Is always being there to hold their hair back helping or harming them?
Most of us have a friend who can’t handle their drink. Most of us also have a ‘messy night out’ once in a while – it’s not advisable, but it happens. With this friend, though? Every night out has the potential to end in disaster.
“When Fiona and I were in college, we both had some bad experiences with drinking. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but while I’ve copped on, she’s never seemed to,” says Michaela. “We’re well out of our college years now but she’s still drinking like a student. With her, there’s no such thing as going out for a quiet pint – she’ll always end up screaming at people, falling over, and almost getting into scraps.”
The part that hurts the most is that this friend is otherwise an amazing person, and can be so much FUN. They’re the life of the party – flirting with bouncers, plying you with Baby Guinnesses, dragging you to the dancefloor when your favourite song comes on. But somewhere between midnight and 3am, it’s like the spell breaks, and the carriage turns into a pumpkin. Your ‘fun friend’ is suddenly aggressive, weeping, or unbelievably stubborn (or sometimes, all three). She’s hell bent on finding trouble, whether it’s by wandering off with dodgy types or squaring up to imagined enemies. Getting her into a taxi and home is a feat of physical and emotional strength.
When you wake up in the morning, the events of a few hours earlier are either joked about or not mentioned at all, washed down with a Chinese takeaway and cans of Coke. Then on the next night out, the cycle begins all over again. When does this become an issue? It’s hard to say for sure, but for Michaela, it was when the drama started to outweigh and overshadow the craic.
“I love her, but we’re older now. I’m tired of everyone having to mind her and make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid,” she laments. “She’s constantly stepping over the line, but I don’t know if she’ll be able to change.”
Would your friend’s habits technically be considered ‘problem drinking’? Let’s take a look at the facts about alcohol consumption. The HSE defines binge drinking as an occasion in which six or more standard drinks (such as a pub measure of spirits, a small glass of wine, or a half pint of beer) are consumed.
To reduce the risk of alcohol-related problems, women should have no more than 11 standard drinks spread out over the course of a week. “Irish people do not recognise, or choose not to recognise, that consuming six or more standard drinks in one sitting is away and beyond a low risk approach,” says Eunan McKinney of Alcohol Action Ireland, an organisation working to reduce levels of alcohol harm.
“Anyone who regularly binge drinks will hold a harmful relationship with alcohol, and anyone who engages in frequent heavy episodic drinking will have a problem.”
It’s a tough situation to find yourself in – it can feel a bit much to stage a full-on intervention for a friend who is a ‘messy drunk’, especially given the drinking culture in Ireland. Binge-drinking is unfortunately the norm here, and by the HSE’s criteria, many of us have a ‘harmful relationship’ with alcohol. Who are you to say if someone has a problem with drink if you enjoy a night out as much as the rest of them? But if your friend’s behaviour is upsetting you or others, or frequently leaving them in harm’s way, you can and should speak up – and the earlier the better.
Life coach Paula Coogan says that rather than thinking of it as an ‘intervention’ (which is often a planned approach involving a number of people and a qualified professional), broach it simply from “a place of love and concern”.
Ask yourself, is this a recent issue? Could there be anything going on in their lives that’s making them behave this way? Or is it a more long-term problem that’s finally come to a head? You’ll want to explain to your friend how their behaviour makes you feel, rather than listing the ways in which they’ve messed up – so use “I think/I feel” statements, rather than “You did/You do/You are”.
“The last thing you want the person to do is to feel ashamed of themselves because research has shown that feelings of shame cause the person to want to numb out, rather than ask for help,” Paula says. Don’t try to bring this up on a night out, no matter how annoyed you might be at the time. Instead, save this important conversation for a quieter place, where there will be more privacy and fewer interruptions. Yes, your friend will likely have the Fear of God when you chat to them, but sometimes it just has to be done.
If you’re looking for a basic script, Paula suggests saying something like:
“I love you, we’ve been friends forever and you’re really important to me. I’m concerned about how much you’re drinking/how alcohol is affecting your behaviour, and I want to know what’s going on.”
Let them know that you care, and that you’re available if they want to talk. “An open conversation that isn’t blaming or shaming can be an incredible eye opener,” she adds. “Some people just can’t drink wine – or spirits, or beer – without it having a negative impact on their behaviour. But it is up to the individual to pay attention to when they start to lose control and learn their limits. It’s not acceptable for them to nominate someone else to tell them when to stop.”
Hopefully, by shining a light on their behaviour and offering some support, your friend will realise that it’s time to address their issues with alcohol. But it’s equally possible that they won’t. As Paula tells us, some people do actually want to get really drunk.
“They have their own reasons of perhaps wanting to numb their emotions, drown out their stress, or often, believing that they’re not fun enough unless they have a few drinks,” she points out.
At this point, you have to be careful not to enable them to continue on this path, and draw some boundaries for yourself. “If they just continue to repeat that behaviour to the point where they are unable to care for or be responsible for themselves, then you need to think about your own boundaries and limitations,” Paula advises.
“Always being there to hold their hair, get them home safely, breaking up fights or minding them is in a way enabling them to keep doing the same thing. This will generally just lead to resentment and frustration on your part, and really destructive habits on theirs.”
Again, it’s no easy position to be in as a friend. But with a bit of love and understanding (and maybe a couple of activities with no booze involved) it’s possible to get back on track. Paula herself remembers a time when, just after the death of her mother and the end of a long-term relationship, she found herself drinking more and putting herself into dangerous situations.
“My friends voiced their concern for me, saying that it wasn’t like me and they were worried. They knew what was going on under the surface, so they offered support in a different way – meals out, fun activities, tea and chats instead of the go-to night out with drinks. For me, that was enough to start taking responsibility for myself again.”
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