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Once I talked to my boyfriend about his excessive drinking. It turned into a battle ground.

Amy S., Plymouth State College sophomore


I don’t know how to approach the person. I’m afraid of not getting through and perhaps even making an enemy.

Terrence J., Manhattan College senior

Chapter 7.   Intervention... if not you, who? If not now, when?

If it hasn’t happened already, sooner or later someone close to you will experience a problem with alcohol or other drugs. While in college it may be a roommate, a teammate, a loved one or a friend. Beyond college it might be a relative, perhaps your father or mother, an employer, an employee, a future spouse or maybe a son or daughter. I guarantee that it will happen.


When confronted with this situation, we tend to feel helpless and hopeless. After all, conventional wisdom states that you need to wait for the person to hit bottom before he or she will seek help. But conventional wisdom isn’t always wise, especially when it comes to alcohol and other drugs. You may not be able to help someone who has an alcohol problem until that person hits bottom, but you can raise the bottom.





How do I know if she is an alcoholic? She now vomits blood, complains of stomach problems and drinks almost every night until she stumbles home. Sometimes she even drives home. How can I be sure she is an alcoholic?



As indicated in the Alcohol Use Disorder chapter of this book, it is difficult to assess whether or not someone is actually addicted to alcohol. But that should not be the question you are asking yourself. If drinking is causing problems in someone’s life, then the person should be confronted about the drinking. In the situation cited above, it is obvious that the drinking is causing problems. Is the person addicted? We do not know – but she definitely needs immediate help.You don’t need to wait – you shouldn’t wait – until a more serious problem arises. You don’t need to wait until the person hits bottom. That’s like saying if you had a friend or loved one perched on the edge of a bridge ready to jump, ready to commit suicide, you would allow the person to jump, then run down to where your friend hit the bottom and pick up the pieces. Consider this: If not now, when? If not you, who?


Look back at the Assessment for an Alcohol Use Disorder. When  would you confront someone about their drinking? Most well-intentioned friends or relatives might confront someone who is experiencing a mild alcohol use disorder. And that might seem to be an appropriate time. However, as much as we would like to see it, we should not expect them to change their behavior if they are  experiencing a mild AUD. After all, they are drinking, having a good time and experiencing no apparent negative outcomes. In their minds, they believe that drinking is harmless and fun – that they have everything under control with an occasional problem now and then. This does not mean we should not say something to them. Their tolerance is rising, and they will probably experience problems sooner or later if they continue drinking at the same pace. They need to be informed that their increased tolerance is an indication of increased risk.


If you confront someone with a moderate alcohol use disorder, there are more concrete reasons for them to examine their drinking. They are experiencing negative outcomes, and these can be highlighted as reasons for considering a reduction in consumption. Also, their tolerance is becoming dangerously high. They are continuing to come closer to experiencing a severe alcohol use disorder.




This information was very helpful when I confronted my friend. This could help save the lives of many college students.

John S., Keene State College senior


How can I approach him without getting him upset?



My friend made it clear to his girlfriend that he was doing this because he cared about her.

Ralph S., Franklin Pierce College sophomore


I don’t like seeing my friend hurting herself over and over, but she really doesn’t think she has a problem. When anyone does say anything she gets defensive.



Alcoholism is considered to be the “disease of denial.” But the seeds of denial are planted long before the actual addiction. There are ways to break through the denial. Here are some guidelines to follow when confronting someone you believe has an alcohol or other drug problem.


  • Be well-informed about alcohol or other drugs. There are professionals on most campuses trained to work with students and their alcohol or other drug concerns. Some campuses offer academic courses about alcohol and other drugs.


  • Choose your time and place carefully. Confront the person in private and when the person is sober.


  • Expect denial. Most people experiencing problems with alcohol or other drugs have developed an intricate web of psychological defenses. These defenses manifest themselves in the form of denial of the problem.


  • Be confident and positive. Indicate you care for the person but not the behavior.


  • Call for help when necessary. Friends, residential life staff, relatives and/or counselors can be of valuable assistance. In some situations, an organized intervention coordinated by a professional health care worker may be necessary.


  • Get help for yourself. Relatives and friends of people experiencing these types of problems also experience their own difficulties. Find help through your own friends or support groups such as Al-Anon.


  • Choose your words carefully. Don’t label the person. Avoid terms like alcoholic, problem drinker or drug addict. Simply state that the drinking or other drug use is causing problems.


Here’s a framework within which you can present your concerns. This may make your confrontation more acceptable to the drinker or drug user.


  • I care... Indicate your care and concern for the person. For instance: “I love you.” “You are my best friend.” “I care about you.”


  • I see… Describe the specific behaviors that concern you. For instance: “For the past three weekends you have gotten into a fight after drinking.” “You have missed class every Friday morning for the past five weeks because you were hung over.”


  • I feel… Describe how you feel. For instance: “I’m concerned that you are going to fail out of school.” “I’m worried about our relationship. I get angry when I know I can’t count on you.”


  • Listen…Give the person an opportunity to respond.


  • I’d like…Indicate what you’d like the person to do. For instance: “I’d like you to go to the Counseling Center.” “I’d like you to stop coming over here when you are drunk.”


  • I will… Offer your support and indicate what you will do to assist the person. For instance: “I’ll find out about what professional assistance is available.” “I’ll go with you to see the counselor.”


You can be sure that if you confront someone regarding their alcohol or other drug use, their immediate response will not be “Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll go see a counselor right away.” More often than not the response will be some form of denial:


  • Excuses: “I’ve been really stressed out lately.” “I’m carrying 18 credits and need to loosen up when I can.” “We lost the game by two points.”


  • Anger:  “Get off my case.” “Up yours!”


  • Blame: “My boyfriend has been really bugging me lately.” “I had a tough test today.” “My professors are too demanding.”


  • Projection: “Yeah right, well what about you?” “So what, this is college. Everyone drinks.”


  • Minimizing: “It’s no big deal.” “I’ve got it under control.”


If you are serious about helping someone, understand that success in this situation comes in a variety of forms. Obviously, if the drinker were to agree with you, seek help and reduce the drinking, you were extremely successful. Great! There are also other levels of success. The person may simply agree and decrease the consumption but not seek professional help. And that might be OK.


However, the person may simply agree but make no changes. Is this failure? No! Most people in rehabilitation say they sought help because a friend and/or relative suggested they seek help. For many of them, it may have taken up to thirty confrontations before the person actually sought help. In your situation, maybe you are the first person to confront the drinker, and maybe you are the tenth, but maybe you are the thirtieth – the person might finally make the move. At the very least, despite the denial, the person will never drink or use again again without having your concern echo in the back of his or her mind. And that helps!



Tips for Change


If in fact you are able to assist your friend or relative in understanding changes in behavior would be beneficial, the person may be at a loss as to how to change. Here are a few suggestions you can make to help:

  • Some people can simply cut back on the amount and frequency of drinking  to help them avoid problems.

  • When going out, suggest s/he set a low risk limit and stick to it. (See Chapter 15 Success… it’s up to you for helpful party strategies)

  • Encourage your friend or relative to make new friends by joining a club or other student organization. Participation in intramurals and other campus events can also serve as a helpful alternative.

  • If s/he has difficulty sticking to a low risk limit suggest seeking support either from family members, friends or a professional counselor on or off campus

  • For those with more severe symptoms and can not consistently control their drinking, abstinence might be the only alternative.  Further help from an alcohol and other drug health professional should be sought. if this is the case.  

From the History Books

Temperance Society pamphlets of the late 1800s instructed young ladies how to repel from young swains who had imbibed,"You may not see me, John, while the breath of alcohol is on your lips. But I shall pray for you, pray to God to deliver you from this evil habit. And, if a year from now you can say that in that time you have totally abstained. Then John, with the permission of Papa and Mama you may call on me again."




My boyfriend had serious problems with alcohol. But I always tried to make him happy. I always tried to fix his problems. Thank goodness I stopped doing this because it only made me feel worse, and certainly didn’t really help him.



I guess in a sense I was an enabler. I was always taking responsibility for his actions, which I guess made thingsworse.

Carla J., University of Maryland first-year student


A behavior pattern that’s easy to fall into if you have a friend or relative with an alcohol problem is enabling. Enabling is the process of removing the normal consequences of drinking from the drinker. The roommate who calls her roomie’s professor and claims she has the flu when she is really hung over is enabling her drinking. The enabler shelters the drinker from the drinking problems. As a result, the drinker then fails to see the drinking as a problem when the enabler provides protection from the consequences of drinking. The drinker then fails to see the need for help. Enabling can be defined quite simply as good intentions with harmful results.


Students tend to believe they are helping their friends when they enable in the following ways:

  • Make excuses for the drinking behavior

  • Obtain notes from classes missed by the drinker due to her drinking or hangover

  • Lend money for alcohol purchases

  • Submit projects for the drinker because she was too hung over to make it to class

  • Buy alcohol for the drinker

  • Try to occupy the drinker’s time so there won’t be time to drink

  • Blame the drinking on friends or circumstances

  • Drink with the person so you can watch over him when he is drinking

  • Vow not to do any of the above yet find yourself doing it again


These may seem like friendly gestures, but they simply contribute to further drinking. Why should the drinker make any changes if there are no perceived problems due to the drinking?





I feel awful for just giving up on him, but I tried for three and a half years to help him and failed in my efforts to do so. I tried  to be a good friend and it seems all I got were huge amounts of frustration.



It was very difficult to walk away from someone I cared about, but it came to the point where it was the only solution.



There may come a time when you believe you can no longer associate with the drinker or other drug user while he or she is drinking and/or using. Only you know when this time has been reached. It is extremely important that you let the person know why you are severing the ties of your friendship. Do not simply avoid the him or her. If you do, he or she will probably project the problem back onto you. Let them know how you feel. Use the process suggested above. Then, at some point you  may need to lovingly detach if the situation becomes too difficult for you. Yes, this can be extremely difficult. But what is your choice? Finally, be sure to leave the door open for the time when the person may finally agree to seek help.



Personal Challenge: Intervening

  • Do you know someone you believe has an alcohol or other drug problem?

  • Do you believe you should confront this person?

  • What reaction can you anticipate? How might you be able to deal with this reaction?

  • Are there any resources available to help educate you about the nature of your relationship with this person and his/her alcohol or other drug problem?

  • Is there anyone who can assist you in confronting this person about their alcohol or other drug problem?

  • What resources can you recommend to this person for assistance with his/her problem?

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