Updated 10 March 2013

Addiction: speaking to your friend

When a friend shows signs of abusing alcohol or other drugs it sometimes hard to know what to say.


If one of your friends needed help with anything from illness to moving home you would be able to help. But when a friend shows signs of abusing alcohol or other drugs it's sometimes hard to know what to say.

Addiction is more than just a "problem" – it’s a medically proven illness, just like any other illness. It is also life threatening.

Most illnesses have physical symptoms whereas people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction experience emotional and social symptoms as well. Unlike any other illness, people who are addicted often hurt their family, friends, colleagues or themselves. It’s hard to be friends with or talk to someone who is abusing alcohol or drugs and yet this is when they need you most. When deciding whether or not to talk to your friend, you may have reservations. You may think it's none of your business or that you'll only make the situation worse.

Take a moment to think what you would do for a perfect stranger at the scene of an accident. You would either help or get help. Your friend is no different. Addressing a friend’s addiction is just as critical. Should you decide to talk to your friend, you may well be saving a life. Addiction is a primary, chronic and progressive illness which if left untreated ends in jails, institutions or death.

Most of us think that talking to someone might ruin the friendship. It might for a while, but more often than not the addicted person is secretly hoping that someone will talk to them or save them from themselves.

Statistics show that between 65% and 70% of people get help for their addiction because a friend or relative was honest with them. The remainder feels that they would have got help sooner if someone had spoken to them.

Most of us fear an angry response. Admittedly, it is never easy talking about something as sensitive or personal as drinking or drug use. We need to therefore focus on the behaviour and the consequences rather than the person.

You may wonder why the family has not addressed the problem if it’s so bad. Families tend to ignore or deny the severity of the addiction. One of the tragedies of addiction is the terrible adjustments family members make to cope with the disease and because of the secrecy involved with addiction, the family doesn’t always know the true extent of the problem. Sadly, sometimes the family are the least able to offer help.

What actually constitutes an addiction?

  • Loss of control: once you start drinking / drugging you find you cannot stop or cannot safely predict the outcome.
  • Continuing despite the negative consequences e.g. regardless of how much trouble they have got into, the addicted person does not stop. You may be thinking "this will teach them" but it never does.
  • Increased tolerance or withdrawal. When the person needs more of the substance for the same effect or when they need more of the drug to stop the physical withdrawal symptoms.
  • If there is a preoccupation with alcohol or drugs, e.g. if a person’s social activities and free time are all occupied with using or planning to use.

Once you have decided to talk to the person you need to remember that no matter how "bad" your friend's behaviour has been lately, the person themselves is not bad. Always remember that you are talking to them to save their life, not to get them to pull themselves together.

The best time to talk to someone is when they are sober and have not used alcohol or other drugs. Do not worry about whether or not what you say is perfect, the important thing is to express your concern in a caring and honest way.

It is a good idea to sit down the day after when the alcohol or drug-related incident is fresh in their mind and they may be feeling remorseful. If you are nervous, you may want to take another concerned friend with you.

It’s important to be specific when you talk. Bring up recent facts that you have observed and let your friend know how you feel about them.

Talk about the effect of your friends drinking or drug use on what they care about the most e.g. children, career, marriage. Let them know that if they want help you will be there for them.

The main thing to remember is that you can’t fail. You will have planted a seed that might grow when you least expect it. - (Carry Bekker, Programme Director of Stepping Stones Addiction Centre, November 2009)


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