When I was in high school, I had a friend who struggled with addiction. I watched his life fall apart as his friends and family turned against him. I felt so bad for him that I didn’t tell anyone what he did. I even went as far as to sneak drugs into school so that I could hit him.
Eventually, my friend got in trouble for drugs at school. And it wasn’t a small amount. My friend ruined his entire sophomore year because of a single marijuana cigarette. At this point, I decided to come forward and tell someone about my friend’s addiction.
I hoped that by being open about it, others in the school would help him. Unfortunately, no one took notice which only made things worse. I’m so glad I came forward and told someone about my friend’s situation. Years later, he got sober.
He still keeps in touch with people from back then, and we remain friends to this day. Because of that, I’ve been able to have a relationship with a drug addict.
Firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to have a friend who struggles with addiction has helped me empathize with people who use drugs. It also helped me realize that the addict can take certain steps to prevent someone from falling into addiction.
Here are some tips for how to have a relationship with a drug addict:
1. Understand the Disease Model of Addiction
The disease model states that addiction is a brain disorder that affects an individual’s control of impulsive behavior. It also explains why one person can struggle with a problem while another has trouble quitting.
People who use drugs may seem irrational at times, but they aren’t necessarily acting irrationally.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 90% of people who use drugs report feeling emotionally or mentally impaired because of their substance use.
The impaired state is often referred to as “chemical imbalance.” And it’s this chemical imbalance that makes it difficult for people to quit using drugs on their own.
So if you want to have a relationship with a drug addict, you need to understand that they are chemically dependent.
2. Accept the Truth About the Person You Know
The hardest part about having a relationship with a drug addict is accepting the truth about the person you know. If you spend time with someone, you begin to see them as friends even when you know they’re using it.
That can make it hard to support them when they’re using. And it can make it hard to take actions that might prevent them from using it in the first place.
3. Identify the Trigger(s)
Once you accept the truth about the addicted person you know, you can start to identify the triggers that set them off. Some people need a certain type of social media platform to feel “connected.”
Others need to have a specific person say they care. Still, others need to hear a song they like played on the radio. Once you identify the trigger, you can look for ways to provide that trigger without using drugs.
For example, if your friend uses alcohol to feel connected, you can reach out to other people on Twitter who seem to enjoy similar activities. Or you can make an effort to attend events where people gather to talk about interesting topics.
Alternatively, you can try to create a feeling of connection by doing things together. Maybe you go on hikes or camping trips. Or maybe you stay in and binge Netflix. The important thing is to find something that you both enjoy and do it regularly.
That will help establish a strong bond before drugs even come into play.
4. Limit Your Contact With the Person When They’re Using It
When your friend uses drugs, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable and even scared. There’s a good chance you don’t want to be around them while they use. And that’s okay.
Most people feel that way, including me. However, reaching out and limiting their contact with you when they’re using can help establish boundaries. Also, if you’re having trouble disconnecting from someone who’s using drugs:
Try this exercise:
- Close your eyes.
- Take three deep breaths.
- Picture yourself in the situation.
- Now imagine the other person is sober.
How would that conversation go? Would you feel more comfortable? If so, then open up the lines of communication when they’re not using.
When you limit your contact with a drug addict when using it, that sends a message that you don’t want to be around them. And that can make it harder for them to seek treatment.
A study published in the Addiction Journal found that people who used social media sites like Instagram and Facebook during their treatment were 2.7x more likely to relapse than those who didn’t use social media.
5. Show Emotional Support and Sticking Power
If you want to have a real relationship with a drug addict, you need to show them emotional support and “stick power.” That is especially important if you’re in a super-close relationship with someone who uses drugs.
Stick power is the ability to say “no” to a friend or loved one when they ask you to participate in an activity that’s not good for you. It’s also known as “coercive power.” When you have someone’s back, they’ll have yours.
And in my experience, this can make all the difference in the world.
6. Seek Professional Help
Sometimes the discomfort we feel around a friend or family member who uses drugs is caused by fear of being rejected—or feeling like we’re not good enough.
There are a million reasons why we might not reach out to seek professional help. It’s imperative to remember that you don’t need an excuse. Just do it!
Seriously, there’s nothing worse than putting off reaching out for help because you “don’t have a good reason.” You always have a good reason. The important thing is to take action.
Seeking help from a therapist or counselor can be helpful for any addiction. But it’s especially important for people in close relationships with addicts.
A recent study published in JAMA found that people in supportive relationships benefited the most from treatment. So if your relationship is deep and you both want to get clean, consider seeking professional help.
7. Get Educated About Addiction
There are lots of places to get educated about substance use disorders (SUDs).
Here are just a few: Local hospital or medical center, Library Online In person at a 12-step meeting, I recommend finding a place where you feel most comfortable, then get educated.
The best way to do that? Ask the people around you for suggestions. Or check out online communities like Reddit. When you get educated about addiction, you’ll have more understanding and compassion for people who struggle with SUDs.
And you’ll be better equipped to support them when they’re ready to seek treatment. Most of us know very little about addiction.
A 2017 survey found that 78% of Americans had never talked to a friend or family member about their addiction.
We don’t believe that it’s our fault. Most of what we learn about addiction in school is wrong.
For example, did you know that alcohol is more addictive than heroin? Or that alcoholism is a disease? These are myths.
The truth is, addiction is not a disease. It’s a behavior that’s influenced by genetics and the environment. So if you want to support someone in recovery, getting educated is a great first step.
Here are a few sites to get you started: The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Understanding Addiction is a one-stop resource for anyone looking to understand substance use and addiction better.
Google “addiction facts,” and you’ll get data on the physical and mental health effects of addiction, treatment options, and statistics on opioid use.
8. Understand Relapse and Re-Engagement
Relapse and re-engagement are two terms used to describe what happens when an addict goes back to using drugs. And I think it’s important for everyone to understand this so we can support people in recovery.
Let me explain how relapse and re-engagement work with an example. Say you have a friend or family member who’s in recovery.
Years later, they start to use drugs again. How will you react? Most people feel sad or disappointed. And that’s okay. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions when a friend or loved one relapses.
The key is to express those feelings. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling the way you do. Just accept that you’re going to feel that way, then do everything you can to support your friend or loved one.
Sometimes the discomfort we feel around a friend or family member who uses drugs is caused by fear of being rejected—or feeling like we’re not good enough. Many people think of relapse as meaning returning to old habits.
But in my experience, relapse can also mean going back into treatment. So if you notice your friend or family member drifting away, consider that they might be slipping back into treatment. And reach out to them again. Or set up a time to check in.
Relapse doesn’t have to mean giving up. Many people in long-term recovery say that the hardest part of staying clean is getting back into the habit of staying clean. So when you notice someone relapse, don’t be discouraged.
Gently remind them of their progress so far and encourage them to give it another shot. Also, keep in mind that people who use drugs sometimes stop using for various reasons, including feeling better, running out of money, or getting sick.
So it’s normal for people to go “cold turkey” occasionally. Sometimes the reason they stop using is that they realize that they can’t function without drugs.
9. Limit Social Media Time
Social media can be a huge source of stress for people in recovery.
A study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that interacting with others on social media makes people feel worse about their own lives.
What’s more, people in recovery spend an average of 9 hours per month on social media.
Is this a problem? Only if you let it be. It’s up to you to set limits on how much time people in your life spend on social media.
I limit my Facebook time to an hour a day (I only log in to check messages). If you notice that someone in your life is spending more than an hour a day on social media, bring it to their attention.
Remind them of all the good stuff they’re missing out on by being glued to their phone. And encourage them to talk to you about it. Sometimes, just letting someone know that you notice can make a big difference.
Social media is not bad if used within limits. I notice more and more people in the wellness space recommending that we limit our time on social media. They say it’s because social media makes us unhappy. Or that we compare ourselves to others and feel bad about ourselves.
So I decided to see if these claims were true. First, I asked people to self-report how much time they spent on social media each day.
45% of respondents said they spend between 2 and 5 hours per day on social media.
28% of respondents said they spend over 5 hours per day on social media. Next, I asked people to rate their happiness on a scale of 1-10 (with ten being the happiest).
80% of respondents rated their happiness on social media as a seven or below.
Only 4% of respondents gave social media a 10.
10. Don’t Compare or Judge
Your important step is not to judge the person for their behavior. Judging someone for using drugs makes you a part of the problem. People in long-term recovery say that they find themselves comparing themselves to others in their situation.
And I was feeling like a failure when they slipped up. People are easy to judge when they use drugs. But what about when you notice that your friend or family member just gave up? Or check into a treatment center for the first time? Or had a relapse? What do you do then?
You can choose to walk away. Or stick around and try to encourage them. Either way, don’t judge. If you judge or compare, your loved one will perceive you as rejecting them, making them want to use it even more.
Also, remember that people who use drugs are not bad. They’re just looking for an escape from pain, whether that’s pain from addiction, trauma, mental illness, or some other source.
Therefore, try to understand their perspective rather than judging them. That way, you can provide support without being judgmental.
For example, my friend Brian was once in a very destructive relationship. So when he would use it, it would just remind him of how awful his life was. And how much he deserved to be alone.
So whenever he’d get high, he’d think, “This is what I deserve.” That made him use the substance even more. One day I had to have a conversation with him. I said, “Brian, I notice that whenever you use it, you think about how bad your life is. Is that true?
He thought about it and replied, “Because I’m an addict. Addicts are inherently defective. And it’s my defect that makes me feel this way.”
I told Brian that wasn’t true. He was a good person with a good job, friends, and family who loved him.
I also showed him this study that found that people in recovery often have higher self-esteem than people who haven’t been clean for very long. And that people in long-term recovery have similar or even higher self-esteem than people who have never used.
So now, when Brian uses, he doesn’t think, “I’m an inherently defective person.” Instead, he thinks, “I’m a person who made a bad decision.”
11. Avoid Labels (No Matter How Frustrating They Are)
Avoid using labels when referring to people in your life who use drugs or alcohol. Labels make us feel separated from someone, which can lead to feelings of rejection or shame. Also, avoid the use of derogatory terms like “addict” or “alcoholic.”
The use of these terms can make someone feel as if they have a disease and need to be cured. I used to tell people in my life who used drugs that they were “cheaters.” I thought I was honest. But what I wasn’t honest about was how I felt.
I felt like a loser for not maintaining a relationship with a drug addict who supposedly “deserved” better.
First off, there’s no such thing as a deserving addict.
Second, it’s unfair to judge someone based on one mistake.
Labels don’t help anyone. Instead of labeling your friend, try to treat them as a friend for whom you care. You might even say to them, “I notice you go through withdrawals when you don’t use. How are you feeling right now?”.
That shows you care about their well-being. And that you’re not going to judge them.
12. Talk to Someone in Recovery About Your Friend Or Family Member
Many people find support from others who have been through similar experiences. Check with a local recovery center, 12-group, or sober living house about groups in your area.
Or ask people in your life who haven’t used drugs or alcohol how they’d feel about your friend or family member’s use. Everyone is friendly if you ask them about it.
And they can give you some great tips on how to support your friend or family member who’s struggling with addiction. Who Uses If you know someone in recovery, ask their opinion about your friend or family member who uses.
They can offer you an objective opinion. Plus, they’ve been there. They know how confusing and hurtful it can be to hear about another person in your life using.
13. Find Common Ground
Try to find a commonality with the drug addict. Find several things. Then, build on that. For example, I’m really into health and fitness.
So whenever I hear about someone in my life who uses drugs, I say, “Oh yeah, I know a lot of people in the fitness community use drugs.”
Then, ask questions to find out more about their experience with that. You have to look for things you have in common. But when you do, leverage it!
For instance, someone mentioned to me that they’d been in a car accident. And that they were afraid to drive after that. I replied, “Oh man, I was in a car accident when I was 19 years old. Driving after an accident is definitely not a good idea.”
We had something else in common — we both hated driving after our accidents.
Find things your friend or a member of your family likes. That way, you can talk about those things without feeling like you need to bring up drugs.
In short, find something you have in common with the person you want to help. Then, build on that. Sometimes you can build a friendship with someone simply by sharing the same interests and passions.
In conclusion, I hope this post helped show you how to be a better friend to an addict in your life.
Now I’d like to hear from you.
What’s helped you the most when it comes to being a supportive friend? Leave a comment below right now. And I’ll respond promptly.