How to Be a Good Friend to a Loved One Who Struggles with Alcoholism

Your friend or family member struggles with alcoholism. You want to be a good friend and help. But you don’t know where to start. You don’t know if you should start. Is this something they have to manage on their own, or can you do something to help? The truth is that you can — and should be! — an important part of your friend’s recovery support system. And with this quick guide, you can do just that.

How to Be a Good Friend When Your Friend Drinks Too Much

The best way to be a good friend to someone struggling with alcoholism is to speak up. If you’re worried about a friend’s drinking, even if you aren’t related by blood, you can begin the intervention process. An intervention isn’t the dramatic event you see on TV. It can be as simple as a few conversations or as formal as a calm, loving group meeting guided by a professional. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests first asking your friend to talk with a medical healthcare provider.1 If your friend isn’t willing to take this step, it may be time to call an addiction specialist and learn more about your next best approach for helping.

How to Be a Good Friend Before Rehab

You can help before rehab ever begins. After agreeing to treatment, your friend may not say it, but he is likely scared, uncertain and most in need of your support. Make sure you’re there to offer that support! While many modern treatment facilities like Talbott Campus will help arrange travel, there are always other plans and details you can help with. For example, you can do the following:

  • Go over lists of approved/suggested items and help your friend pack
  • Offer to drive your friend to the airport or all the way to treatment if it’s relatively close
  • Offer to take in a cat or dog for a few weeks
  • Plan on stopping by the house or apartment to water plants, pick up mail and make sure everything’s okay

Most importantly, you can simply be present so your friend can talk about or even just have company through the roller coaster of emotions that accompanies this transitional period between alcoholism and recovery. You can help calm fears and anxieties so your friend can stay motivated and positive about this new and exciting step in life.

How to Be a Good Friend During Rehab

Don’t just ignore your friend once he enters rehab. While recovery is ultimately something your friend has to do for himself, you absolutely can be involved in the process! If his  treatment team thinks it’s a good idea, you can go to friends and family events. You can even participate in a few family therapy sessions so you better understand what your friend is experiencing and how you can be the most helpful.

And don’t wait for this group invitation to get involved in getting better — find some therapy for yourself! It’s always a good idea to check in with a professional and get a little personal guidance. When a friend or family member struggles with alcoholism, it can be even more helpful. Addiction impacts everyone, not just the person who drinks. You may be surprised to learn just how much your friend’s alcoholism has influenced your own thoughts, actions and mental health and happiness. Therapy will help you set boundaries, end any potentially enabling behaviors and better learn the right things to do and say to help your friend and yourself.

How to Be a Good Friend After Rehab

Understand that coming home after rehab is bittersweet. It’s a return to “normal” life and new opportunities, but it’s also a time of incredible stress and uncertainty. Be there for your friend. NIDA explains, “When residential treatment is over, your friend will have to re-enter the community and it will be a difficult time. There will be triggers everywhere that could promote a relapse. You can encourage your friend to avoid these triggers, and you can make an effort to ask him or her what those triggers are. Offer as much love and support you can as long as your friend continues to follow the treatment plan. If your he or she relapses, you should encourage additional treatment.”1

Life after rehab is going to take some readjustment. Don’t expect things to be just like they were before rehab. Do takes steps to be supportive. Make sure your friend is staying connected to her recovery. Offer to drive her to therapy sessions, support group meetings and other aftercare resources and events. Be there for your friend during good and tough times. Invite her to do fun things, but also offer safe alternatives or be understanding if she doesn’t want to participate.

Choose Your Words

Before, during or after rehab, what you say matters. And the words you choose matter too. Don’t label or define your friend by her addiction. NPR explains the importance of recognizing your friend as a person with addiction and not an alcoholic or addict. This isn’t just a grammatical technicality. It matters in conversation. It matters when you speak with your friend, and it matters when you speak about her experiences. This phrasing acknowledges that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing or personality type. It puts the person — your friend! — first, and addiction second.2

But no matter how you phrase it, at every stage of recovery, maybe the best things to say are questions. Ask how you can help. Ask if what you’re saying is okay. Be open and honest. Admit when you don’t know what to do. And absolutely make sure you listen when your friend answers. You can be a good friend. You can be here for the person you love now, later and long into a future of shared happiness and healing.

By Alanna Hilbink

1 “What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2016.
2 Szalavitz, Maia. “Why We Should Say Someone Is a ‘Person with an Addiction,’ Not an Addict.” NPR, June 11, 2017.

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