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Believing that a friend is addicted to drugs or alcohol can generate feelings of uncertainty, worry, and anxiety.
Although you may question your suspicions and attribute your friend’s behavior to something else to ease the concern, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of substance use disorder and when to intervene.
This guide will help you with just that, as well as provide recommendations on how to assist your friend with finding a treatment facility and paying for substance use treatment.
Unless you are a medical professional, you cannot diagnose your friend’s addiction. However, anyone can notice the signs that may indicate someone is abusing substances. Signs of substance use disorder can include:1
There can be other signs that a person is using substances, too. For example, sometimes substance use disorders are accompanied by changes in a person’s appearance or hygiene, such as unexplained changes in weight gain or loss. Regular use of alcohol or drugs may also be characterized by unpredictable mood swings.1 Please note, though, that seeing these behaviors, or those above, in a person does not mean that they are using drugs or alcohol.
Some of these behaviors can be the result of stress, anxiety, depression, medical issues, or other personal issues a person may be experiencing. It can also be difficult to determine whether some of these symptoms exist if you don’t live with a person or spend significant amounts of time with them.
If you believe your friend is abusing a substance, the first thing to keep in mind is that you do not have the power to control another person’s use of drugs or alcohol: You cannot make your friend stop. However, you can support and encourage your friend to get help.
One ineffective strategy is trying to get the person to come clean through aggressively badgering them or trying to get them to confess. Remember that people who are using drugs or alcohol excessively may feel a great deal of shame and guilt and may not be honest with you about all their substance use or other behaviors associated with such abuse, e.g., stealing or lying to you. The most important thing is to try to get them linked with a professional who can help them.2
Although interventions, which have been popularized on various TV shows, make for great drama for viewers, they are not effective. A more effective approach may be to convince your friend to go to a doctor or speak to another professional.2
People tend to listen more to a healthcare professional than to family or friends.2 Other things that you can do to assist a friend who is using drugs include:
Be aware there is a fine line between supporting and enabling a person. Enabling means that you act in such a way to allow the person to continue engaging in addictive behaviors without consequences. Or you might allow your friend to lie to you, make excuses for them, and never confront them about their behaviors.3
Here are a few general ways you can avoid enabling a person who abuses drugs or alcohol:
Many treatment options are available for a person in need of help for a substance use disorder. You can help your friend by:2
Although paying for treatment is almost always a concern, many options are available. If your friend has health insurance, treatment may be covered. The best way to find out is for them to call their insurer and ask what is covered under their specific plan.
Some centers offer sliding scales, which are based on income. Some programs may offer ways to pay off the cost of treatment over several months, similar to a loan without interest. Other treatment centers offer those with low income either free or low-cost programs that are covered through state or local government funding.2
Relapse can happen after a person has entered recovery. It’s not unusual, and you can be there to support your friend to keep trying while letting them know that many people must go to treatment more than once to maintain sobriety. Or, perhaps a different form of treatment may be needed, such as going to an inpatient program or a program that offers a different approach to treatment.2
It could be helpful to remind them that many healthcare concerns, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, might require repeated medication adjustments and different approaches before they are managed successfully: Addiction is much the same.2
Not every treatment approach works for everyone, and many people in long-term recovery require more than one treatment episode.2
Most importantly, let them know that relapse does not mean permanent failure for a future of recovery.
It can be hard to know what to do when you are supporting a friend who is trying to get sober. Some suggestions are:
Your friend has the ultimate responsibility to use or not use. You can also be a support person for them if they enter a situation where they know alcohol might be present, such as a family holiday gathering. You could offer to also abstain from drinking if they feel that this would help them to not use.2