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7 ways to help a friend who might have a drug addiction

by Jen Simon / / Source: TODAY

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According to jokes, memes, Facebook pages — even dish towels, moms are known for their love of yoga pants, coffee and wine. But how do you know if a friend’s use of wine or Xanax or Vicodin transcends a want and becomes a need? How can you tell when your friend is struggling with addiction?

And, if you think she has a problem, how can you help her?

I know how my friends could have helped me. Why? Because I’m a recovering addict. No one knew about my addiction. As a stay-at-home mom, I took care of my kids, made dinner, went to play dates — all the things that normal moms do. But normal moms don’t secretly visit multiple doctors’ offices in order to obtain prescriptions for opioids (like Vicodin) and benzodiazepines (like Xanax). Normal moms don’t need to take pills every day just to get out of bed.

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Although high-functioning addicts believe they are masters at hiding their problems, the truth is that they often display many clues. Rebecca Shaw, a New York City-based psychotherapist, said that signs of addiction include being depressed, irritable and anxious. There are other behavioral clues, too: Typically, addicts become more isolated and withdrawn. They lose interest in usual activities. You also may become suspicious of her behavior if she suddenly starts needing cash, lies about where she’s been or begins behaving erratically. Be concerned if she has mood swings and seems anxious or jittery. And, especially if she slurs her speech or seems very tired.

If you suspect a friend has a substance abuse problem, here are some ways to help.

1. Approach from a place of compassion.

“Never judge or accuse," explained Carol Weiss, an addiction psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. "Show compassion and respect. Don't say, 'How can you do this to your family? You are hurting so many people.'"

If your friend feels you are judging her, she may shut down, deny that she has a problem, or offer justifications for her substance usage. Shaw recommended meeting in a safe and neutral place to talk. Start the conversation by what your friend might care about most in life, like their family, children or career. Remember, no one sets out to become an addict.

2. Do not support the addiction.

I don’t want my friends and family to feel complicit in my addiction, but I obtained many of my pills by simply asking for their leftovers; most people had extra painkillers from surgeries, dental problems or another injury, and were willing to hand them over. If a friend asks you for pills, don't give them to her. And if you think your friend might be dealing with an alcohol addiction, try to avoid inviting her to events that involve or are focused around drinking, like happy hour.

3. Urge her to tell her doctor and spouse.

My addiction began because I wasn’t properly treating my postpartum depression and anxiety. Weiss says she has seen many patients who “absolutely” self-medicate to combat mental illness.

Your friend needs to see a doctor who can help her find the right treatment and medication for her problems. And if her spouse doesn’t know, he or she can’t help. Telling my husband that I was abusing prescription pills was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was also one of the best. He helped me with logistics like finding a detox facility and babysitters. Having his help was enormous. Your friend may, understandably, be afraid of telling her spouse, but in the long run this will strengthen their relationship.

4. Help her manage withdrawal.

Withdrawal is an incredibly painful process both mentally and physically. Anything, no matter how small you may think it is, is helpful. Bring a meal for her family. Watch her kids for a couple hours. Pick her up some essentials at Target. Just letting her know you care about her and her family is important.

5. Encourage her.

I didn’t feel brave or strong. I felt stupid and guilty. If you remind her that she’s doing something to help herself and her family, it may just give her the courage she needs to stay on the right path.

6. Compile a list of resources.

Trying to decide how to seek help is nearly as overwhelming as seeking help itself.

“Deciding to seek treatment can feel very daunting for someone who has always depended on the consistency and availability of their drug of choice," Shaw explained. Weiss agreed, and urged that you tell your friend that treatment works and there are many different ways to get help. You could provide any of the following links to a friend: National Institute of Drug Abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous, Drugs and The Brain Wallet Card, Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment and there's more out there, even local services that could offer the most immediate help, especially when it comes to rehabilitation or detoxing.

7. Encourage her to attend rehabilitation, therapy, counseling or 12-step meetings.

As a friend, your help is extremely valuable, but therapists and counselors who are trained to combat addiction will be able to offer the best guidance and support. Remind her that finding the right 12-step meeting or therapist is like dating — the first one may not be the best fit, but it’s essential to keep trying until you feel comfortable.

If you think your friend or relative has a problem, the most important thing is to say something. “Let them know it's often easier for loved ones to see there's something wrong, than it is for the person with the problem,” Weiss suggested. They might not appreciate it at the time, but it could be just the wake-up call they need to get on the path to success.

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