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Helping an Addicted Friend

Difficult conversation with a friendAlmost everyone knows someone who has dealt with addiction, and yet few people know how to handle it. The truth is: every situation is complicated and, ultimately, no one can control your friend’s drug use but your friend. However, there are some things you can do to support your friend in healthy ways.

This guide can help you learn the signs of drug abuse and addiction, concrete steps you can take to help your friend, tips to avoid enabling, and ways to support a loved one getting into treatment.

How Do I Know My Friend Is Addicted?

Unlike a family member who sees their loved one every day, it can be a challenge for someone who only sees their friend periodically and is not regularly witness to their substance use to know if that friend truly has a problem.

Remember, you might see your friend using alcohol or drugs but that doesn’t mean they are addicted. Similarly, you may rarely, or never, see your friend using, but that doesn’t mean they are not addicted.

If your friend has or is developing a problem with drugs or alcohol, you may notice signs such as:1,2

  • Different sleeping schedule.
  • Changing social groups or increased isolation.
  • New hobbies/habits.
  • Sudden drop in performance at work.
  • Frequent injuries or accidents.
  • Increased lying or suspicious behavior.
  • Changing stories/timelines (unable to keep track of lies).
  • Mood swings/argumentative/quicker to anger than normal.
  • Empty bottles or other drug paraphernalia in their home, car, etc.
  • Changing appearance:
    • Weight loss or gain.
    • Skin problems.
    • Dental issues.
    • Consistent changes in pupil size.
    • Regularly red or glassy eyes.
    • Carelessness about hygiene.

Mental health professionals will look for another set of signs to make a diagnosis of a substance use disorder. These criteria include:3

  • Spending a tremendous amount of time and energy getting, using, and recovering from substance use.
  • Using a drug for a longer period of time or in greater amounts than intended.
  • Making attempts or promises to cut down or stop use but not following through.
  • Feeling strong urges and cravings for more drugs.
  • Struggling to keep up with responsibilities at home, work, school, or with friends.
  • Fighting with friends and family members frequently over their substance use.
  • Continuing to use alcohol or other drugs in situations that are dangerous or when hazardous outcomes are possible.
  • Needing more drugs or more potent drugs to get the wanted effects.
  • Feeling physically or mentally ill when no drugs are available.

People who are abusing substances are often secretive about their use, so it may be challenging to notice these signs in a friend you don’t see every day. If you begin to suspect your friend may need help, you could try speaking to other loved ones, including family. If together you suspect that your friend’s substance use has become problematic, there are some steps you can try and take to help them.

How Can I Help a Friend Stop Using Drugs?

Let your friend know that it takes a lot of insight to acknowledge they have a problem and that is courageous, not shameful, to pursue treatment.

Wanting to help a friend stop using drugs is a noble pursuit, but the process can be intimidating and overwhelming. From the beginning, it is essential for you to set realistic goals and expectations for yourself and your friend.

You cannot force your friend to stop using. You can, however, offer them support, guidance, and encouragement to seek out professional substance abuse treatment options.

Let your friend know that it takes a lot of insight to acknowledge they have a problem and that is courageous, not shameful, to pursue treatment.4

If your friend is in denial, it may be tempting to think about organizing an intervention akin to those seen on popular TV shows. During an intervention, loved ones gather to confront the drug-using person about their addiction and the negative impact it has on everyone’s lives. The goal is to encourage the individual to accept that they need treatment.5

Even though staged interventions might always do the trick in movies and television, they are not always so straightforward nor guaranteed to be effective, especially if not carefully planned with the guidance of a professional. A poorly performed intervention might result in anger, hostility, and violence and may damage your relationship with your friend.4

Many professionals advise trying creative attempts to get your loved one to see a doctor, instead of trying a dramatic intervention.4

Helping Resolve Objections

At times, your friend may think there are too many barriers to treatment and refuse to seek the help they need. You could help minimize or eliminate these perceived limitations by:

  • Helping them find available treatments with the locations and amenities they desire. For example, your friend may say they cannot leave their business. In this case, you could help them find executive rehabs that allow them to do some work from the facility.
  • Arranging childcare. Having to leave a child to attend rehab is a frightening prospect for any parent. You can help to arrange for reliable care, or you may search for programs that have a daycare/childcare center onsite or nearby.
  • Securing transportation. Your friend may say they have no way to get to rehab. You can help them make travel arrangements or offer to drive them to the facility.
  • Explaining that the law protects their privacy. Your friend may be worried about the stigma associated with seeking treatment for addiction. Let them know that HIPAA laws require that their privacy be protected.4 Desert Hope staff, for example, will not disclose any details of a patient’s treatment—even to family—unless authorized to do so by the patient.
  • Researching issues like withdrawal and detox. The more you know about the detox process, the better you may be able to quell their fears. Let them know that withdrawal does not have to be painful and that a supervised medical detox program like the one at Desert Hope can help them get clean safely and comfortably.

When you have a quick answer to your friend’s objections, your friend may agree to treatment more readily.

Learning Not to Enable

It can be incredibly difficult to help a friend who’s abusing substances without enabling them.  Enabling may feel like helping because you are trying to protect your loved one from the consequences of their drug use, but your friend needs to feel the weight of those consequences to realize they have a problem.6

To avoid enabling your friend:

  • Stop making excuses for their behaviors.
  • Avoid stepping in to resolve the consequences of your friend’s drug use.
  • Stay out of situations that do not directly involve or affect you.

One of the best ways to avoid enabling is by having and enforcing clear boundaries with your friends. Boundaries limit and guide your responses to situations, which keeps your involvement at the appropriate level and holds your friend accountable.

Setting boundaries involves creating and discussing limitations on actions you’ll take and consequences your friend should expect for certain behaviors. Of course, you must also stand by these—if you simply discuss your boundaries and don’t follow through, they will soon be meaningless. For example, if you tell your friend that you will not allow him in your apartment if he brings drugs in and yet you do it anyway, you are telling your friend your boundaries don’t matter and you are enabling that behavior to continue.

What to Do if a Friend Asks for Help Finding Treatment

If your friend mentions interest in treatment, reinforce this thought and praise their decision-making skills. Let them know you are here for them and offer to help begin the process of finding or starting treatment.

Some possible steps to initiate treatment include:4

  • Gathering information from a doctor or treatment professional and giving it to your friend.
  • Inquiring about your friend’s insurance and helping them find programs that accept their coverage.
  • Calling and visiting treatment centers with them.

With so many treatment options, it may be hard to sort through the information. You can help your friend by creating a list of features they would like their treatment to include. Are they looking for:

  • Inpatient or outpatient programs?
  • Local or distant treatment?
  • Short- or long-term care?
  • Specific services like holistic treatments or options for veterans, people in the LGBTQ community, or those with specific medical complications?

It can be overwhelming for both of you to try and choose the right treatment option. Staff at Desert Hope are available 24 hours a day to walk you through the first steps. We will ask you some questions about your friend’s drug use, such as which drugs they’re using, how long they’ve been struggling, how it’s impacting their lives, and whether they’ve tried treatment before. We will also ask about any co-occurring mental health disorders that may be at play, as many people struggle with both addiction and mental health issues.

If you and your friend have agreed upon a treatment program, you can take steps to ensure your friend makes it all the way to treatment without backing out. You can help pack, offer to accompany them to the program, or touch base via phone calls or text regularly to offer support and make sure they’re following through. You can also enlist the help of another friend or family member to help hold them accountable.

What if My Friend Can’t Afford Treatment?

You or your friend may think that the price of detox, rehab, medications, and outpatient treatment will prohibit them from getting the care they need. In reality, treatment is often affordable due to insurance coverage and flexible payment options that many facilities offer.

If your friend has insurance, encourage them to call the number listed on the back of their card to inquire about mental health and substance abuse coverage.4 You can also help streamline the process by having your friend enter their information on the insurance benefits verification form here. Our benefits verification is free and does not obligate your friend to seek treatment with Desert Hope Treatment Center.

Plenty of options still exist for someone with no current insurance coverage. By contacting their local assistance office, your friend could get coverage based on their income or mental health diagnosis. They can navigate to www.healthcare.gov to get more information on policies available through the Affordable Care Act.4

Other payment opportunities will depend on the specific treatment center. They may offer options like:

  • Sliding scales based on income or need.
  • Scholarships to cover all or part of the cost.
  • Loans to get treatment now and make payments after-the-fact.

Treatment providers owned and operated by the state or county frequently provide free or low-cost services to residents. Although these centers may lack the luxurious accommodations and world-renowned expert staff, they can provide the support needed to begin recovery. They may, however, have long waiting lists.

Many issues influence the cost of treatment with intensity and duration of treatment being prime factors. Because of this, inpatient and residential treatments tend to cost more than outpatient programs.7 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, though, many people do better, at least initially, in residential programs.4

If your friend is dependent on drugs where the associated withdrawal syndrome is likely to be dangerous or extremely uncomfortable (e.g., sedatives, opioids, or alcohol), inpatient medical detox will likely be a necessary first step. Look for a program that offers medically monitored detoxification.

Encouraging Treatment After Relapse

Girl supporting her friend

Relapse is a discouraging event for everyone involved in treatment—including your friend, their loved ones, and even their treatment team—but it does not mean hope is lost. Rather, relapse is a very common and expected part of addiction recovery and, in fact, the likelihood of relapse is akin to other chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.4

When a relapse does occur, it is helpful to normalize the situation and have your friend plan an appointment with their treatment team.
A relapse may indicate the need for reinvestment in treatment or a shift in the:4

Since you are not a mental health professional, you cannot end your friend’s drug use, but you can always be there for them. As long as you avoid enabling, your friend will benefit your nonjudgmental support.

Supporting Your Friend’s Recovery

Don’t confuse supporting your friend’s recovery with feeling responsible for it. Offer support in simple ways such as:8

  • Expressing your concern and interest in a nonjudgmental way.
  • Offering to transport them to or attend meetings with them.
  • Asking questions and listening without interrupting when they bring up their addiction or mental health issues and their path to recovery.
  • Offering to help out with everyday tasks around the house.
  • Engaging your friends socially to get them out of the house, distract them from cravings, and help get them away from triggering situations.
  • Helping your friend feel less stigma by educating other people in your social network about addiction.
  • Treating your friend with unwavering respect and compassion.
  • Standing by your decisions to enforce your boundaries, even when it is difficult or painful.

Many people in your situation ask themselves a complicated question: Can I still drink or use drugs while my friend is sober? The truth is there is no universal answer to this question. Instead, consider your friend’s unique situation and status in recovery. If your friend abused alcohol, drinking a beer in front of them could trigger strong cravings, but if they only abused cocaine, that same beer may not create the same reaction.

Before assuming you know what is best for your friend, start a conversation with them about their thoughts on the topic. Respecting their wishes can show that you respect their recovery and will do everything in your power to support their sobriety.

Seeing a friend struggle is a sad and stressful experience. We can help unload the burden. Call us at any time to speak with someone about how treatment can help your friend begin the life-changing journey to recovery.

References:

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What are signs of drug use in adolescents, and what role can parents play in getting treatment?
  2. California Board of Occupational Therapy. (n.d.). Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Drug and Alcohol.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Alcohol and drug addiction happens in the best of families … and it hurts.
  6. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practiceSocial Work in Public Health. 2013, 28: 194-205.
  7. French, M. T., Popovici, I., & Tapsell, L. (2008). The economic costs of substance abuse treatment: updated estimates and cost bands for program assessment and reimbursement. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment35(4), 462–469.
  8. gov. (2017). For Friends and Family Members.
About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Desert Hope Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have... Read More