Helping a Friend Who is Struggling With Their Health

My freshman year of college was tough. Not because of R.O.T.C. or because of the amount of reading and assignments I had to do for the classes I was taking. It was because I was helping a friend who was in the process of getting help for her alcoholism.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, that’s so noble of you and what a great friend you are!” And technically speaking, it’s true! I was that good friend who helped her through recovery.

But as much of a compliment as it is, it drained me out emotionally, mentally and physically. Why? Because I fell into the lie that I had to always focus on her. At the time, I was a yes-person who would take on more than I could handle and it was hurting me.

Fortunately, she did recover from alcoholism through a program she attended regularly and became healthy. I haven’t spoken to her since my junior year of college so I can’t testify to how she’s doing now, but I have learned a lot from being her secondary caretaker.

1. Take care of yourself.

No matter what your friend is struggling with, you may get emotionally, mentally and physically drained. The severity of it can depend on the specific illness they have, but nevertheless, it’s going to have an effect on you.

In my experience, counseling and therapy has helped to keep myself in check because the school counselor was unbiased and was able to give me guidance and direction through this whole ordeal.

For you, it may be to separate yourself from your friend for a specific amount of time, to invest in other friendships or to pursue a new hobby. Whatever works for you, do it consistently.

2. You don’t need to be at their beck-and-call.

Your friend may call or text you constantly every time they need help, because depending on how long it’s been, they may have formed a sort of dependence on you. But that doesn’t mean you need to answer them or drop everything to be with them.

There were times when I couldn’t physically be there for my friend, especially when she drunk-texted or drunk-dialed me. At the time I felt guilty about it, because I was sleeping in the comfort of my home while she’s wandering outside. But that’s okay.

While your friend may retaliate or give you backlash for it, do not feel guilty over it. It’s not selfish and you have no obligation to be there for them every minute of the day. Instead, only aim to drop everything to be with them if they’re in danger of hurting themselves or others.

3. You can still help and support them from afar.

Just because you can’t be there for them 24/7 or to fulfill every need that they have, doesn’t mean you can’t help them. Because it’s important to have a healthy distance, you need to know that you can still be there for them without physically being available all the time.

For me, I had no choice but to check in every now and then through phone calls and texts, when we weren’t together for R.O.T.C.. When she went out to a bar with her friends, the most loving thing I could do was to make sure she got home safely, with help from those who were physically there with her.

If your friend is under the care of a doctor, a therapist or a drug/alcohol recovery program, do not feel obligated to check in on them more than once or twice a day. Trust that their primary caretaker is doing all that they can with their medical expertise.

4. Refer them to a health professional.

If your friend isn’t already under the care of a health professional, help them research programs or doctors that may help them get better or recover. No matter how much you’re there for them, if it’s a medical condition, the best way you can help is to get them help from a doctor.

Moral support and encouragement from a support system is something that can greatly benefit and enhance someone who is going through recovery, but they cannot rely only on that if they want to get better.

If your friend isn’t willing to seek help because maybe they’re in denial or they think they can get better on their own, give them the phone numbers and website links to national hot-lines in which they can speak to someone anonymously when they need or want it.

5. Invest in your own hobbies and relationships.

Your friend is definitely the one who needs support and love from their support system but so do you! Many people still ignore or don’t focus on the effects that recovery can have on caretakers and that’s not okay or healthy for anyone involved.

I’ve found that focusing and spending my time with my other friends or with my duties for the campus newspaper among other outside activities such as going to church and having alone time, has helped me to keep my sense of self through the process.

You need to have your own support system. Be with people who are optimistic and loving, not pessimistic and critical. There is a special kind of power in having and being involved in those types of relationships.

6. If it gets to be too much, consider detaching yourself from your friend.

We’re human and we’re not built or created to handle crises and tragedies alone. If your friend isn’t making progress, you may feel like a failure or have a huge decrease in self-worth and self-compassion. If it comes to that, you may have to consider ending the friendship.

It’s okay and natural to feel and have a huge weight or burden that you may feel is too much to handle. But that’s a sign that this friendship, as sad as it is, needs to end temporarily, until they get better. There’s no shame in admitting and doing that.

It’s going to be tough but I suggest you do the following and to do it gently with love. Explain to your friend that you are still going to be there for them but you need space and need a break from helping them out. Then, provide them with some resources that you think can help them.

Your friend may become bitter and not ever want to be friends with you again, but know that despite that, it’s the right thing to do and know that making any wise choice won’t necessarily come with happy feelings.

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