By Cindy Coloma
Your friend Penny likes to relax with a glass of wine after a long day at work. Lately she’s increased that to two glasses, and sometimes she polishes off a bottle throughout the evening. On Friday and Saturday nights, she goes out with friends, then takes Sunday to “sleep it off.” The entire department jokes about Penny’s drinking; she even has a bumper sticker on her car about wine. Lately, you’ve felt concerned but aren’t sure what to do.
Perhaps it’s not a friend like Penny, but it’s your long-time neighbor Jack who hides how much beer he drinks during Sunday football — and most nights after work — from his wife.
Or it’s your best friend in another state who sends hilarious drunk texts more and more often, yet hardly remembers the exchange.
When the pieces come together that a friend may have a problem with drinking, you might find yourself wanting to back away from the responsibility of addressing it. While there are numerous variables to consider and plenty of ways to approach someone like Penny or Jack, the potential for a bad outcome is high. Nobody wants to be confronted with a problem. You may find it easier to confront a family member about potential alcohol abuse than a friend. In other cases, people can be good at hiding their drinking, and you may question your own nagging suspicions.
So what do you do if you suspect your friend has a problem with alcohol? First, you need to know the signs and then create a plan of action.
Recognizing the Signs
If you’re concerned about a friend’s drinking, pay attention to signs like these:
- Escalation in alcohol use
- Erratic or changed behavior
- Mood variations within a short amount of time
- Sudden unreliability
- Unintentionally missing important events or appointments
- Blacking out or memory loss after a night of drinking
- A reputation that’s suddenly at risk or affected
- Strong or changes in emotional responses
Lauren Booker of Alcohol Concern says another way to assess the possibility of an addiction is to question the four Ls:
- Love: Is alcohol use causing harm in close relationships?
- Liver: Are any health issues associated with alcohol consumption?
- Livelihood: Is a job or career being affected?
- Law: Has drinking alcohol caused a friend to break the law?1
Even one of these could be a sign a friend is struggling with alcohol addiction and may need help. According to Booker, “It’s not so much about how much you drink or what you drink or where you drink it, it’s what happens when you drink.”1
Talking to Your Friend
Once you’ve made the decision to take action and feel equipped to do so, it’s time to approach your friend. The following steps can help you navigate a tough conversation:
- First, connect during a sober moment or while in a remorseful state by “approaching the topic in a non-judgmental, loving and supportive way,” says George F. Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.1
- Use “I” statements and descriptive language instead of language that could be interpreted as judgmental. For example, “I’ve been noticing (state a couple of things you have noticed) and I’m concerned. It’s not normally like you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
- Do not support or contribute to the addiction, even if anger results.
- Be prepared for resistance. Stay calm and redirect conversations back to your concerns for your friend.
- Encourage your friend to tell someone who will urge them to get help, such as a spouse, parent or doctor.2
- Realize that your friend may not want help at this time. You cannot make this choice for them. You have planted a seed for the possibility of future recovery. Remain available if they ever decide they want help.
- Give hope for a better life without alcohol. Remind them that you are there to help. Recovery is possible, and it’s four times more likely for people in treatment programs than for those who try to quit on their own.3
Discovering that someone you care about has a problem with alcohol can feel like an enormous burden. However, this is also a unique opportunity to be a true friend — and potentially save a life.
1 Dingle, Charlotte. “How to Know If Your Friend Is an Alcoholic, and How to Handle It.” Cosmopolitan, April 25, 2017.
2 Simon, Jen. “7 Ways to Help a Friend Who Might Have a Drug Addiction.” Today, September 29, 2017.
3 “Alcohol Use Disorders.” NIH MedlinePlus, Winter 2013.