Today is the funeral for an old friend of mine who tragically lost a long battle with drug addiction. Today, I’m lost, looking back at what I had done and what I could have done. When I think of him, I am especially saddened by how young he was when he left us. We were kids, and I was afraid to reach out and unsure where to find support. I didn’t understand his illness and I didn’t know how to help him. Now, I regret that I didn’t know more.
Substance abuse, unfortunately, affects people of all ages, even kids, but our society often pretends that minors don’t experiment with drugs or alcohol. This leads to a dangerous lack of information where it is needed most. Young people don’t always know how to reach out to someone in need. In my friend’s memory, I hope to encourage kids, high school and college students included, to speak up about substance abuse if they notice a problem.
If your loved one seems sick or in pain, he or she probably is. Addiction is a disease that damages physical, emotional, and mental health. In the worst cases, it can cause death. No one deserves this. If you are worried about someone, do not ignore your concerns. Listening to your gut is the first step.
And you must stay hopeful.
Just because my friend’s story ended tragically doesn’t mean that your loved one’s will, especially if you are prepared to intervene. In fact, many people return from the darkest pits of addiction. I am grateful to have a few of these people in my life today. They are now healthy, and they give me hope, strength, and inspiration. They may be scarred, but they are warriors, constantly scrambling for the safe ground of recovery. With a little help and a lot of support, your loved one can join them in their success stories.
Helping a loved one reach a place of recovery is not an easy task, but it is one of the most important and rewarding actions you will take in your life. If you don’t know where, when, or how to help, the following guide may help you intervene. My advice is not intended to replace that of a professional, but it does encourage you to influence change.
If your loved one is dependent on drugs or alcohol, you will probably find that his or her disease is starting to affect you too. You may feel agonized as you watch the situation unfold. It’s common to experience frustration, anger, and denial, and it’s hard to know where to start. If you want to lead a successful intervention, you must first prepare and empower yourself.
- Understand the substance(s) in question. If you hope to approach your friend compassionately, it is important that you understand the nature of alcoholism and/or the specific drug addiction. Read about the symptoms of substance addiction and dependence. The more you know, the more likely you are to enact productive change.
- Rely on your personal support system. When you aren’t sure what to do, look to your family and friends, especially ones that aren’t directly involved in the situation. They can offer you honest feedback and encouragement. They may also be able to connect you with campus or community resources, refer you to professionals, and remind you of your cause.
- Seek professional support. As you prepare to approach your loved one about addiction, you will probably feel stressed and upset. You might not know what to say when you do finally speak to your friend. Seeking guidance
from a professional is a good idea for some people. Professionals can include medical doctors, registered nurses, or licensed counselors at your school. They can support you as you tackle unsafe and unhealthy situations close to your own life.
- Manage your expectations. It takes a lot of time, energy, patience, and love to help a friend with a drug or alcohol dependency. As you begin this process, do not forget to take care of yourself. Rely on your favorite stress management and coping strategies, such as exercise, art, or journaling.
While you do want to prepare for your conversation with your friend, do not delay. Your actions could help your friend recognize just how important it is to regain control of his or her life. When you are ready to take action, know that there is no right way to do so. Interventions can take a multitude of forms. Your choice to intervene may include any or all of the following tips.
- Do not facilitate the addiction. If your friend asks for money, whether it be a few bucks or a hefty chunk of bail money, say no. Tough love is letting someone experience the consequences of his or her actions. Addiction comes at a high cost, literally and figuratively. When your loved one must pay the price, he or she may decide that the addiction isn’t worth it. It should also be noted that substance dependency sometimes leads to a life of criminal activity (e.g., robbery or driving under the influence). If your loved one starts down this path, do not make excuses for him or her. Doing so will only facilitate these actions.
Pull your friend aside. If you can still see your loved one behind the addiction, it may be time to talk with him or her before things get worse. Aim to have a conversation, which gives you equal time talking and listening, and refrain from making accusations. “I’m worried about you” is a common way to start this kind of discussion.
- Prepare a packet of relevant information, including a list of symptoms and facts about alcoholism and/or substance abuse. Find your informational literature from credible sources.
- Speak with your loved one in private. Limit the number of people who are included in the initial conversation. You never want to make your loved one feel under attack or on the defensive.
- Offer concrete plans of action. Let your loved one know what you are willing to do to support him or her through recovery. You might offer a ride to the doctor or help researching support group meetings, for example. Remember that recovery is a lifelong process. Relapses can be triggered by emotional stress or physical stimuli. Help your loved one create a comprehensive relapse prevention plan. This plan may also include how to get back on track quickly in the case of a relapse.
- Be compassionate but firm. You are the voice of reason and the listening ear.
- Voice your concerns to friends and family. Professionals, friends, and family members will likely share your fears and concerns about substance dependencies. If one is affecting a friend, you might consider getting some of his or her family and friends involved in the intervention. Doing so could remind your friend of just how many people care.
- If you are thinking about reaching out to your friend’s loved ones, be aware of potential challenges. People have their own ways of coping. Some will deny the problem, others will be shocked, and some will be angry you brought it up. Present facts about the disease and then allow everyone to to do their own research. You may choose to share this article or other information about substance abuse.
- If they do listen to your concerns, encourage your loved one’s family members or mutual friends to stop facilitating the addiction. Ask this support network to remove themselves from any situation in which your loved one is drinking or abusing substances.
- Find help on campus. Colleges have many health resources including campus health centers, medical staff, informative literature, and support groups. You might refer your friend directly to the college’s services or you might decide to first speak with these offices yourself.
- Sometimes it is hard to connect with your college friend’s family members. You may not know his or her parents or siblings. If the situation is serious, your college may reach out to your loved one’s family or emergency contacts.
- Plan a professional intervention. Individuals who struggle with addiction also struggle to see how their lives are deteriorating. An intervention can be a rational plan of action coordinated by professionals, friends, family, or colleagues. You might decide to employ the services of a medical doctor, licensed counselor, or certified interventionist. A professional intervention is a safe place to rebuild trust, relay concern, and show your loved one the true nature of addiction. Learn more about interventions on our site or search your area to find an intervention center or your local AA chapter. You can also use one of these resources:
Whether or not your friend listened to your concerns, there are ways you can follow up with an intervention. If your friend is working toward recovery, know that staying sober is often more challenging than getting sober. Your support must be ongoing. If your friend’s recovery has not moved in the direction you had hoped, take time to assess what’s next.
- Offer encouragement. Results will not be instantaneous. Continue to encourage your friend. Even if all he or she has managed to do is understand that you are concerned, that’s progress. People who are in recovery often continue on with the support of friends and family. If your friend now holds a job, has returned to school, or has improved his or her physical health, celebrate. Highlight your friend’s successes; they are huge accomplishments that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Know your limits. If you’re resolved to help a friend, you should know that you can only direct him or her toward higher ground; you cannot carry him or her there. You cannot force someone to recognize when he or she is in too deep. Trying to reason with someone who has a drug dependency often seems impossible. Not all plans unravel the way we envision them. Stay hopeful if your first attempts don’t work, but understand that substance addiction and dependency is an individual fight.
- Because it is so hard to watch someone you love go through addiction and dependency, it is a good idea to seek help. Professional help can be found on your campus, in your town, online, and over the phone.
I’ve seen both recovery and the deepest kind of loss due to addiction. I know how important it is to understand substance abuse and to recognize when you need to reach out. Sometimes it’s hard to know which course of action to take, but don’t bottle up your concerns. Speak out and ask for advice from friends, family, and professionals. In the meantime, do what you can: Always provide your loved ones with support, love, and encouragement.