Does Your Friend Have an Alcohol or Other Drug Problem?

Helpful information to navigate a tricky situation

Does your friend have an alcohol or other drug problem?

How can I tell if my friend has a drinking or other drug problem?

Sometimes it's tough to tell. Most kids won't walk up to someone they're close to and ask for help. In fact, your friend will probably do everything possible to deny or hide the problem. But, there are signs you can look for. People with serious substance abuse problems say things like, "I can stop drinking or using other drugs any time I want to"—but they don't. They may be okay to hang around with, until they get high—then they often act like jerks or get into fights. No one is sure why some people get into trouble with alcohol or other drugs. There are signs, however, when substances are taking control of someone's life. Some of these signs are easy to see, others aren't, but if you see them happening over and over again, chances are your friend needs help.

"My friend Allison is drinking too much and she's worrying me. She thinks she can handle it, but she can't. She says drinking's no crime, it's the thing to do."

How serious can my friend's drinking or other drug problem be? What can it lead to?

Not all people who drink or use other drugs develop the same symptoms or consequences, but one thing is for sure: If your friend has a drinking or other drug problem and doesn't get help, things can get much worse. People with serious drinking or other drug problems don't like to admit it, even to themselves. In the beginning, they often say they felt great, that drinking or smoking pot or doing a few lines of cocaine is the best thing that ever happened to them. But then things change for the worse. Eventually, if they don't get help, they can develop serious psychological problems such as suicidal depression, and serious physical problems such as liver damage and brain damage; and some will die from an overdose. Getting drunk or high impairs judgment, and may lead to behaviors that people wouldn't do ordinarily if they weren't under the influence of these substances—such as having unsafe sex which could result in pregnancy, AIDS, or other sexually transmitted diseases. Substance abuse is dangerous; it can ruin your friend's health, cause your friend to drop out of school, lose friends, lose values, and even lose his or her self-respect.

Alcohol and other drugs don't care who you are, what color you are, if you're rich or poor, how old you are, your sex, or where you're from. They don't care if you're a jock, a cheerleader, or a genius.

"Doug's avoiding problems by drinking. Doug's dad drinks too much, and now Doug's becoming just like him. He's numbing himself. He's just drinking not to think about it."

What would cause my friend to have a serious drinking or other drug problem?

Lots of things lead to these problems. For one thing, these difficulties often run in families, just like heart disease and cancer. If your friend's parents are alcoholic, or there is a family history of alcoholism or other drug addiction, your friend is more likely to become alcoholic or drug dependent.

People often drink or use other drugs to avoid things that bother them—pressure from friends, stress in the family, hassles, the feeling that adults are on their case, the lousy feeling that they're different from everyone else in the world. They use these substances just to feel better. The problem is, drinking or using other drugs eventually makes things worse because all you care about is getting high, and once you start it's hard to stop; you need to use more just to feel normal. Alcohol and other substances change the way you think, and you start to believe things are better or worse than they are. Alcohol and other drugs may make you feel good when you're high, but when they wear off, depression sets in.

"Sean doesn't think he has a problem—right!"

It's tough for most people to admit that they have a serious substance abuse problem.

It's especially hard to admit it when you're young because you think that kind of thing could never happen to you. Many people believe that alcoholics and other drug addicts are old people, or are street people, when, in reality, they can be anyone. People who have a serious problem with drinking or using other drugs might say that they are not using that much and that they won't get addicted. Denying that there's a problem is very common. In fact, this denial, along with hiding the substance abuse from friends, becomes almost as big a problem as the drinking or other drug use itself. Becoming dependent on alcohol or other drugs makes you want to cut off the people who care about you, and you can end up feeling lonely and afraid.

To avoid being found out, serious problem drinkers and other drug users often spend more and more time alone, and think they can solve their problem all by themselves, or that a boyfriend or girlfriend can solve it for them. Getting better doesn't work that way. What has to happen is that your friend has to admit that alcohol and/or other drugs are messing up his or her life. However, you can help even if your friend does not admit to having a problem.

"I keep trying to talk to Karen but she won't listen. I don't know how to tell her she has a problem without getting her mad at me."

What can I do to help my friend?

It is possible for you to help a friend who is in serious trouble with alcohol or other drugs. Whether or not your friend takes your advice and gets help is really your friend's decision and responsibility. Sometimes, approaching the friend in trouble with another mutual friend can make your intervention easier since there is safety and support in numbers.

The first step in getting help is for your friend to talk to someone about his or her alcohol and drug use. Eventually, your friend will need to admit that there is a problem, and to agree to stop drinking and/or using other drugs completely. Your friend needs support and understanding, and someone he or she can trust to talk to about the problem. You can't force a friend to get help, but you can encourage and support your friend to seek and find professional help.

If you are worried about a friend, it is important for you to speak to someone in private who is knowledgeable and reassuring. Telling someone isn't being disloyal to your friend. It's important to know the facts about what's happening to your friend if you plan to help. Don't try to help your friend on your own until you have talked to someone you can trust—a counselor, teacher, doctor, nurse, parent, or someone at your church or synagogue. Ask this person to keep the conversation confidential. You don't have to mention your friend by name; you can just talk generally about the problem. Talking to a professional will help you figure out what the best steps are for you to take.

If you decide to speak to your friend, here are some guidelines that you and your advisor should consider in planning how and what you could do to help:

  • Make sure the timing is right. Talk to your friend when he or she is sober or straight—before school is a good time.
  • Never accuse your friend of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, but do express your concern. Try not to blame your friend for the problem; if you do, he or she might be turned off right away.
  • Talk about your feelings. Tell your friend you're worried, and how it feels for you to see him or her drunk or high on other drugs.
  • Tell your friend what you've seen him or her do when drinking or using other drugs. Give specific examples. Tell your friend you want to help.
  • Speak in a caring and understanding tone of voice, not with pity but with friendship.
  • Be prepared for denial and anger. Your friend may say there is nothing wrong and may get mad at you. Many people with alcohol and other drug problems react this way. When confronted, many users will defend their use, blame others for the problem, or give excuses for why they drink or use other drugs.
  • Find out where help is available. You could offer to go with your friend to get help, but be prepared to follow through. This gesture will show your friend that you really care.

You need to tell your friend that you are worried about him or her, and that someone who can help needs to be told. Your friend might get really mad at you, but if you say nothing, thins may get worse and your friend may be in more danger.

Your friend's problem is probably hard on you, too. The situation may have left you feeling lonely and afraid. Maybe you've thought, "What if I get my friend in trouble? What if I lose my friend over this? What if I don't do anything and something awful happens?" It's hard to keep all of these questions and feelings to yourself. It's important that you talk about them. You can share these feelings with the person that you go to for help about your friend's problem. There are also support groups for people like you who are trying to help a friend, such as Al-Anon or Alateen, where you can learn more about people's alcohol and other drug use problems. Your school may have a substance abuse prevention counselor as well. (See the end of this brochure for a list of places to go to for help or to get more information.)

"How are we going to get Kareem some help? We should talk to him."

What does my friend have to do to get help?

Probably the hardest decision your friend will be faced with is admitting that he or she has a problem. To get better and recover, your friend has to get some help to stop drinking or using other drugs.

Facing such a problem and asking for help can be a scary thing to do. Your friend will have to take an honest look at where drinking or other drug use has brought him or her, and admit that it has caused emotional and maybe physical pain. Your friend will have to see that it has robbed him or her of real friends, creativity, happiness, spirit, the respect of others, and even self-respect, and that it keeps your friend from growing up.

Your friend will not be able to solve this problem alone. He or she will need experienced help. A good counselor will support your friend and direct him or her to the kind of treatment and/or support groups that are most helpful.

Encourage your friend to talk to other people with drinking and other drug problems who are now in recovery, such as members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These groups are confidential, self-help organizations that offer assistance to anyone who has a drinking or other drug problem and wants to do something about it. AA and NA members are recovering alcoholics and addicts, so they have a special understanding of each other. Talking with others who have experienced similar problems is an important part of recovery. New members are encouraged to stay away from alcohol or other drugs "one day at a time." There is no fee for membership in these organizations. If your friend is afraid to go to a meeting alone, you can go along with him or her to an "open" meeting. Friends and family members are welcome to attend this type of meeting, and there are meetings in most neighborhoods or communities. Local branches of AA and NA are listed in your phone directory.

If your friend has a drinking or other drug problem, you may be the only one willing to reach out and help. Your friend may not appreciate your help right away, or he or she may realize it means you really care. Ultimately, it's up to your friend to get help. It is not your responsibility to make that happen. In fact, you can't make that happen. All you can do is talk to your friend, show how much you care, and encourage him or her to get help. Your concern and support might be just what is needed to help your friend turn his or her life around.

However, if your friend is in serious trouble with alcohol or other drugs, and you have been unable to get your friend to get help on his or her own, you should consider speaking with your friend's parents or guardian. The potential consequences to your friend's life can be too severe to do nothing.

More resources

Alcoholics Anonymous
General Service Office
P.O. Box 459
Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10163

Narcotics Anonymous
World Service Office
P.O. Box 9999
Van Nuys, CA 91409

(for teens who are worried bout someone else's drinking)
P.O. Box 862, Midtown Station
New York, NY 10018
U.S. meeting information: 1-800-344-2666

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters
P.O. Box 862, Midtown Station
New York, NY 10018
U.S. meeting information: 1-800-344-2666

Adult Children of Alcoholics
World Service Organization
P.O. Box 3216
Torrance, CA 90505
310-534-1815, M-F, 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. (Pacific Time)

Children of Alcoholics
(focuses on youth ages 10-16 but also includes adult children; is a private foundation that develops and disseminates information, but does not run groups)
10920 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 100
Kensington, MD 20895
301-468-0985 or 1-888-55-4COAS

Cocaine Anonymous
6125 Washington Blvd., Suite 202
Culver City, Ca 90232

Families Anonymous
701 Lee Street, Suite 670
Des Plaines, IL 60016
1-800-736-9805 or 847-294-5837

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
11505 36th Ave. No.
Plymouth, MN 55441-2398

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)
511 E. John Carpenter Freeway, Suite 700
Irving, TX 75062

NarAnon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
23110 Crenshaw Boulevard, Suite A
Torrance, CA 90505
310-534-8188 or 800-477-6291

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)
(Federal government organization that provides free information on substance abuse)
P.O. Box 2345
Rockville, MD 20847-2345
1-800-729-6686 or 301-468-2600
TDD 1-800-487-4889

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD)
12 West 21 St., 8th Floor
New York, NY 10010

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE - West Building
Washington, D.C. 20590

Many of the national organizations above have local chapters which are listed in your phone directory. You can also look under Drug or Alcohol Counseling to find a treatment center or other resources you can call in your area.

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