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Helping a Friend with an Addiction

When a friend shows signs of abusing alcohol or other drugs, it is hard to know what to do or say.

What is scary is that drug abuse can lead to addiction. Drug abuse refers to a conscious decision to use alcohol, an illegal drug, or a medication in an unsafe way. Addiction means losing control over whether you are going to use the drug, or losing insight into knowing how, or when, to stop.

Although addiction begins with drug abuse, it does not mean just using a lot of drugs. Researchers have found that drugs not only interfere with normal brain functioning, but they also have a long-term effect on brain metabolism and activity. At some point, changes occur in the brain that can turn drug abuse into addiction.

Addiction can be physical, psychological, or both. With a physical addiction, a person's body becomes dependent on the drug, needing more and more of it to get the same effect. When the person stops using the drug, he or she may develop withdrawal symptoms.

With a psychological addiction, a person's mind craves the feeling that the drug gives or feels emotionally awful when he or she stops using the drug. The person can be overcome by the desire to get more of the drug.

There is still a stigma that addiction is just bad or immoral behavior, and a person is weak if he or she cannot stop or control his or her use. Research has shown that it is a brain disorder, and it is just as life-threatening or more so than heart disease, diabetes, or emphysema. The behavior and social symptoms of addiction can be hurtful to family members, friends, or coworkers. Yet it is these same people who may be in the best position to help the addict recognize his or her loss of control and motivate him or her to seek treatment.

In a nationwide survey of people in recovery, 70 percent said they got help because a friend or relative was honest with them about their drinking and other drug use, and 41 percent said they would have sought help sooner if someone had voiced concern.

The suggestions below may help you save a friend's life.

Sort out the confusion

When deciding whether to speak to your friend, you may have some reservations, such as the following:

  • Fear or ambivalence about getting involved in someone else's affairs. Just remember, addiction to alcohol or other drugs is a leading cause of death.

  • Someone else will certainly say something. It is important not to wait. You may feel hurt by past actions or behaviors of the person with addiction so it is important to take responsibility for your feelings, too.

Assess the problem

How much does your friend drink or use drugs? What is the impact on him or her and others? If your friend has alcohol- or drug-related problems, he or she needs help. Following are symptoms to look for.

Psychological symptoms

When a person has a psychological or emotional craving for a drug, you may see some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Sees drugs as the solution, not the problem

  • Takes the drug in larger amounts or over a longer period

  • Is always preoccupied with obtaining drugs

  • Steals or sells possessions to buy drugs

  • Is anxious, irritable, depressed

  • Has withdrawn from others

  • Has lost interest in school, work or hobbies that were once pleasurable

  • Socializes with others who abuse drugs

  • Has mood swings

  • Has problems functioning, such as poor job performance, failure to fulfill family responsibilities, difficulty in relationships with friends and others

  • Engages in dangerous behavior, such as driving while intoxicated

  • Has psychological withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug

Physical symptoms

When a person’s body becomes dependent on a drug, you may see some of the following symptoms:

  • Sleeping problems

  • Health problems; is sick often

  • Needs more drugs for the same effect

  • Weight loss or weight gain

  • Has physical withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug

How to talk

Do not try to talk when your friend is drunk or high. It is also a good idea to meet on neutral turf, but not at a bar or any place else that serves alcohol.

Talk about the effect your friend's drinking or drug use has on whatever the person cares about most, such as career or children. Your friend may not be concerned about his or her situation but may care deeply for the children and what the problem may be doing to them.

Become aware of treatment or recovery resources available in your community. Find the local phone number for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), learn what treatment resources are available in your area by calling your state's Office of Substance Abuse Services or searching the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's treatment locator.

If your friend does not want to go to AA or NA, talk with other people who know and care about your friend to see if they have other ideas.