Beulah Devaney | Contributing Writer | Friday, 17 July 2015

How To Support An Alcoholic Friend

How Not To Be A Dick When Your Friend's A Recovering Alcoholic

The Debrief: Young female alcoholics tend to go unsupported, so how do you help a friend who's dealing with a drink problem?

With the recent publication of journalist Sarah Hepola’s new memoir, Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget, it seems like alcoholism in young women is finally getting some attention.

I say ‘finally’ because you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a fairly recent phenomenon. The media has shown a great deal of interest in other kinds of female alcoholism – in the 43% of mothers who worry that they’re drinking too much, the growing number of women over 60 who are being treated for alcohol addiction and the 80% of  women who drink throughout pregnancy.

But their interest has tended to bypass the teens and twenties most of us binge-drink our way through. As young women we are taught how to explain away our dependence on alcohol. It’s not ‘addiction’, it’s ‘sociable’; it’s not ‘dangerous’, it’s ‘rebellious’.

My friends and I are coming out of our twenties and an increasing number of us are starting to realise that what used to be a social prop is turning into a toxic relationship with alcohol. So what now and why are young alcoholics, still, so invisible?

In The Guardian article, Female alcoholics need help, not vilification, Amy Mason points out the myriad of ways female alcoholics go unnoticed and unsupported. From biased advice that assumes women care more about their appearance than their health, through to the male-dominated nature of most AA meetings, the tendency for women to drink alone, and the misconception that men are more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases.

I spoke to Annette Barlow, founder of TGA Magazine, and Yosh Kosminsky, an equipment manager in the film and TV industry, about the support they received when they gave up alcohol. Yosh says: ‘Friends and family supported me where they could, but mostly I was on my own. I was in a mess and my relationship broke up a few months later. I did it without support from AA or doctors.’

Annette had a similar experience: ‘No doctors were involved, friends and family were largely great, but mostly I kept myself to myself.’

Recent years have seen a boom in WoW (Women on the Wagon) events, with alcohol-free evenings from Club Soda and Soberistas. These events are designed to help women feel that giving up alcohol doesn’t mean giving up a social life, and they’ve naturally evolved out of the dearth of support for women struggling with alcohol addiction.

All of which emphasises the fact that friends are often a young alcoholic’s primary support network. With this in mind, here are some basic guidelines for hanging out with a newly sober friend:

Don’t get hung up on the idea that you’re losing your party friend

Annette talks about friends saying, ‘I miss drunk Annette!’ and ‘Boo, you’re not drinking again?’

She explains that this is the reason she didn’t open up to many of her friends. ‘People have an idea of you that they like, and tarnishing that idea with something as messy and flawed as addiction can be disarming for people. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they undermine it.’

There’s a natural, human tendency to mourn the loss of your favourite drinking buddy, but keep it to yourself because guilting a mate out of making a life-changing, potentially life-saving, decision so you can keep having fun is spectacularly shitty. 

Do find ways to socialise without alcohol

It can be difficult to know whether you should drink around someone who is newly sober, so err on the side of caution and hold off until your friend makes it clear what she’s comfortable with. You don’t have to stop drinking completely and this doesn’t have to be a really ostentatious thing where you’re bustling around a pub reminding everyone not to drink and throwing pitying glances at your mate.

But picnics, the cinema, exercise, baking, photography, museum nights, even just sitting in front of the TV and chatting for a few hours? These are all things that can be done sober, without guilting your mate into thinking she’s killed everyone’s buzz. 

Don’t freak out that she’s going to need some new friends

Not all her friends are going to be as great as you, and your mate is going to need some new, sober friends who understand what she’s going through. Both Yosh and Annette had to ditch a few friends after they stopped drinking, either because those friends were deliberately antagonistic or just didn’t understand what was going on.

Yosh now has exclusively sober friends and Annette describes the desire to find people going through a similar experience: ‘I wanted to find my people so badly – a group of sober queers who were super fun and active, and totally non-judgemental.’ 

Do be aware of her triggers

Research shows that LGBT people, various ethnic minorities, and people with depression, all experience a higher rate of addiction than the general population. Alcohol dependence is also often triggered by external factors, such as homelessness, death of a loved one, ill-health, and stress at work. It’s very likely that there will be more than one factor contributing to your friend’s addiction and by being aware of them, you can offer support when it’s most needed. 

Don’t monitor her alcohol intake

It can be tempting to want to check in every time you see her, but your friend has not given up alcohol to please you, or if she has, she’s not going to be sober for long. This needs to be something she does for herself and you’re not going to be able to guilt her into staying on the wagon.

Most alcoholics relapse at some point, most alcoholics have low self-esteem, and most alcoholics watch their entire social circle disappear as soon as they stop drinking, so the chance is that she will have another drink and she needs you to be there for her.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

Should Girl On The Train Really Be Set In The US Instead Of The UK?

Ask An Adult: What’s The Science Behind A Comedown?

This Is The Scientific Reason You Binge On Food After Drinking

Follow Beulah on Twitter @TheNotoriousBMD

Photograph by Ada Hamza

Tags: Friends