As festivals get the green light and clubs plan their July 19th reopening, many of us are scheduling big reunions with mates or blowout parties to mark the return of freedom. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re emerging different people from lockdown – particularly when it comes to our relationship with booze and drugs.
For some, the pandemic offered a moment to re-evaluate their relationship with substances, and an opportunity to reduce their intake away from the social pressure that often makes this sort of thing tricky. Others simply continued – or even increased – their drinking and drug consumption over lockdown.
Isolation has affected all of us differently, says Andy Ryan, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). “We’ve certainly seen a bit of polarity when it comes to people’s relationships with substances,” he says.
According to research from late 2020 by Adfam, a charity that supports friends and family of people who suffer with addiction, 88 percent of respondents said the lockdown is negatively impacting on their family member’s alcohol, drug or gambling problem. The Action on Addiction charity says it saw an 86 percent rise in the number of people seeking help this January compared with last year.
We all have that one mate who’s always the messiest at the sesh, but how do you know when their drug use or drinking has crossed the line into something more worrying? We asked some experts what you can do if you have a friend or family member who consistently takes it too far.
Don’t jump to conclusions
The last thing we need is for everyone to get label-happy and start diagnosing each other as addicts, says Ryan, “but equally it is important to learn to spot the signs of dependency, too”.
According to Ryan and Lauren White, an addictions counsellor and mentor, there are a few important questions you should ask yourself before leaping to any conclusions. “Are they drinking or using more than normal? Is the first and most obvious,” says White, who, along with Ryan, is a recovered addict herself. “Have you noticed any change in their behaviour? Are they more angry and agitated? Do they lack motivation and are they becoming more isolated and not wanting to do anything other than drinking or using? Or are they being especially secretive about it?”
Ryan says there are other, more obvious signs, too. “Are they planning their social life around drinking or using, or on it when no one else is?” he asks. “Are they blacking out frequently, or missing work and social engagements?” If the answer to any or all of these is “yes,” then it might be time to talk to them.
Approach with compassion
“When you look at the recipe we’ve faced since the start of the pandemic,” Ryan says, “bereavement, job loss, living in isolation to greater or lesser degrees, the interruption of social connections, and ruptured or disrupted relationships, it’s hardly surprising that many have lent on substances.” He advises leading with compassion; though your experience of lockdown may have been different, everyone is just doing the best they can with what they can. “The reality is [addiction] can happen to anyone.”
Get clued up
“There are so many resources available,” says Ryan. He advises getting in touch with your GP to ask for advice, or your local council, who will know more about what resources are available in your area. He also points to charities like Adfam, which are full of information or local meetings for addicts. Elsewhere, the government’s anonymous anti-drug advice service, FRANK, has a whole section dedicated to friends and family. White advises reading about the experiences of recovered addicts in books like Russell Brand’s Mentors or Who Says I’m an Addict? by David Smallwood.
Pick your moment
According to FRANK, “there’s no right or wrong way to talk about drugs, but there are some general guidelines you can follow to make things easier”. These include chatting when you’re both sober, allowing a lot of time for the conversation, picking a familiar or private place in case things become emotional, and understanding that “you may need to have several conversations”. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on someone’s life – Ryan says that a message “coming from your own social network can be particularly powerful”.
Be curious, not critical
Ryan notes that although we’ve made massive strides in recent years to destigmatise mental illness, addiction is still a huge source of shame for people. “It’s almost like as a society we’re missing the language to describe addiction in an open and non-judgemental way,” he says.
White agrees: “Good things to say are: ‘I am here for you’ or ‘is there anything you’d like to talk about?’”
Many people tend to respond to criticism by shutting down, which is the last thing you want to happen in this situation. “What we’re trying to achieve is introducing information without rupturing the relationship,” Ryan explains.
He advises approaching with curiosity and without judgement. “So rather than saying ‘you keep doing this,’ or even ‘you’re taking it too far,’ try asking, ‘Night after night tends to happen this way, why do you think that is?’ If you can hold that curiosity open, then hopefully they can meet you in that space.”
Be prepared to be pushed away
Regardless of whether or not you’re trying to help your mate, accept that they may not be ready to hear what you have to say. “Unfortunately, you can’t help someone unless they want to help themselves,” says White.
The process can take a long time – in the meantime, “keep planting that seed and showing them that when they need you, you are there,” she adds. She also advises keeping an eye on them as much as you can, but recognising that you are not responsible for them: Your role is to support them, not to save them.
It may sound like a cliché, but going through addiction with someone close to you can be a rough ride – so make sure you don’t lose sight of the need to support yourself, too, and step back if you need to.
If you are worried about addiction problems, you or your friend can call FRANK anytime on 0300 123 6600 for confidential advice.