What to say to a friend who drinks too much

When Nurse Kristen suffered the traumatic loss of her high school sweetheart in her mid-twenties, her friends and family thought it was understandable that she got drunk to cope with the pain. They always made sure she got home safely and often someone stayed up at night to watch over her, but as time went on, those “Did you get home okay?” the messages became rarer and no one slept on the sofa for her anymore.

“It was obvious I had a problem, but it was too painful for people to even be around me,” she recalled. “I only made plans if we were going to a bar, I didn’t show up to weddings or other events, and I became very isolated. I was where my addiction wanted me, that is- i.e. alone.

Without her network of friends, her addiction progressed. She started forging prescriptions for Adderall – a drug often used to treat ADHD – and quietly longed for someone to stop her. Yet she pushed people back in favor of her addiction and lied about getting help to the few friends who asked about her health. Looking back, she wishes someone had taken the opportunity to be bold.

“It would have been so helpful for friends or family to say they were worried,” she says. “Of course I take responsibility for my actions, but I think just pointing out my behavior would have been valuable.”

Should you say something?

Identifying substance use issues in today’s social climate isn’t easy for several reasons, says Erin Goodhart, executive director of grassroots programs at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania.

Learn more about Caron, a multi-site treatment center with a 94.4% recovery rate at 90 days after treatment, based on an independent study.

For one thing, we live in what she calls “wine-sipper culture,” full of cute t-shirts that say “Rosé all day” and equate self-care with happy hour.

Another reason – and this one could be a big one – many women tend to have a group of friends who drink the same way they do. Additionally, there is a misperception that people with substance use disorder have difficulty functioning – when in reality they can go to the gym, go to work, bring their kids to school on time, be productive, and then come home and start drinking in a problematic way, says Goodhart.

“It’s not easy, but there are ways to respond to what you see and help them find what they need.”

“There’s no single model of what someone with a substance use disorder looks like,” she says. “Instead, especially for women, the signs may be more subtle.” These may include:

  • Changes in routine, usually to have more opportunities to drink or use substances
  • Health changes, such as getting sick more often
  • Change in personal care, such as not showering as often
  • Changing friends, especially hanging out with others who drink or use more substances
  • Tendency to cut off or eliminate friends who express concern

It’s the latter that might cause many friends to hesitate when it comes to conjuring up their thoughts, she says. Even though it tends to be easier to avoid conversations like these, Goodhart asks which is harder: talking about these issues and potentially getting cut off, or saying nothing and seeing a friend fall deeper into addictive patterns?

“The risk [of saying nothing] is you could lose your friend, literally,” she said.

Here are strategies that Goodhart and Kristen, now a nurse practitioner who helps people struggling with addiction, offer as starting points.

Use “I” statements

Starting from the perspective of genuine concern is always a good approach, says Goodhart. Dig into how you really feel – it’s okay to be angry or hurt – and how you want to express it in a way that’s productive. Confrontational language like “you’re drinking too much” will push your friend further and often strengthen their defenses. Instead, start a gentle conversation with what you’ve seen, so it comes from your point of view. Here are examples of what you might say:

  • I was worried about you because it seems that your health is increasingly affected by alcohol.
  • I got scared when you can’t remember what we talked about over the weekend.
  • I feel like the only time we see each other is when we’re hanging out at a bar, and that makes me wonder if something’s going on.
  • I really appreciate our friendship and I love and care about you, so hopefully we can talk about what’s changed over the past few months.

Plan what you are going to say in advance

Although there may be opportunities to have an in-depth discussion, it’s best not to wait for these spontaneous opportunities, suggests Goodhart. Planning out what you want to say, and maybe writing it down, can help clarify your own feelings about your friend’s substance use. Plus, it can jog your memory of specific incidents that caused your concern.

For example, it is less effective to say:

“I worry about you and how much you drink.”

It is more advantageous to give concrete examples to support your feeling:

“I worry about how alcohol makes you miss work more often and forces you to cancel dates with your friends, like last Saturday when I asked you to go to the beach with me. This is happening more and more. »

The details not only help identify patterns of behavior, but also the consequences of that behavior, Kristen says.

She says that when she was in an active addiction, she didn’t think beyond her next drink or dose of Adderall, and she didn’t consider how her addiction affected others. Hearing about a friend’s experience can offer a different perspective that can be shocking, but also very powerful, she says.

Also, choose wisely where you have this conversation. Try not to have the conversation where your friend might feel super vulnerable. Pick a place where you can talk uninterrupted and unheard.

Set limits

The thing is, you might lose a friend having this conversation, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable or even for good. You may just need to adopt another tactic to show them you care.

For example, Kristen says her friends set clear boundaries around her behavior, like not hanging out with her while she was drinking, and that led to her not seeing them anymore. But they all came back once she recovered.

“They’re my biggest fans now,” she said. “I had to earn their trust back, and I did that over time by showing them how much I valued them and myself. In many ways, their limitations kept us apart when I was in an active addiction. , but it strengthened our long-term relationships. Now I realize that friends, real friends, talk about all these hard and raw things because it’s important. That’s what it means to show the one for the other.

Caron Treatment Centers have been treating patients and their families for 65 years with genuine compassion and understanding of addiction and the mental health issues that accompany it.
Learn more.

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