I am in awe of parents and others who have been personally touched by this issue and use that experience to connect with other families struggling, holding their hand through ups and downs of this epic journey. Sometimes, though, that massive action takes place in small moments shared between friends — particularly in reaching out to a friend whose son or daughter may be struggling with substance use.
You don’t have to be specially trained or be affected by this issue personally to support a friend in need. You don’t have to know exactly what to say. You only have to be willing to be there. When I was in the grips of active heroin addiction, I wish people who knew would have reached out to my family. It would have meant the world to them. They wouldn’t have felt so alone. If you know a family touched by active addiction, reach out and offer them the support you would for any family with a chronic medical condition.
Sometimes we don’t reach out because it isn’t easy. It’s normal to not want to bother someone. It’s normal to be afraid you might say the wrong thing, or to feel uncomfortable being present when someone else is struggling. However you feel, checking in with your friend can change the stigma and isolation associated with addiction. Just saying, “I am so sorry you are struggling. I don’t have any real answers, but I want to support and listen to you. Is there anything I can do? Do you want to grab a cup of coffee?” will change lives. I truly believe that. Whether your friend takes you up on the offer or not, they now know they have someone they can speak to when they are ready. They know they are not alone, and you can feel secure in the knowledge that you’re making a difference in someone’s life simply by extending that offer.
If you are feeling uncomfortable about reaching out, take a look at a few suggestions below.
Imagine the feelings your friend is experiencing
Before you reach out, put yourself in your friend’s shoes. They are likely living in some chaos and uncertainty, terrified for the well-being of their child. But the world continues to churn on, with other parents discussing their child’s school plans, career goals or new partners. Your friend may be feeling depressed, hopeless, angry, confused or any combination of emotions. Families often isolate themselves because of the stigma associated with substance use, so your friend will most likely not reach out for your help. Imagining their feelings will help motivate you to take action when your impulse may be to convince yourself there is no need for a quick conversation with a friend.
Review your own thoughts about addiction and your friend’s situation
Addiction often carries significant stigma because of the societal complexities underlying the reasons people use substances, despite the consequences. Addiction is not a moral failing. Addiction is not a criminal justice issue. Know that many of the people and professionals your friend might have turned to for direction and support are ill-equipped about treating substance use, so parents can often find themselves at a loss with contradictory advice. Addiction is a disease, and it should be treated as one. Recovery from any disease requires love and support.
Even with that, you might have mixed feelings about your friend’s situation and even put some blame on their parenting techniques. Your friend probably has these same feelings about their own parenting and how they could have done things differently. This is the last place you want to go in a conversation. Nobody has the answers to these types of archaeological digs into the past of what could have been. Be prepared how to react if your friend discusses their feelings of guilt or what they could have done differently, because such thoughts can be debilitating. Focus on the present. Focus on love. How can your friend care for themselves and their child? Recovery is about the now.
You don’t need to know all the facts about addiction before you reach out
Whether you know the research on the genetic predispositions to addiction or intervention techniques or not makes little difference in your ability to help a friend. It is not to say you shouldn’t educate yourself. Look into your friend’s unique situation, do some basic research, but we recommend avoiding being the expert. It shuts people down. As long as you are willing to listen and to support your friend, you are doing what an expert would do. You are doing what your friend needs.
Bring whatever version of a "casserole" you want
It can be nice to have a little something for someone. It can be a card when saying the words out loud is hard. It can be some comfort food, tickets to a play or concert, whatever. It can be you giving your friend a hug. A “casserole” means you are offering comfort when times are tough. Sometimes this is a nice ice breaker.
There is no “right” way to have a conversation
It doesn’t matter if the conversation starts then turns into binge watching TV shows and laughing. The goal is that your friend knows you support him or her and you are there for them in this journey.
There are no easy answers – listen, reflect and be supportive
We all want to give the right answer. We all want to help our friends. The problem is we can’t solve addiction with a simple solution. Your goal is to be there for your friend as a friend, not a guru. Active listening techniques such as reflecting what they are saying back to them is very powerful because it shows you are hearing them – something most people have not done. Even if they ask for help, it’s okay to say “I don’t know but I will do some research.” That doesn’t mean if there is a glaring opportunity (e.g. “my friend owns a treatment center and your child can go for free”) or falsehood about addiction (“he has to hit ‘rock bottom’ before I can do anything”) that you need to be silent.
You are there beyond today
Simply knowing you are there for a friend will be a huge relief. Knowing someone is non-judgmental. Knowing someone can laugh with them, be silly and just allow them to be vulnerable is a wonderful gift. Being there over time, helping with the little things that may be overlooked like dishes piled up in the sink, writing an email to get together for birthdays or special events, being a parent who speaks out against the stigma of addiction changes lives.
If nothing else, do it for selfish reasons
Helping a friend will help you, too. It will give you a sense of efficacy and community. It will help you realize how much of a difference you can make in the world through being proactive and caring. There have been several times in my life when I have not reached out to a friend because of my own anxiety and fear. I regret every one of them. However, every time I have reached out, even when it didn’t go as planned or hoped, I am proud of my efforts.
Your efforts to reach out to a friend can end the stigma and isolation that so many families feel which, in turn, can empower us all to overcome addiction.