Addiction can happen to anyone. Photo: WIN-Initiative/Neleman, Getty
Many people say that they have beautiful experiences while high on drugs. Sometimes the substances allow them to connect with others, other times with themselves. There are even guided psychedelic retreats and MDMA-assisted therapy sessions. But getting high can also come with extreme lows.Drug use has been known to compromise people's physical and mental health and destroy relationships with family and romantic partners. People also lie, steal, or spend money they don’t have to chase the temporary feelings of relief and euphoria they get from using drugs.
It’s not always easy to say when someone’s drug use crosses the line to dependence or even addiction, and it can be even more difficult for someone to admit that for themselves. But it’s important to remember that it can happen. Drug use can become problematic.“Problematic drug use can look different for everyone,” Melissa Watkins, an alcohol and drugs psychotherapist, told VICE. “You do not have to use every day to have a problem. I see a lot of clients who, although they do not use every day, cannot socialize, be confident, or alert without using.” According to Chad Taylor, a psychotherapist who specializes in addiction, there are many tell-tale signs that someone could have an addiction. There are behavioral changes, like constantly missing work, being sick all the time, or avoiding social situations. There are also physical changes, like rapid weight gain or loss, bloodshot eyes, or an overall sense of unhealthiness. Watkins added that problematic drug use can also be signaled by people isolating themselves or choosing times to hang out where it’s easy to use, having a messy living space, being unreliable and exhibiting erratic behavior, and having odd sleeping patterns and mood swings. Thinking a friend is misusing drugs is one thing. But how do you even begin talking to them about it?
You might think there’s a problem before your friend does, or they might be waiting for an opportunity to talk about it. In any case, Watkins said it’s best to be honest with a friend as soon as you think there’s a problem. “This conversation is not only for your friend, but it is also for yourself. There may come a time when you must set boundaries, so creating awareness earlier on allows the opportunity for an honest and difficult conversation.”
Open the conversation as soon as you can
But make sure to pick the right time and place to talk. According to Taylor, the best time to approach someone is when they’re feeling particularly vulnerable. Wanting and needing help ups the chances of being open to receiving it. Arrange a time for you to meet in a place that’s private and feels safe, and go from there.
Both Watkins and Taylor recommended learning about drug dependence or addiction through books, videos, or podcasts. This will help you understand what your friend might be going through before you talk to them about it.Later on, you can also recommend the same things to them so they can better understand what they’re going through, too. Watkins said they might not take it up right away, but they might also remember it and look it up after.
Have a basic understanding of dependence or addiction
Of course, actually talking to a friend about their drug use can be tricky. There’s no guarantee the friend will take it well, and bringing it up might cause problems in your relationship, too. That’s why it’s important to check your intentions and make sure you’re communicating from a place of love. “When speaking to somebody about a possible addiction problem, it is key to come with them with compassion and love rather than anger and judgment. We should carry the mindset that they are suffering from a disease or an illness that willpower cannot control,” said Taylor.
Speak with compassion, not judgment
To show that you’re coming from a good place, Watkins advised starting the conversation by reminding your friend that you care for them and of how important they are in your life. After all, you wouldn’t be checking in otherwise. You can then say things like “Is everything OK? You haven’t seemed like yourself lately,” or “I’ve noticed you’re going out a lot. How are you feeling?” or “I was just wondering if there’s anything you want to talk about.”
Remember that your friend might not even think they have a problem, so your bringing it up might be surprising. That means you shouldn’t go in wanting to fix a problem or expecting things to change right away. Focus on finding out if there’s even a problem at all. Telling a friend to “just stop” or that they “should be able to control it” probably won’t help. Addiction changes brain function, so your friend’s behavior may not be completely under their control (if they are indeed addicted to drugs). “Your attitude needs to be calm and non-judgmental,” said Watkins. “Don't go into the conversation with a solution-focused mindset thinking that this will solve the problem… Depending on where your friend is at, this may [become] an ongoing conversation.”
Don’t expect to fix things right away
If your friend reacts well and is open to having the conversation with you, Taylor said the best way to support them is to just listen and not judge. “I would then, with their approval, start looking for places and individuals to get them some help,” said Taylor.If your friend does not react well, Taylor said they are likely still stuck in their dependence or addiction. There isn’t much anyone can do for people who don’t want to change themselves. But “you can always leave it open for them that you know something is going on for them and you’ll be there ready to chat when they are,” Taylor said.
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst
After having that first conversation, Watkins advised choosing to hang out with your friend only in places where they would find it difficult to use. That way, you’re at least not enabling their use in any way.But even the closest friend can only do so much. Your friend has to want to change. “As a friend, you are creating awareness for the problem in a supportive way. But it’s up to the individual to make the change, and this can take time,” said Watkins.If you’re struggling with addiction, you can visit the official website of SAMHSA’s National Helpline for treatment information.Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.