Your Friend is Addicted to Drugs. Are You Enabling Their Behavior?

If your friend is addicted to drugs—whether it’s opioid pills like Oxycontin or recreational drugs like weed or crack—you may feel obligated to help. Whether or not your friend asks you for help, you may feel like you need to stop their dangerous cycle and get them back on track.

First, we’ll be straight up with you: it’s not your job to make them better.

What do we mean?

The best way to help an addicted friend is to do one thing: Tell an authority figure what’s going on so that your friend can get professional help.

Bring a Responsible Adult into the Situation

The authority figure can be any trusted adult: your school counselor, teacher, mentor, parents, or even your friend’s parents if you feel that they will take the situation seriously. By placing the matter into an adult’s hands, you are giving your friend all the professional resources they need to get sober.

But aren’t we supposed to be there for our friends? Isn’t it a good thing to help them?

Not in this case, when the stakes are so high. If you take your friend’s recovery into your own hands, you run the risk of becoming codependent. Codependency occurs when two people become enmeshed in the other’s dysfunction. For example, you can attempt to change the direction of your addicted peer’s behavior while enjoying the feeling of being needed. Even if you don’t realize it. Meanwhile, your addicted friend can enjoy the feeling of being cared for (even if he doesn’t realize it). He can feel secure knowing that he has such an understanding, compassionate and helpful friend.

Don’t Enable Your Friend’s Addiction

In the meantime, you may engage in actions that end up enabling your friend’s addiction, rather than stopping it. For example, let’s say you find out one night that your friend is too high or drunk to get home safely. You may end up figuring out a way to get him home, or to your house, if you know his parents will get mad at him. This can evolve into a consistent routine. Each time, you tell yourself you’re doing this because you care about him, when really it the right thing to do would be to bring in a trusted adult into the situation. (Of course, never let your friend drive under the influence.)

Yes, your friend may have to face the consequences when an adult is involved. But that’s the natural course of action for teens who experiment with drugs or alcohol. You shouldn’t be their knight in shining armor that saves the day each time—because then they’ll start counting on you to save them. And they feel comfortable knowing you’ll do it each time. Because they know you’ll never abandon them. So they’ll keep drinking or taking drugs.

Or, your friend may consistently ask you to lend them money. At first, you may be glad to help. Until you realize they are using the cash for drugs. You tell them you’re not going to fund their addiction anymore, and you don’t. Until one day, they call desperately and beg to borrow just $10. They are in so much pain, they say, they’re crying and moaning, and they feel like they’re going to die. Please, please please, can they borrow just $10?? They’ll never ask you again. They make up an excuse how this is really the last time, they’re going to stop using, they’re gonna get sober. So you sigh and give them the money and make them promise they’re never gonna touch drugs again.

But the cycle continues.

Codependent Caretaking

“In codependency, we do harm to the other person – even if we and they don’t realize it — and risk sacrificing our own lives in the process,” says Darlene Lancer, LMFT, a California-based codependency expert and the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency.  “Codependent caretaking can become so habitual that it enables and disables the recipient so that he or she doesn’t take responsibility for his or her behavior and needs. It treats the struggling person like a child who doesn’t have to grow up.”

Ultimately, you may even start feeling resentful at everything you’re doing, while still feeling like you can’t stop. What may have started as kindness eventually evolves into extreme dislike.

Addiction Requires Professional Help

So, we’ll reiterate what we said earlier when we first opened up the article:

The best and only thing you can do for your friend is to get them professional help. Encourage their parents to send them to a drug rehab treatment center for teens. Many teen addicts also struggle with depression, anxiety, self-harming tendencies, and suicidal thoughts. If that’s the case for your friend, they’ll need a dual-diagnosis treatment center.

There are various kinds of treatment centers. A residential teen treatment center offers 24/7 full-time care, for adolescents who can’t live at home safely. A partial hospitalization program is a full-day program, five days a week. It’s ideal for teens who struggle with substance abuse so much that they can’t go to school— but they still manage to live at home. And an intensive outpatient program, which is a lower level of care, treats teens who go to school and live at home. It’s a half-day program, several days a week.

At the same time, you—the addict’s friend—may need some professional help too. Codependency is a two-way street. If you struggle with boundaries between you and your friend, or if you see yourself in the examples of enabling situations above, you need to visit a mental health professional. He or she will help you work through certain issues that caused you to get into this codependent relationship in the first place. The therapist will help teach you how to set up appropriate boundaries, say no, be assertive, and practice self-care.