I have a friend who is really into drugs and stuff. I want to know a way to function with a guy that is almost unable to function by himself. I still want to be friends with him, but I'm worried he might be in debt to some dangerous people. What should I do?
- 17 year old male
Thank you for caring so much about your friend that you reached out in this way. This is some heavy shit you’re dealing with, and it’s clear you have a big heart. I don’t know if you’re going to like my advice because it’s not going to pull any punches. It’s not sweet, but it’s the kindest thing you can do for your friend—and yourself.
First, so you know that what I’m about to tell you is legit advice coming straight out of the trenches you’re in right now: I’ve spent my entire life dealing with addicts and alcoholics. My childhood was shaped by this disease. While I’ve never struggled with substance abuse myself, I’ve watched five of the people I’m closest to in my life battle this crap out since I was a little girl—several are still in the thick of the mess, stumbling through their days, stealing from those they love to get their fix, over-dosing. My childhood was a constant tap dance with a parent who, at one point, was so addicted they fell into homelessness. I’ve watched these other addicts I’m deeply close to ruin their lives, and the lives of those nearest them. I’ve seen my family be torn apart again and again. In fact, I just wrote a whole book about it. I wish I could go into more specifics, but it wouldn’t be fair to those people to tell their stories. Just know that any drug or alcohol-related hellscape you’ve been in or witnessed, I’ve probably been adjacent to myself. In short: I hear you. I see you. I get this horrible dilemma you’re in: how do you help someone who doesn’t want to help themself?
So here’s the deal: the only person who can dig your friend out of this hole is himself. That sounds cruel and dismissive, but I promise you it’s not. There is nothing you can say or do that can compete with their high. The comic Lenny Bruce said using heroin was like kissing God—can you compete with kissing God? Whatever your friend is into—pharmaceuticals, Jack Daniels, whatever—the only thing that will get them to stop using is coming face to face with the fact that the crap they’re addicted to isn’t filling the hole inside them. And it never will. That hole could be because of self-hatred, depression, anxiety, trauma—any number of things. And you can tell them this until you are blue in the face, but they won’t hear it.
See, your friend is a hungry ghost.
Unless you’re Buddhist, you probably don’t know this term, so I’ll lay it out for you. In Buddhism, a hungry ghost is this mythical demon who ravages the world, trying to fill its constantly hungry belly. It’s an agent of chaos—it will consume ANYTHING. It keeps thinking that the next thing will do the trick, and they’ll be happy. But the next thing never satisfies. So they keep roaming the earth, gorging. They’re freaking miserable. And they’re a great metaphor for addiction. Why? Because the only way a hungry ghost can be full is to stop thinking that anything outside themselves will give them the happiness they crave.
They’re clinging to drugs and alcohol (or sex, money, Netflix—you name it). They think those things will take away their depression and anxiety, take away trauma from bad shit that happened to them. It won’t. They have to realize that happiness comes from being okay with yourself no matter what. This is next level stuff, I know. But it’s the truth. Here’s how I know: I’ve tried to feed hungry ghosts. I’ve failed. With multiple people of different ages and genders.
I know what you’re thinking: Dude, I can’t just SIT here and watch my friend kill them-self or be killed by, like, the cartel.
I hear you.
In practical terms, here is what you CAN do:
First, release all belief or expectation that there is anything you can do to fix them. That’s their job, their ride, not yours. You hanging out with them when they’re high is not helping them. You driving them to hook up with their dealer is not helping them. You lecturing them is not helping them. While you’re at it, release the guilt I bet you’ve got inside you. Addicts are wiley mofos who will play on that guilt like a violin. They know you feel bad for them. They know how shitty it feels to say no to someone you care about. To not throw everything into fixing them. Your guilt doesn’t help you or them, and it’s not necessary. In fact, it enables them. Because they know that however much they screw up, you will be there to pick up the pieces. Which means you’ve taken away some of their motivation to quit.
Next: Get support. Does your friend have an adult in their life who is aware of their addiction and trying to aid them through offering detox, rehab, etc? If not, I would talk to an adult who’s not a dick and who knows and cares about your friend and has a good rapport with them and see if they can intervene. Don’t carry this alone. Also: you’re not a narc. You’re a good friend. Your friend might SAY you are the DEA incarnate, but you’re throwing them a lifesaver here. If they hate you for it, hey, at least they’ll still be alive to drink all that haterade.
Pro tip: Don’t get caught in their riptide of misery, or you’ll become a hungry ghost yourself, thinking YOUR happiness is connected to their wellbeing. You can be their friend without hanging out with them. Without giving them money because they “just need a little bump, bro” or because “these dealers said they’ll cut me if I don’t pay up.” DO NOT GIVE THEM MONEY. It will only keep their addiction going strong.
Side note: if, in fact, your friend is involved with dangerous people, then you REALLY have to keep your distance. I don’t know how dangerous we’re talking about here, but you could easily wind up getting hurt because you’re with your friend when something goes down. Again, if you involve an adult, they will likely have some good resources to lead your friend out of this mess with dealers.
Tell your friend you care about them, but that you’re not sponsoring their habit in any way. Let them know you will drive them to detox or rehab, but nowhere else. Let them know you see they’re hurting and that they’re scared. Tell them you’re here if they need that ride to the clinic, but until then, you’re not gonna hang out with them while they shoot up, or whatever it is they’re doing. My guess is that your friend is using because they are massively depressed, or are experiencing deep anxiety—possibly both. What they need is counseling, and maybe medication. It’s possible they’re suicidal. Give them these numbers, both of which are free, confidential, and 24/7:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health) – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Finally, if your friend is addicted to opiates you, he, and those closest to him all need to be carrying Naloxone (brand name Narcan), which is the only drug that can stop an overdose. It saves lives every single day—the surgeon general recently issued a warning that more Americans need to be packing this stuff, that’s how bad opiate addiction is these days.
You can find out how to get it by clicking here.
You don’t always need a prescription for it—it depends on your state. Many states have local public health and community groups that offer it free of charge. Sometimes you can just get it at your local pharmacy, no questions asked. You can find more info by clicking here.
I’m rooting for you, and your friend. Just remember: no matter how all of this goes down, none of this is your fault. There is nothing you can “do” to fix them. You’re a great friend—gold star.
- Heather Demetrios
About The Author: Heather Demetrios is a critically acclaimed author and writing coach. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her novels include I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, and Exquisite Captive. She is the author of Codename Badass, an upcoming feminist pop biography about WWII spy, Virginia Hall, and the editor of the anthology, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love. Her next novel, Little Universes, is forthcoming. Her honors include books that have been named Bank Street Best Children’s Books, YALSA Best Fiction For Young Adults selections, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Kirkus Best Book, and a Barnes and Noble Best Book. Find out more about Heather and her books at her website: heatherdemetrios.com.
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A final note: We are strong believers in the power of therapy. We know that this isn't a realistic option for every teenager, since some of you might not have the parental support or extra income necessary to make this happen. But, if possible, please consider therapy. Many of the adults you respect most have benefited from therapy, and it's likely that you will too. There's no shame in getting support. You deserve it.