What does it mean to be a good friend?
To an active substance abuser—the addict or alcoholic.
According to a 2016 Surgeon General’s report, about nine percent of the population met diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder for either alcohol or illicit drugs, or a combination of both. Nine percent of adults in this country translates into tens of millions of people. Of that number, only 10 percent receive any type of treatment.
The tragedy doesn’t end there.
Statista.com found that an average of 38 percent of adults in this country felt that alcohol, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drug abuse was a serious problem in their community. To say that it’s a serious problem in one’s own community indicates that one in three individuals likely knows someone who is struggling with addiction.
And that someone could be a friend of yours.
Some substance abusers are high functioning. Others cannot function at all. There’s a sadness to all of it, though, and its ripple effect reaches friendships.
Over time, usually after several years, a substance abuser’s lies, disrespect and manipulation tactics will take its toll on friendships. Friends may willingly accept this treatment in order to keep the relationship going—hoping that if they’re present enough, empathetic enough, and selfless enough that it will all be enough for the substance abuser to become well again.
All too often, that’s not what happens.
Instead, a new addiction is created. An addiction to the addict’s or alcoholic’s needs. The addiction of trying to fix problems and rescue people.
And before long, the substance abuser and the rescuer become co-sufferers.
Author David Sheff writes in, “Beautiful Boy,”—a journey with his son’s meth addiction—of the hopelessness of giving a consuming attention to another’s substance abuse. What is hard on a friendship must be many times more difficult for a father-son relationship. He quotes writer Ha Jin who once said that for ordinary people, too much suffering can only make us meaner, crazier, pettier and more wretched. Sheff acknowledges that his own addiction of trying to make his son well led him to times when he felt meaner, crazier, pettier and more wretched.
It was only with an eventual and reluctant understanding that his son was the only one who could make himself well again that he could say, “…now I feel fine, at least much of the time.”
We come into this world on our own. We’ll leave it on our own. And while we’re here, we alone are responsible for how we live it.
Sheff says, “I am no longer preoccupied with Nic. This could change, but at the moment I accept and even appreciate that he is living his life his way. Of course, I will always hope that he stays sober.”
Back to the question of, “What does it mean to be a good friend to an active substance abuser?”
Sometimes in seeking an answer to a question, we find that we’re asking the wrong one. In unpacking the question of what it means to be a good friend, we arrive at the real question which is—“What more could I have done?”
The answer is that too much, probably, has already been done.
Practicing loving detachment is difficult. Setting healthy boundaries is hard. Focusing on living one’s own life takes effort.
And it may very well be the best you can do, as a good friend.