Making the decision to help a friend with a substance abuse problem is a big one. When you make this decision, be aware that you’re likely to experience many different emotional reactions: anger, frustration and sadness, to name a few. Despite our collective emotional reactions, we often “hang in there” with that person for as long as we can and try to help. But what is it that we can do that is helpful? Is there anything we do that can be unhelpful?
Emotional reactions, such as anger and frustration, are normal, and while it may be uncomfortable, they need to be addressed. So let’s step back and address our own reactions first. Where do our reactions come from? Yes, when under the influence our friend can be a real Adam Henry. But it’s more than that. Isn’t the lying and denial despite all the problems our friend is having a big part of our frustration? Isn’t it the half-hearted or failed attempts at controlling the problem, quitting or maintaining sobriety that makes us angry? Isn’t it the lack of care our friend shows for their own health or how their problem messes with our lives that makes us sad? What about the real powerlessness we have in making someone do something better for themselves? That can be very upsetting. I’m sure we can all come up with more examples. Being aware of our own reactions and addressing them can help us in avoiding the unhelpful things we do with our friend in need.
In a moment, we’ll look at some things to do that can be helpful, but first, let’s look at how our frustration, anger and sadness can compound our ignorance and lead us down an unhelpful path. What not to do:
• Do not confront your friend when he or she is under the influence.
• Do not lose your temper.
• Do not use the substance with the friend who has the problem.
• Do not cover up or make excuses for your friend’s behavior when using. To do this only supports the problem.
• Do not confront the person by yourself.
• When making a confrontation, do not stop until you have covered all that you wish to talk about.
• Do not spare the details of actual drinking/using situations.
• Do not give opinions (“I think you drink/use too much”); stick to the facts. When possible, report on observable behavior or complaints made by your friend regarding their drinking.
• Do not punish, bribe or threaten your friend into abstinence.
• Do not demand or accept promises. It’s likely these promises will be broken.
• Do not try to treat alcohol/drug problems by yourself.
There are many ways we can help someone with a substance abuse problem. However, we must remember to keep the emphasis on “help.” We must remember that we are not responsible for making the person better; we’re there for support. Here are some suggestions for helping:
• Show your concern. Express it clearly.
• Be patient. Substance abuse problems generally develop over a long period of time and take time to resolve.
• Educate yourself. Knowledge about substance abuse will help you understand the process and anticipate hurdles or stumbling blocks.
• Confront the person after they report a bad experience with a substance or when they have a hangover.
• Always be specific in your confrontations. Quote what has been said. Point out observable behavior.
• Create a list of all the negative events and comments the individual has made about substances. You can use this in your confrontation.
• Tell the person where he/she can go to receive help and/or treatment.
• Let your friend know the extent of your availability to help. It’s crucial for an individual struggling toward sobriety to know who will and will not be around for them. Once you commit, stick to it.
• Firmly, but sincerely, tell your friend what you intend to do if they do not correct the problem. Once you draw the line in the sand, follow through!
• Get all of the help and support you can from psychologists, medical doctors, substance abuse counselors, clergy, Alcoholics Anonymous or other people trained to deal with substance abuse problems.
Watching someone get better and achieve sobriety is an experience you will never forget. The resiliency of the human spirit is truly amazing. One of the struggles when helping another person is knowing when you can help and when you cannot. If you are not sure where you are or need help, or if you or a friend think you may have a substance abuse problem, contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 for a free and confidential consultation. You can also contact Deputy Willis Braggs of PSB’s Substance Abuse Resource Program at the same number for a confidential consultation. There are also many resources available in your community that can assist you. Psychological Services Bureau can help to connect you to these resources.