So you got in touch with an old college friend, the one with whom you used to play “Never Have I Ever” over tequila shots. Except it’s five years later and now that you’re an adult, you drink more responsibly than before. Your friend, on the other hand, clearly hasn’t changed. In fact, the more time that you spend with them, the more you think they might have a problem with drink. You start to wonder how you can help your alcoholic friend.
Does any of this sound familiar? You have a great time so you decide to make your meetups a regular thing. Sounds fun, until you notice that with every Friday night, your college buddy seems to be drinking more and more. After a while, things get boring. Your friend is begging you to split another bottle when you’ve reached your limit and want to go home. Or your friend starts to repeat the same “hot new gossip” because they blacked out from drinking the last time they told you.
The truth is that addiction is very common. Alcohol is readily available, socially acceptable and – fun. So how do you tell someone that you’re close to, or maybe not close to, that you think they need help?
What is Alcoholism?
Also referred to as alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction, alcoholism is a serious psychological illness, defined by the inability to quit drinking despite potential or actual, negative consequences.
There are many reasons why people drink. Some may drink to make their lives more exciting, while others will use it to self-medicate. Alcoholism may present itself as mild or severe. Some drinkers are classified as “functioning alcoholics“, which means they may not show the same symptoms as a normal alcoholic, and may not appear to have a problem.
You can help your alcoholic friend by learning about the symptoms of addiction before approaching them. Common symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Drinking over the recommended guidelines
- Regular binge-drinking
- Failing to drink in moderation
- Drinking alone
- Memory blackouts
- Regular hangover episodes
- Lying about or hiding their drinking
- Neglecting daily duties, such as self-care or work/school
- Continuing to drink despite obvious consequences
- Exhibiting withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Cravings and/or finding excuses to drink
If you think that your friend has a problem with alcohol, you may consider reaching out and helping them. Before you do, you should create a plan of approach, and be prepared for the potential response.
Things to Remember When Approaching an Alcoholic Friend
Approaching an alcoholic is not an easy task. Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive, and is one of the toughest addictions to kick. There are a few things to keep in mind before you consider any intervention.
Firstly, it is best that you check your own fitness for the job. Consider the support that you are able to offer, in terms of time and emotional strength. Are you in a position to recommend complete abstinence or merely controlling intake.
Approach them at the right time
If you want to make a serious point, then know that the first time you mention your concerns is likely to have the greatest impact. Therefore, it is advisable, when possible, to get some advice rather than doing this alone.
If you don’t feel able to commit too fully to an intervention, it may be best to simply voice your concern to your friend in a few words. This may have the desired effect. If not, a full and better-planned intervention may be the next step.
Be Prepared for a Negative Reaction
Whatever your approach, you should be prepared for lies, denial and excuses regarding their drinking. This is not just due to embarrassment. Some people actually may not be aware of how unhealthy their alcohol use is. For others, it is the only way they can subconsciously excuse their own unacceptable behaviour.
You should also be prepared for anger. No one likes to be confronted about their flaws. Make sure not to take any “lashing out” personally.
If your intervention, or even repeated intervention, doesn’t work, you have to know when to take a step back. Taking care of an alcoholic is not an easy task and you need to make a decision ahead of time about how far you’re willing to go to help them.
Ultimately, you can try to reach out and help your friend, but it is up to them to accept the help. It is not usually a good idea to force someone into treatment, because the person has to want to quit on their own in order to get better.
How to Help an Alcoholic Friend
Educating yourself about addiction, alcoholism, treatment and withdrawal doesn’t just help you prepare a successful intervention. It can also help you place yourself in your friends shoes and understand what they’re going through.
In addition, if you come prepared and knowledgeable, your friend will see that you put in the effort and time into this, and will be more inclined to listen to you. Again, your attitude towards your friend needs to be that they are not a “bad person” but rather, a good person with a serious illness.
Be Supportive and Compassionate
There could be many reasons why a person developed a drinking problem, and you have to recognise that you don’t know the full story. Someone who is dealing with an addiction needs compassion and support. With the right encouragement, they will be more inclined to seek help. Make sure to listen to them instead of lecturing them. Nagging will not motivate them to hear your advice.
There are plenty of support groups that can help guide you in this situation. Dealing with an alcoholic can also take a toll on your well-being, so having support for yourself during this process may be helpful.
A local addiction clinic or groups such as Al-Anon can offer useful resources for friends and loved ones.
Plan Your Intervention
It is a good idea to read about how to host a successful intervention. This includes choosing an appropriate time when the alcoholic in question is sober. If they are not sober, there may be little point in trying. And remember – if you want to help your alcoholic friend, there may be others who do too. Approach other friends and family to help in your intervention, especially if a solo intervention feels uncomfortable.
Well-intentioned interventions can have a negative effect if not properly thought through. Ask yourself if you are the best person to do it and whether you should be doing this alone. Or would your friend be more likely to listen to someone else, such as a family doctor?
Appeal to Their Emotional and Logical Side
Someone with an addition may be stressed and overwhelmed, and they may not realise how much harm they are causing themselves or others with their drinking. When you speak to them, try to appeal to their logical side by explaining the potential consequences of their actions. You can also explain how their drinking affects you or their loved ones.
For example, you can mention that if they keep missing work due to their constant hangovers, they may lose their job. Or that it hurts you to witness their self-destructive behaviour. They may not hear you the first time, but at least it will plan a seed in their head that they’re doing something wrong.
Prepare Potential Treatment Options
It isn’t always obvious, especially for someone who is dealing with alcoholism, where they can go for help. Many people think that residential rehab is the only option. Even if they have thought about getting treatment, they may feel overwhelmed with the various options out there.
Showing them the various treatment options and the pros and cons of each can help get them thinking. For example, inpatient vs. outpatient, peer-support groups or private therapy, detox-only programmes or residential rehab centres.
It can help for you to look up local Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings, and offer to go with them or at least drive with them (if they desire privacy). You can also call up a few rehab centres nearby and ask them about the admissions process and costs.
Be Ready for Refusal
It is often the case that an alcoholic will not want to seek professional help right away. Some people think that they can try to quit on their own. This can be fine in some cases, unless the person has been drinking heavily for a long period, in which case they may need a medically-supervised detox.
Some people may also be in denial initially. However, even if they refuse treatment, by talking to them you have brought the issue to their attention.
What if Your Alcoholic Friend Doesn’t Want Help?
Remember, your friend needs to make their own decision to get treatment. However, it does not hurt to host an intervention if you feel their situation is getting out of hand.
If they want to try to quit on their own, consider if you can be their support buddy. This can mean helping them cut down their drinking or trying to be abstinent. It also helps to encourage them to engage in non-alcoholic activities, such as sports. Do not, however, offer support that you cannot sustain as this can end up making the situation worse.
If you agree to help them quit on their own, remember not to enable them. Do not cover up for their mistakes and let them deal with the problems they’ll face because of their excessive drinking. For some people, it is necessary to hit rock bottom before they agree to seek treatment.
In addition, you can motivate them to go to meetings, even if they haven’t stopped drinking yet. Attending a meeting, seeing a counsellor or calling a rehab centre creates no obligation for them.
At Castle Craig and Smarmore Castle we are always ready to listen and to give advice. Feel free to reach out to us on our helpline numbers +44 8082 788161 and +353 41 986 5080.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021