Addiction Guide for Friends
Continue reading to learn more about how addiction and the ways you can provide the best help to your friend. This guide will discuss:
- How to know if your friend has an addiction.
- Learn how to avoid enabling and help.
- Get ideas on how to help your friend find addiction rehab.
- Learn what to look for if your friend should relapse
- Understanding how to be supportive during recovery.
Does My Friend Have an Addiction?
People who have an addiction have a complex brain disease that causes them to compulsively use substances (such as drugs or alcohol) despite the negative consequences. A substance use disorder is a clinical diagnosis given to people who have an addiction.1
It’s not your job to diagnose your friend—only a licensed professional can do that. But it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs of substance abuse and symptoms of substance use disorder so you know how to recognize a problem.
Substance abuse is the harmful and compulsive use of a substance. People who abuse substances can become dependent, meaning that they need the drug or to consume alcohol to feel normal and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. This can quickly turn into substance use disorder, which is the clinical term used for addiction.
Physical signs to look for include:2
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Dilated or pinpoint pupils.
- Changes to sleep and eating habits.
- Rapid changes in weight.
- Deteriorating physical appearance, such as not bathing.
- Strange smells on the person’s breath or clothing.
- Tremors, impaired coordination, or slurring speech.
Behavioral and psychological signs you might notice include:2
- Sudden and unexplainable changes in attitude and personality.
- Decrease in attendance at work or school.
- Acting secretive or suspicious.
- Stealing, lying, or hiding things.
- Getting into trouble (such as fights or legal issues like DWI or other arrests).
- Financial trouble.
- Hyperactivity or irritability for no apparent reason.
- Mood swings (i.e. seeming depressed one moment and frantic the next).
Many factors influence addiction, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why a person becomes addicted and another doesn’t. Some of the reasons for addiction include:3
- Genetics. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, genes account for about half of a person’s risk of addiction.
- Environment. A number of environmental factors, such as family, peers, stress, and abuse can influence the likelihood of addiction.
- Development. This can include the ways different developmental factors, such as age at first drug use, are influenced by genetic and environmental factors.
A person makes the choice to start abusing substances, but once they are addicted, they are essentially powerless over the substance. So even though it can seem like your friend chooses drugs or alcohol over you, it’s important to note that addiction causes complex brain changes that make it very difficult to stop using.3
How Can I Help and Not Enable?
It can be challenging at times to know how to help someone with an addiction. An attempt to help can be counterproductive. When you begin to do things for the person that they can do for themselves, or when your actions allow them to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their behavior, you may be enabling instead of helping.
For example, enabling might involve calling in sick on their behalf when they are hungover, or perhaps giving them money when you know they will spend it on drugs or alcohol. Enabling actually supports the addiction and prevents recovery.4
Instead of enabling, it’s important to set boundaries and define limits. Let your friend know what you will and will not do to help them. Tell them that you will no longer give them money, bail them out, or call in sick for them. Let them know that you have decided to set limits not to punish them but to help them.
Be sure to look after yourself and spend time doing things you enjoy, as this can be a stressful and upsetting time for you as well.
You can offer to help your friend in different ways, such as encouraging them to seek help. Remember that you can’t force your friend into treatment; they need to want help. You might be tempted to stage an intervention, but research has shown that this isn’t effective. Instead, be supportive and help your friend find an appropriate treatment center or, if they aren’t yet open to this idea, talk to a physician. Talking to a professional can be less confronting and emotional than talking to friends or family.5
Helping a Friend Find Treatment
You can offer to help your friend by researching treatment centers or calling around to different physicians to ask if they treat addiction. Most importantly, provide support and stay as positive as possible; let them know that you understand how much courage it takes to accept and ask for help.
When researching treatment programs, you should consider certain factors, such as:
- Cost. Different types of treatment have varying costs—inpatient is usually more costly than outpatient, but it is also often recommended for people who have severe or long-standing addictions.
- Location. Your friend might prefer to stay close to home or to attend treatment in a different part of the country.
- Staff credentials and experience. Ensure that staff members are licensed and experienced in treating the type of addiction your friend has.
- Evidence-based treatment. Ask if the rehab uses treatments that are backed by research and are proven to be effective for your friend’s addiction.
- Personalized treatment. Each person has unique preferences and requirements, so treatment should be tailored to your friend’s needs.
You might be concerned about how your friend will pay for rehab, but many insurance companies offer partial or full coverage for treatment.
What if My Friend Relapses?
Relapse is a normal part of the recovery process; in fact, relapse rates for drug addiction are the same as those of other chronic diseases such as hypertension or asthma. Reassure your friend that relapse does not mean that treatment has failed, but it could mean that they need an adjustment to their aftercare treatment plan.5
If your friend relapses, you can help them get back into a treatment program and let them know that you will be there to support them as they get back on the path to sobriety.
Being Supportive During Recovery
Realize that recovery is a lifelong process. This means that your friend will likely struggle with avoiding certain triggers when they reenter normal day-to-day life after treatment is completed. You may need to remove relapse triggers in their environment, such as avoiding drinking or using drugs in front of your friend or removing alcohol from the house (if you live together). Ask your friend what their specific triggers are so that you can help them avoid the temptation to use again.5
Aftercare is an important part of recovery—many people continue to attend 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or non-12-step groups like SMART Recovery for the rest of their lives as a way of maintaining sobriety and obtaining ongoing support. Additionally, many people seek additional support by going to individual or group counseling.
Talk to your friend about the addictions issues they may have and be supportive during their recovery. Your friend needs to be around positivity and support.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What is Addiction?
- Robinson, L., Smith, M. & Segal, J. (2019). Drug Abuse and Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.
- Connolly, M. (2017). Are you enabling the addict in your life?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.