the unofficial intervention

Reader A. B. asks:

I have a friend who drinks a lot. I’ve been avoiding hanging out with him because he’s not fun to be around when drinking, which is usual now. As I cherish the friendship, it a difficult thing for me to tell him that he might have a problem, when yours truly has his own issues to hash out. What should I do?

Dear A.B.:

bad news bears!

Drinking problems. Image: Carlos Porto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As much as I hate the trainwreck that is “reality television”, there is at least one award-winning series that has taught me a little bit about human psychology when it comes to asking someone to quit their addiction. That show is (you guessed it) Intervention. I have watched it twice, max. But the scenario is always the same and the solution is, too:

Young(ish) person (who still lives off, if not with parents) has illegal substance abuse problem, but is relatively healthy and perhaps even capable of sustaining a life (of sorts). Parents and friends are tired of the substance abuse and decide to stage an intervention. The intervention counselor tells them they have to make rules and stick to them. Rules include kicking young(ish) person out of house, cutting off funds, refusing to speak to him again, etc. Fight ensues and parents/friends consider giving in, but counselor won’t allow it. Make your stand and stick to it, says counselor. Eventually young(ish) person agrees to go to rehab. Fin.

There are a few differences between the above scenario and your own situation. First, your friend doesn’t have an illegal substance problem (booze is legal, federally anyway). Secondly, your friend isn’t living off you (and you are not his parent). Third, I don’t think you need to set up an official intervention with a counselor. However, the solution should be similar, if not the same.

In fact, it sounds to me like you’re already having an intervention by not hanging out with him. You’ve set some rules — “I only want to hang out with you when you’re sober” — and you’re sticking to them.

I think you just need to make sure he’s aware that this is the case, and be very consistent about it.

So how do you formalize an unofficial intervention?

Common wisdom would say that you should do this over the phone or in person. However, I don’t necessarily think this is the case. You’re not asking him to go to rehab (probably). Also, you’re not kicking him out of your house ’til he cleans up. You’re explaining to him that you don’t want to spend time with him when he’s a drunk. He’s probably already noticed that you haven’t been around as much, anyway. Therefore, I feel an email would serve just fine. A letter might be better, but email will keep the formality down and give you time to think about what you want to say. Saying what you want to say in person will give him an opportunity to reply, but that may not be what you want anyway.

The fact that you’ve got your own problems does not belittle your friend’s alcoholism or the fact that his drinking bothers you. An intervention is not the time to throw down the whole “let he who is sinless cast the first stone” nonsense. You are not a hypocrite for caring about him. Hopefully you’ve got other friends who would give you a similar treatment if you were in trouble (for substance abuse or whatever else). In fact, I think your ability to admit you’ve got your own issues makes you a better candidate to stage an intervention, because you understand what’s going on to a greater degree. Furthermore, your sensitivity about your own problems means you’ll probably write a way better, less condescending email than someone who is flawless. (And whoever those flawless people are — meh, screw ’em.)

So, write your friend an email. Tell him you love him, but you just can’t take it anymore. Admit he’s probably noticed you’ve been standoffish; and then tell him why. Tell him you know everyone’s got problems (including yourself, but no need to go into those in this letter), but you’re worried about his health and his life. Tell him you aren’t going to hang out with him again until he (and here you have to choose what level you think is necessary) gets into a program like AA; takes at least a month off the drinking; can go a night out with you without needing a tipple. He may write back complaining about what a jerk you are, what do you know about his life, defensive defensive defensive, etc., but stand strong.

I’m sure you have other mutual friends who will be willing to sign in on this, too. I definitely think that concerted efforts by large groups get the most done in these situations, so include them. Whether or not you bring his family into this depends on how close you are to his family. This is, as the title suggests, an unofficial intervention, so its structure and its attendees are completely up to your discretion.

The only problem with this whole scenario is that you may lose his friendship. That is a risk you are going to have to take. Obviously you already know you can’t stand to be his friend when he’s got such a problem. The fact is, you may have already lost him. But in all truth, when people are faced with losing things (particularly friendship and affection), they tend to get the point. He will probably cave to your (extremely reasonable) demands rather quickly.

Of course, holding him to his promises after he caves in may be another matter altogether. But stay strong and stay consistent. If he does say he’ll quit the drinking, but then succumbs to a finger or two of whiskey when you’re out on the town, leave him, even if you’re his ride home. He’ll get the hint. And he’ll either change his ways, or you’ll never see him again. The ball will be in his court, once you’ve made your demands.


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