By Cindy Coloma
“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” – Helen Keller
Friendship is a great gift in life. A faithful friend can be an anchor in a storm and the voice of reason when hope seems lost. When your friend is dealing with an addiction, having someone in her corner with her can make all the difference.
It’s difficult to watch a friend navigate the challenges that come with addiction. Like any other disease, addiction can create feelings of isolation and hopelessness. When a friend shares private health issues with you, it can be a great responsibility. You may wonder what to do, especially if she refuses to tell her family. Are you obligated to let your friend’s family know so they can provide help and support, or should you respect your friend’s wishes and keep silent? How best can you support someone with an addiction?
Where to Start
There is no perfect path when it comes to navigating friendship and addiction. Every situation and personality is different and various addiction and family dynamics create innumerable challenges and possibilities. It may help to ask yourself a few questions.
Does my friend have a substance use disorder or addiction?
Often, we confuse drug misuse with drug addiction. While they are related, they aren’t always the same thing.
- Drug misuse is a conscious decision to use a substance in an unsafe way and can can lead to addiction.
- Drug addiction is essentially losing control. Drug use can cause changes in the brain that can develop into addiction. Someone who experiences an addiction loses the insight and ability to know how and when to stop.1
Understanding where your friend is on this journey will help you navigate your next steps.
Is my friend at risk of harming themselves or others?
Has your friend talked about suicide or harming others? Are you feeling anxious that she may endanger herself by overdosing or driving while under the influence? If the answer is yes, then you should get immediate help regardless of her wishes. One resource is to call or go online to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In emergency situations, call 911.
What does my friend’s current support system look like?
Does your friend have any other healthy friendships? Does anyone in her family seem to have a close relationship with her? It often helps to have a team of people to support someone who is struggling with addiction. Is there anyone else in your friend’s life that is encouraging her to be healthy?
It’s difficult to navigate a situation like this alone. If your friend is unwilling to involve family, you may need outside help so that you can be a strong supporter and anchor for your friend. You’re not alone – there are many programs and avenues of help.
If you decide not to reach out to her family after carefully considering your friend’s situation, here are some other resources that may help:
- Campus programs. Recent data shows that college students are at high risk for alcoholism and substance use disorders.2 Students may find it overwhelming to balance school projects, grades, extracurricular activities and a social life, and they may turn to substance or alcohol use to cope. If your friend is a college student, her campus likely has resources to help her recover. Visit the school’s website or talk to a campus counselor for information.
- Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. These programs are popular for a reason. Many people who are struggling have found resources and the help she needs by plugging in.
- Online resources. Sometimes it’s difficult to get your friend to reach out to a person or program face-to-face. Online resources can inform and bridge that gap. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) provides information about treatment and evidence-based approaches that may help you and your friend understand what you’re dealing with and create a plan of action.3
Whether or not you decide to tell your friend’s family about her addiction, there are so many ways you can support her.
Only you can decide to be involved and whether to share with a friend’s family about her addiction. Whatever path you choose, you can have an enormous impact on the life of your friend and her future. Lean on experienced professionals and don’t feel that you have to do it alone.
1 “Helping a Friend with an Addiction.” University of Rochester Medical Center, Accessed July 12, 2018.
2 “Alcohol Abuse on College Campuses.” Skywood Recovery, Accessed July 12, 2018.
3 “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, Accessed July 12, 2018.