How to Help a Friend
Types of Drinking Habits & Warning Signs
A Moderate or Social Drinker:
- Drinks slowly (does not gulp or chug)
- Knows when to stop drinking (does not drink to get drunk)
- Eats before and while drinking
- Never drinks and drives
- Respects nondrinkers
- Knows and obeys laws related to drinking
A Problem Drinker:
- Drinks to get drunk
- Tries to solve problems while drinking
- May experience personality changes—may become loud, angry, violent, or silent, remote or reclusive
- Drink whey they should not—before driving, going to class or to work
- Causes other problems—harms themselves, family, friends, and others
An Addicted Alcoholic:
- Spends a lot of time thinking about drinking and planning where and when to drink next
- Keeps bottles hidden for a quick drink or "pick-me-up"
- Starts drinking without conscious planning and losses awareness of the amount of alcohol consumed
- Denies drinking
- Drinks alone
- Feels the need to drink before facing a stressful situation
- May experience "blackouts"—they cannot remember what they did while drinking, and may have appeared "normal" at the time
- Misses work, class, social commitments as a result of hangovers
- May experience more serious withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremors ("DTs"), which can be fatal
- Have or cause major problems with the police, an employer, family members, and/or friends
Talking with your Friends about Drinking
- If you care, show your concern. Don't be too polite to bring up the topic, but be tactful. Ask whether your friend feels he or she has a drinking problem. Continue asking questions that encourage honesty.
- Avoid blaming, lectures, verbal attacks, and name calling.
- Keep an open mind about how your friend evaluates his or her situation. Know your own limits—don't continue the conversation if you get upset or angry. You may find that short, periodic discussions work best.
Dealing with Defensiveness
- Once you've raised the subject, the person may respond defensively, deny having a problem, or agree that he or she has a problem with alcohol.
- Make it clear to your friend that you dislike their behavior, not them. If you drink, be honest about your own drinking and the effort you use to control it.
- Understand that the person's defensiveness is based on fear of facing the problem and it is not directed at you.
Dealing with Denial
- If your discussions have no effect on your friend's drinking behavior, you should still tell them how the drinking problem is affecting you.
- For example, you can say how hard it is for you to enjoy going out together to a party because you are afraid he or she will get sick, pass out, or otherwise embarrass you both.
Dealing with Agreement
If at some point your friend agrees that drinking is creating personal and/or social problems, you may want to ask:
- Why do you think you have a problem with alcohol?
- What do you think you can do about it?
- What are you going to do about it?
- What kinds of support do you need from me to stop or limit your drinking?
You may need to set limits on what you will and will not do with your friend until they decide to face the facts and get help. Let your friend know what the limits are, and stick to them.
You may tell your friend that you can no longer drink with them in social situations, or that you will no longer give them attention during or after drinking. You may not want them drinking in your room/apartment, or showing up at your place of residence drinking or drunk.
Setting limits may be a critical step in helping your friend get help because:
- Knowing and sticking to your limits is important if your friend is in denial, and expects you to accept their excuses or make exceptions for their poor behavior.
- Don't let your friend manipulate you by hiding or dumping alcohol. Do not cover up for them in social situations, around friends, or family members. Lying for your friend enables them to continue harming themselves and maybe others.
- It is important to be sensitive, but remember: you cannot control their behavior. At some point your responsibility ends, and it is up to your friend to get the help and make positive changes.
Content adapted from "How to Help a Friend with a Drinking Problem," American College Health Association, 2004.