If someone you love has an addiction or consistently engages in high-risk behaviors, you might feel helpless — and hurt. It’s challenging to sit by and watch someone self-destruct, especially when you care about them. While I watched my best friend cling to an alcohol addiction in college after an accident, I likened it to witnessing someone drowning and tossing them an inner tube. Yet they pop it with a pin and continue floundering.
My friend wasn’t alone. Addiction is rampant. In 2017, around 1 in 9 Americans used an illicit drug. Of them, 11.1 million misused painkillers and 886,000 used heroin. Alcohol is also commonly abused. In the U.S., more than 66 million people 12 and older were binge drinkers.
What’s the good news, despite this? You can and do make a difference, even when it feels like your efforts accomplish little.
I used these nine strategies to help my BFF through the most trying time in her life, and I hope they’ll also guide you as you help a friend in need — even when they refuse outright assistance.
1. Offer a Listening Ear
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could wave a magic wand and eradicate your best friend’s pain from her breakup? Unfortunately, you can’t solve someone else’s problems. They may not even welcome your advice. When I suggested my friend try counseling to help her through the grieving process, I was met with an empty stare and days of not returning my calls.
Instead, lend an ear without a bombardment of opinions and suggestions. It’s possible to disagree with someone without passing judgment. For example, I never thought alcohol would solve my friend’s underlying trauma. Yet I still brought her a cup of wintergreen tea to calm her hungover tummy before class.
2. Suggest Reading Material
Do you and your loved ones regularly chat about what you’re reading? If so, you can select fiction novels featuring protagonists in similar situations. People use art to process their emotions. Discussing characters’ make-believe choices can provide insight into real-life problems. Curling up with a cup of hot cocoa and “Harry Potter” with our gal pals was just what my friend and I needed to get our friendship back on track.
If you aren’t in a book club, no problem! Pick up a self-help tome on a topic your friend struggles with. Leave it out on your work desk, or do what I did and take it along when you two visit the beach together. They might not ask to read it when you finish it — I don’t know if she even gave it more than a glance — but you’ve opened the door.
3. Talk to Their Doctor
If your loved one doesn’t open up to you, you might even try talking to their doctor. A professional won’t disclose a patient’s information to you — it’s against the law. However, you can tell them what you know and let them decide what to do next.
Many people won’t confess to substance abuse to authority figures, including employers and doctors. However, if you raise concerns, a professional can educate them about the consequences of their lifestyle.
4. Enlist Other Friends
Maybe your loved one struggles to cut back on alcohol. Once I realized my bestie was having more than a couple drinks on the weekends, I suggested we start meeting for coffee instead of brewskis. However, what happens when the rest of the crew heads to happy hour?
If possible, discreetly recruit other people into your effort to help your friend. They don’t necessarily have to commit to an intervention. They can, however, agree to suggest activities that don’t involve a problematic substance. Our friend group took on a ton of fun activities in support — we planned a nature hike, took a cooking class and signed up to help at a toy drive over the holidays.
5. Continue to Invite Them
As my friend’s depression and substance abuse gained more and more control over her, she started to isolate herself. One of the best things I could do for her was to continue to invite her — even though she routinely said no.
Someone who battles depression may decline invitations due to a lack of energy. However, they’ll feel worse when they learn they’re the only one in your circle not invited to a barbecue.
6. Help Them Locate Resources
You can help your friends help themselves by connecting them with resources. If you work for the same company, approach HR for a list of therapists and treatment programs covered by your health insurance. I gently reminded my friend about local resources by telling her how much the school’s counseling center helped me through a breakup earlier in the semester.
If you feel overwhelmed about how to help during a meltdown, contact a crisis text line for guidance. I also sought out some free local support groups and self-help apps.
7. Give Them Their Space
A good friend knows when to step back. When my bestie told me she was tired and needed to spend some time alone, I respected her needs. Another example of this is if your romantic partner is struggling, you can let them take a solo vacation without jumping to the conclusion that they’re cheating.
Remain alert to signs they are contemplating self-harm, such as giving away beloved possessions and visiting people to say goodbye. Another indicator is a dramatic change in appearance.
8. Establish Boundaries
Early on in my friend’s addiction, she once called me at 2 a.m. intoxicated, to vent about how her date stood her up — on the morning before I had to give a big presentation. This was one of a few times she had done this, and of course, I wanted to be there when she needed me. But I had obligations to tend to as well.
I needed to draw boundaries, so I told her we needed to find a time when we were both relaxed to chat. I said something like, “I love you, and I want to show you I care. But I’m not in the right headspace to be what you need since I have a presentation tomorrow. Can I call you back or meet up with you after class?” Of course, if someone is threatening self-harm, this would be an instance where you may feel an obligation to come to their side. But in most cases, such as being stood up for a date, a true friend will understand you have needs, too. If they demand more than you can give, you may need to re-evaluate your relationship.
9. Take Care of Yourself
You can’t pour from an empty pitcher. Take the time to practice self-care. I personally love taking some solo Saturdays to re-read my favorite books or binge a new Netflix series. Get a massage, or merely relax in a steamy bubble bath.
If you reach the end of your rope, you’re no help to anyone. To take care of others, consider your needs, too.
How to Help Your Loved One Improve Their Life
It’s hard to help someone who doesn’t want your assistance. In fact, I still feel exhausted sometimes just thinking about that period in our lives before my friend admitted she needed help and sought treatment. You’re allowed to admit that! However, if you follow a few simple care tips for both yourself and your friend, you can be there while establishing satisfactory and healthy boundaries for both of you.
Kate Harveston is a journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys hiking, yoga and writing about health and wellness. If you enjoy her work, you can visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.
Image courtesy of Felipe Bustillo.