways that hurt their loved ones, jeopardise their jobs, or cause injury or harm to themselves.

It’s hard to be a friend to someone who seems to choose alcohol or other drugs above all else, but if you have a friend in this situation, she or he probably needs your help more than ever.


What’s Holding You Back from Helping?

When deciding whether to speak with a friend or loved one about their substance use, it’s normal to feel apprehensive. These are not easy conversations to initiate, but they can be lifesaving. Here are four things you might be telling yourself about your friend’s situation—and why it’s important for you to reach out anyway.

1.“I don’t want to risk ruining our friendship.” Many people fear damaging their relationship by raising the issue of chemical dependency, but—in reality—the opposite is more likely to happen. It’s not unusual for people with addiction to secretly hope a friend or loved one will open the door and ask about their situation.

2. “My friend drinks a lot, but at least there are no drugs.” Compared with the level of alarm you might feel if your friend were using heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine or other illicit substances, there is a tendency to minimise the dangers of alcohol abuse. Though legal and socially acceptable, alcohol is an addictive drug.

3. “How do I make sure I say the right thing? I don’t want my friend to get angry or to feel hurt.” Even with a close friend, it’s not easy to bring up something as personal and emotional as problematic substance use. You don’t want to put your friend on the spot or hurt their pride. Your friend may even become angry. That’s why it’s important to be non-judgmental in your approach and to keep the conversation focused on the behaviours and consequences you’ve seen that are related to your friend’s substance use.

4. “I’m sure my friend’s family would say something if the situation is so bad. I’m only a friend.” If your friend has been a drinker or drug user for some time, family members may not notice the extent of the problem (especially if your friend has taken measures to hide their substance use from family members). Some families try to cope or protect themselves by ignoring the situation. One of the tragedies of chemical dependency is the chaos and pain it causes families.


How to Tell If Your Friend Has a Substance Abuse Problem

Chemical dependency is a confusing disease. Contrary to popular myth, your friend doesn’t have to drink alcohol or use drugs every day to be addicted. People in active addiction can have good jobs, homes and bank accounts, and they can be good spouses, parents or friends.

In addition to any negative consequences you are noticing with your friend, here are several common signs of substance abuse:

  • A noticeable increase in drinking or other drug use (more than usual).
  • Interest only in going to parties or places where alcohol or other drugs are available.
  • A change in personality when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Drives when under the influence (or reacts angrily when you ask for the car keys).
  • Sniffs constantly have frequent colds or make many trips to the bathroom.
  • Calls late at night but doesn’t remember the conversation the next day.
  • Trouble on the job or frequent work absences.
  • Difficulties at home.
  • Spends more time with friends who drink and less time with you.
  • Drinks before you get together (or doesn’t show up on time or at all).
  • Complaints about other people or stops seeing certain friends.
  • Has money problems, borrows money from you, or runs up credit debt.
  • Has legal problems.


When to Talk with Your Friend

Timing matters when dealing with your friend. Don’t try to talk when your friend is drunk or high; it’s too difficult to take in what you’re saying, and the situation could escalate.

Instead, talk with your friend when he or she is clearheaded. One approach is to reach out when your friend is hungover or remorseful following a drinking or drug-related incident—when the negative consequences are fresh in your friend’s mind. If you can’t meet with your friend right away, that’s okay—in any case, you will want to bring up a whole pattern of events that you’ve noticed rather than an isolated incident.


How to Get the Conversation Started

Don’t worry about saying things perfectly. Expressing your concern for your loved one in a caring and honest way is the most important message you can convey.

You might want to take someone with you who understands your concern for your friend’s problem, perhaps someone with a connection to recovery. Or you could tell someone what you’re doing and have him or her available by phone for support. It is also a good idea to meet with your friend on neutral turf, but not in a restaurant or bar or where alcohol is available.


Key Points to Keep in Mind:

Be supportive. No matter how “bad” your friend’s behaviour has been lately, he or she is not a bad person. Chemical dependency is a disease, so don’t blame or criticise. You’re speaking up because you care about your friend’s life and health, not to make them “get their act together.”

Be specific about what you’re seeing. Bring up particular incidents such as, “When you cancelled our plans the other day” rather than sweeping statements such as, “You never keep your word.” It’s also helpful to frame the conversation by using “I” phrases, such as “I noticed” or “I’m worried” because your friend can’t dispute your perceptions and feelings.

Be encouraging. Talk about the effect your friend’s drinking or drug use has on whatever he or she cares about most: career, children, sports, etc. Your friend may not be concerned about his or her own situation but may care deeply for his or her children, for example, and the impact on them.

Be prepared. You might want to write down what you want to say, and that could vary depending on the level of your friendship. The main thing is to listen, stick to the facts, show a caring attitude and offer your assistance and support.


What to Do If Your Friend Isn’t Ready for Help

Don’t be surprised, and don’t take it personally. Denial is one of the unfortunate symptoms of chemical dependency. So if you feel you’re not getting through to your friend, it’s not your fault or your friend’s fault. It’s okay to back off and let your friend know that whenever he or she is ready for help, you’ll be there.

By raising the issue with your friend, you’ve planted a seed of recovery that could grow when you least expect it. In the meantime, stay in touch and continue to show your concern and support. For example, if your friend only wants to meet where he or she can drink, suggest another place. Don’t offer alcohol when your friend visits. Don’t continue to lend money if that’s an ongoing problem. Don’t accept late-night calls when your friend is drunk or high.


What’s Next If Your Friend Is Ready for Help

Give us a call at Silkworth on 01534 729060 or via email


How Might Your Friend’s Newly Sober Life Affect Your Relationship

Especially during the first few months of recovery, your friend will be making significant life changes. Although your help may be appreciated, your friend will likely need to focus on attending support group meetings, establishing healthy new routines and making friends with other alcoholics or addicts who are in recovery. This is an intensive and normal phase of early recovery, but it can hurt to feel as though you’re losing a friend. Usually though, over time, many recovering people resume friendships—and they are able to bring more to the relationship than ever before.


What to Do If Your Partner or Family Member Abuses Alcohol or Other Drugs

If you are close to someone suffering from addiction, you will be suffering too.  Its normal for parents, partners, siblings and friends to feel confused, angry and lost due to the effects of addiction. If this is you, there is help available.  The more support and understanding family and friends receive around addiction, the better chance of recovery for everyone.


Its important to acknowledge these 6 basic truths about addiction in others:

  • You didnt cause it.
  • You cant control it.
  • You cant cure it.
  • You can learn to take care of yourself.
  • You can learn to communicate your feelings.
  • You can learn to make healthy choices for yourself.


Where addiction is the problem, by becoming more aware of the beliefs and experiences that influence your own behaviour, you can begin to find new, healthier ways of managing, approaching and relating with yourself, your loved one, and other family members and friends.

Our dedicated Family Programme helps addiction to be understood as an illness and enables living in the solution rather than existing with the problem. We run a 9-week course and other workshops at our Family office as well as a weekly support group.

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