Be a Good Friend – Don’t Let a Problem Drinker Drink

Posted on May 30th, 2012

There are friends, and then there are good friends. Anyone can have a fair number of both kinds of friends, but when it comes to being friends with or having a friend and problem drinking is part of the everyday behavior, there’s a clear distinction to be made.

Friends may not only allow a problem drinker to drink in their presence but they may overtly or covertly encourage it. Overt encouragement comes in the form of urging the individual who has a problem with alcohol to continue to drink, egging him or her on, calling attention to the fact that the problem drinker has slowed intake or is trying not to imbibe. Covert encouragement occurs when the so-called friend either tries to hide his own drinking or claims to not be drinking – but clearly has been.

In either the covert or the overt examples, these individuals are not acting as "good friends" to the problem drinker.

Let’s look at how you can be a good friend, in the strictest sense of the term, by not letting a problem drinker drink.

Here’s a hint: It’s not always going to be easy. But it can be done.

Change the Normal Venue

Where do people usually drink? Where do you hang out and drink with your friends and acquaintances, including one or more that can be classified as problem drinkers? Is it the neighborhood tavern or the bar down the block from work? Maybe it’s the restaurant chain with a liquor license where you all go after some recreational or sporting activity and sit around for hours on end swapping stories, smoking and, of course, consuming round after round of booze.

How good a friend do you consider yourself to be? If you claim to have your friend’s best interests at heart, one way you can help your friend steer clear of drinking is to change the venue. This may seem a little suspect at first, but not if you handle it appropriately. Instead of saying something like, "I don’t want you to drink, so let’s meet up at a place that doesn’t serve alcohol," say, instead, "How about we meet at ____," and you fill in the blank with a place that’s fun and convenient – and doesn’t happen to serve liquor.

It is access to booze that gets problem drinkers into trouble. While it’s certainly true that if they’re determined enough they’ll find a way to get to drink, at lease by changing the venue you’ll be helping provide an alcohol-free environment in the short term.

The idea is to make the change of venue as seamless a switch as possible, without calling attention to the fact that it’s a non-drinking location. Again, this may take some finesse on your part, but it’s totally doable – if you’re really a good friend to the problem drinker.

Switch the Time of the Meet

Some problem drinkers have an automatic clock in their head that compels them to go out and get soused day after day. It doesn’t matter to the alcoholic or someone who’s clearly headed down that path where the drinking takes place – as long as it does.

How about trying to arrange a morning time to meet, a time when your friend may not have drinking in mind because it isn’t "happy hour" or the usual time when he or she starts pounding them down?

You can have other plans for the usual get-together time, and this should be a believable reason. At least, it should be believable enough to your problem drinker friend, something that he or she can’t immediately see through. You don’t want to be a liar, per se, but you should find legitimate reasons why you aren’t available at the normal drinking session. Who knows? You could even be helping yourself to establish healthier boundaries around your own drinking – and be a good friend in the process.

Encourage Participation in Non-Drinking Activities

If you and your friend who has a drinking problem get involved in activities where drinking is not part of the behavior, you’ll be helping to establish a pattern that’s more conducive to your problem drinker’s sobriety than if you try to keep your friend sober, or at least less drunk, during activities and pastimes where participants normally consume alcohol.

There’s nothing like working up a good sweat or being involved in a competitive sport to keep you sharp and focused. The more concentration and coordination are required to successfully participate in the activity, the more likely the problem drinker will be convinced to keep a clear head – if only to continue to be able to be part of what’s going on and not falling down drunk on the sidelines.

Don’t be put off by protestations that your friend doesn’t have the skills or experience in such an activity, or never played a sport and isn’t very good at it, or even that he or she doesn’t have enough time or interest in doing what you suggest.

It’s up to you to be persuasive and entice your friend into trying something new. You’re pretty good at being convincing, right? Haven’t you been able to persuade your problem drinker friend to do other things in the past? Surely tipping back a few wasn’t any big deal to offer and go along with. Well, figuring out a way to invite your friend with a drinking problem to do something that’s healthy and positive, while it may require you to become creative, certainly should be within your capability.

At the very least, you can be willing to give it a try.

Old Habits are Hard to Break – But They Can Be Changed

Died-in-the wool, hard-core alcoholics may seem like an impossible and daunting challenge to take on, and maybe you shouldn’t even attempt this – unless you’re a really good friend who has your problem drinker’s well-being at heart.

Not that you’re going to reform the alcoholic. That’s not your job, nor could you do it if you tried. The problem drinker has to want to change his or her behavior, and that takes time and a lot more effort than you can possibly imagine.

It’s also true that you cannot force a problem drinker to give up drinking – or even cut down, in many cases. But with consistency and the right kind of encouragement, you may be able to set a good example so that your friend may begin to see the benefits of sobriety.

First, examine how you currently act around your friend. Are you impulsive, prone to making snap decisions, like sticking around and having another round when you know you shouldn’t? Even if you don’t have a problem with alcohol, this is displaying and setting a bad example. How can you expect someone who’s already in trouble with drinking to cut down or cut back – when you clearly aren’t?

How to Handle Aggression and Inappropriate Behavior

Of course, there may come a time – or perhaps it’s already happened – when your friend has had way too many and starts to become belligerent, obnoxious, or acts in a totally inappropriate manner. This can happen to either sex, so it isn’t always just males that behave this way. How should you handle a situation where your friend is clearly out of control, and yet still demands to keep drinking?

First, you should never antagonize the individual. That will only place you and possibly others nearby in jeopardy. You never know when a person’s demeanor will switch from only slightly aggressive or obnoxious or inappropriate to something that is truly dangerous. Talking to the inebriated person is best done in a non-threatening manner and voice, but do encourage your friend that maybe it’s time to help get him or her home, that you’ll call a cab or arrange transportation.

Signal the bartender or wait staff, if you are at a public place where alcohol is served, that no more alcohol is to be brought to your friend. It’s best if you quit drinking as well, since your continuing to drink will only tend to inflame the situation.

You may find it helpful to enlist the aid of another friend or friends to help you navigate your inebriated friend out of the drinking situation. If it gets really out of hand, call the police. Yes, sometimes this is what a good friend will do, since the last thing you want to have happen is that someone is seriously injured or killed as a result of your inaction.

The key point to remember is that the behavior will only continue to deteriorate unless the drinker is removed from the situation. He or she may be close to passing out, experiencing a brown-out or black-out, and is definitely in no shape to continue to be in public. Going home to sleep it off is probably the best outcome – as long as you don’t permit your friend to drive himself.

There’s no single best way to handle aggression and inappropriate behavior with a friend who is drunk. If you’ve seen this happen time and time again, you might consider other things you can do to help.

Encourage Your Friend to Get Professional Help

How long have you been friends with this individual? You must have noticed a change over time in his or her behavior, particularly with regards to alcoholic consumption. It may have begun as an occasional bout of drinking, or social drinking, possibly as a way to unwind from the stress of the day or tensions at work, school or home.

But through the intervening months, possibly years, your friend has started drinking every day, downing drinks quickly to get buzzed faster, consuming more and more alcohol to the point of being falling down drunk.

What have you been doing in the meantime? Have you just stood idly by watching this take place and never saying anything to your friend? How good a friend are you, anyway? Don’t you want the best for your friend? Wouldn’t you want someone to help you should you be in such a deteriorating state? And, make no mistake about it, problem drinkers only get worse, not better, unless they seek help.

It is true that you cannot force your friend to get professional help, to check into rehab or even to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or another self-help group. But you can encourage your friend that maybe now is the time to do something to get this drinking situation under control. Be prepared for some push-back, since this is not something the problem drinker wants to hear.

But don’t give up, either.

Arrange for an Intervention

When things have gotten so bad that your friend is always drunk, always looking for a reason to drink, and his or her life is spiraling out of control with numerous and serious negative consequences, a good friend would consider arranging for an intervention.

This should be a professional intervention, handled by a trained and certified interventionist. The purpose of the intervention is to convince the problem drinker to go into treatment – immediately. This isn’t something that you can do by yourself, as much as you might want to. You’re not trained to do so and the truth is that those closest to the problem drinker are often swayed by the sometimes intense emotional outbursts that occur during an intervention. Professional interventionists have seen it all, heard it all, and know how to deal with the wild mood swings and displays of anger and bouts of crying that occur all too often.

It’s probably a good idea to talk with the family members and loved ones and possibly other close friends of the problem drinker to enlist them to participate in the intervention as well. This won’t be betraying any secrets. The fact that your friend is a problem drinker isn’t anything they don’t already know, especially if the behavior has gone on for some time.

During the intervention, you and others participating will have the opportunity to tell the problem drinker how his or her drinking has impacted your life, what it has cost your friendship, and that you sincerely want and encourage your friend to accept the gift of treatment. By gift we mean that it is a potential lifesaver for your friend, not that you are paying for the rehab.

The object, indeed, the sole purpose of the intervention is to get the problem drinker to accept treatment. Arrangements will have been made ahead of time to get the person off and into rehab immediately. No putting this off until next week or next month. That will never happen. Only in the rarest instances should going to rehab be delayed for a day or so. During that interim, the problem drinker may really go on an all-out bender and decide to forget about his or her promise.

No, going to rehab right away is the only way this has a chance to work. And even then there are no guarantees. But being in the safe and protected environment of a certified alcohol treatment program will give your friend the best opportunity to learn how to overcome dependence on alcohol – and possibly other substance abuse as well.

Be There For Your Friend Post-Treatment

Let’s say your friend did accept treatment, went into rehab, and is now entering recovery. That’s when the real work begins. What your friend learned during treatment only prepared the way for life without alcohol. Now, however, it’s time to put that learning into practice.

Most likely your friend will be going to Alcoholics Anonymous or some other self-help group. You, as a good friend, should support and encourage this participation, even reminding your friend that there’s a group that meets near work or offering to take and pick up your friend so that he can keep going to meetings.

Above all, make sure your friend knows that you are there for him, that you value your friendship and want the best for his future in sobriety. This means you’ll need to forego drinking in front of your friend, help to create situations for social interaction that don’t involve drinking, and more of the suggestions already mentioned.

One final point to keep in mind about problem drinkers is that once a person is an alcoholic, they are always an alcoholic. They will be in recovery for the rest of their lives. It isn’t just confined to rehab and then it’s done, they can go back to drinking. The goal is complete abstinence, since that’s the only way a problem drinker can begin to experience life without the damaging and potentially life-threatening effects and consequences of drinking.

But, just because a person is an alcoholic doesn’t mean that they cannot change their lives. By choosing to live in sobriety, they are just like you and me and anyone else – trying to live a healthy, happy and productive life. It’s just that they’ve made the choice to do so without resorting to abuse of substances, including alcohol.

Be a good friend. Don’t let a problem drinker drink – and do all you can to support your friend’s efforts to clean up, get sober, and make a new life for himself.

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