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How to Confront Substance Abuse With Friends 

By Cultures Of Dignity | June 27, 2019

I’m a high school student in Boulder Colorado, and although I haven’t dealt with any drug or alcohol abuse with my friends I think it’s important for both kids and adults to examine what their definition of a drug problem is and how to deal with it. In this passage from The Guide, it walks through the various people who may play a role in defining when a person has a drug problem and what to do about it. It walks through a way of solving the conflict while also acknowledging the difficult position you are put into as a friend of the person who is using.   

How to Confront Substance Abuse With Friends 

When you’re worried that someone you know may have a drinking/drug problem, the first thing that happens seems pretty basic—the people around the guy have concluded that he has a substance abuse problem. But it’s not as easy as it seems. When you think about who makes this decision, you naturally think of the guy’s friends, his girlfriend, his parents, or a coach. But all of these people define “a drinking problem” very differently, because the bar for that definition will be lowest for the adults, a bit higher for the girls, and extremely high for the guy’s friends.

For example, some parents—at least the ones who don’t buy alcohol for their kids—will think there’s a problem if they find the guy drunk or high more than once. Most girls think there’s a problem if the guy is drinking every weekend until he throws up or blacks out. But the guy’s inner circle, the ones most likely to know how much he’s actually using certainly wouldn’t agree with the adult assessment and probably wouldn’t agree with the girls because they themselves are probably using about the same amount. For example, throwing up or blacking out may be identified among the guys as a normal result of drinking too much on any particular night. It’s the body’s way of saying it has had enough.

All of this comes down to a simple point: the actual amount a guy drinks/drugs may not be enough for his friends to think there’s a problem they have to do something about. For guys to believe their friend has a problem, it has to have a serious impact on other aspects of his life. Like not showing up, being drunk or hung-over for meetings or practice, or performing significantly worse at games or other events. Another indicator could be getting super-aggressive and starting fights or insisting on driving. Or bombing a test, or not going to school.

My brother and his friends went to a party, and one of their friends blacked out, so they took him home. But when they went back to the party, the kid showed up a little later because he had driven himself there but had no recollection of how he did it. That was a clear indication. —Will, 20

Here’s an easy rule for you to follow. Since your bar may be high like I am describing, the second it occurs to you that your friend has a problem, this in itself proves he has a problem. If you start talking about it with your other friends, he definitely has a problem. Seriously, the fact that you all are talking about it is all the proof you need.

Once you’ve had your realization, what do you do? Part of your Stop and Setup is to think about who is going to tell him. If you do it one-on-one, it’ll be easier for him to blow you off. If you do it in a group, it’ll be easier for you to stand your ground, but it’ll be overwhelming for him. The ideal situation is to have the guy he’s closest to speak to him, with one or two other guys he respects along for backup. To state the obvious: this isn’t like one of those intervention shows you see on TV. You choose a time and place where he feels comfortable and there’s no chance of other people interrupting you. All of the guys agree that if he attacks or blows off the person who states the problem, the other guys will back him up. You all have to agree not to capitulate or say, “I don’t know, dude, I didn’t really want to be here.”

substance abuse

Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

The other big challenge here is that there’s no way to prepare the guy for the conversation. It’s not possible to say, “Hey, dude, two days from now I’m going to tell you that you’re an alcoholic and need to get help.”

The timing of this SEAL (a conflict management strategy) is critical too. Don’t do it when anyone is drunk, high or hung-over the next morning (including you). For example, if he binges on Saturday night, your window to have the talk is between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night. It’s also likely that this SEAL will take two conversations: one when you initially tell him, and then a follow-up to check in with him once he’s had time to think about what you said.

Part 1

YOU (Explain): I feel weird saying this, but I really think that you have a drinking problem.

FRIEND (Push-back): No way. Fuck off.

YOU (Explain): Seriously, I’m worried about you.

FRIEND (Push-back): What the fuck? You drink just as much as I do.

YOU (Acknowledge): I’ve been thinking about that. Recently, I’ve been cutting back because I didn’t want to bring this up without checking myself.

FRIEND (Push-back): This is insane.

YOU (Lock In): I know this sounds weird, but I really care about you, and I’m worried. I know I can’t force you to talk to someone, but I really think you need help.

FRIEND (Push-back): Fine. Now can we just drop this?

YOU (Lock In): Sure.


Part 2 (A Couple of Days Later)

YOU (Explain): How’s it going with the thing we talked about?

FRIEND (Push-back): What do you mean?

YOU: (Explain): You know what I’m talking about. Did you talk to anyone?

FRIEND (Push-back): I don’t know.

YOU (Affirm): I know I can’t force you, but I’d go with you if you wanted. I could just hang outside.

FRIEND (Push-back): I’m not going to some psychiatrist or drug counselor.

YOU (Lock In): I’m not saying that. What about Coach Smith or the counselor you liked last year? Just consider it.

Most high school guys will have a friend who needs help with drugs or alcohol. It’s one of those moments when you need to think about the times you’ve said, “I love you man, I love my guys, I’d do anything for my friends,” and realize that these are more than things you say. It’s what you do when it’s hard. When you’d rather do anything else but face this guy and tell him the truth. It’s in these moments that he desperately needs your support, even if he has no idea how to ask for it.

The excerpt is adapted from Chapter 9: Wasteland in The Guide.

How to Confront Substance Abuse With Friends