Ask Katie: I Think My Friend has a Drug Problem, Do I Confront Her?

Ask Katie: I Think My Friend has a Drug Problem, Do I Confront Her?

By Katie MacBride 11/01/16

This may not be a one-time conversation. She might shut down the conversation ASAP.

Image: 
A woman pointing at herself.
Confrontation can put someone on the defensive.

I think that my friend has a drug problem. About six months ago she started acting weird and accusing her friends of talking about her behind her back. She also lost a lot of weight and stopped hanging out as much. I thought she was just being weird, but then I watched something about methamphetamine and it seems like her behavior fits. Should I confront her?

I told myself when I started this week’s column that I wouldn’t include an anecdote about my own life as an example—that seems to be a trope I’ve used the past couple of weeks. But then I read your question and now I have to break that promise. Please bear with me.

My junior year in college, I spent spring semester studying abroad in Scotland. My apartment was on the ninth floor of a building with no elevator, I walked everywhere, and I broke up with my boyfriend who was still at our college in the U.S. I also—though I didn’t know this yet—was dealing with a digestive disorder. In August of that year, I would have to have 15 centimeters of my colon removed.

When my Scotland semester was over at the end of May, I went back to my college in Ohio to see friends graduate. They were visibly horrified when they saw me. “You’re so thin, Katie.” And then, just to make sure I was clear on what they meant—“Like, not good thin.” I shrugged. I’d always been on the small side. I thought my friends were being melodramatic and, frankly, pretty rude. If I hadn’t actively been trying to lose weight, I couldn’t have lost that much, could I?

Over the course of that week, almost everyone I encountered gave me the same speech: you’re thin and you don’t look good. People pitied me, were concerned about me, or were disgusted by me. I thought the world had gone mad—that everyone was working themselves into a frenzy over nothing—a few accidentally lost pounds from daily treks up and down nine flights of stairs.

I remember telling a friend that I wanted to go use our school’s gym, but I was afraid of the way people would look at me if they saw me exercising. She shook her head vehemently, “Don’t go.” I stopped doing a lot of the things I enjoyed. I stayed in during graduation week parties, not wanting to deal with the comments or looks I would inevitably receive. I felt betrayed by friends who were only concerned about my health.

My friends were right, there was a problem with my health. And it sounds like you are also probably right—there is something going on with your friend. Sudden, dramatic weight loss, irritability, and abrupt antisocial behavior are all signs that something is not right with your friend. It’s good you noticed, especially as it sounds like she’s not coming forward to talk about it on her own.

I do think you should approach her about this, but I think you should do so very gently and very thoughtfully. I’m telling you my return from Scotland story not because I love telling it, but because I want to make clear a few things:

  1. I really had no idea how bad things had gotten.
  2. I felt genuinely hurt and betrayed by friends who only had my best interests at heart. In retrospect, I can see that they did nothing wrong, even the ones who approached me in a way that was hurtful at the time.

If your friend is aware of her behavior and weight changes, she may be self-conscious about it—or at least about somebody noticing it. If she’s not, she’s probably going to feel defensive because that’s often what happens when we feel we’re being unfairly criticized. (I understand that it’s not your intention to unfairly criticize her, nor do I think you will, it’s just helpful to understand how she might interpret it.)

So when you ask if you should confront her about her possible use of drugs, my answer is no. I do, however, think you should approach her one-on-one and ask her if there’s anything she wants to talk about. If she asks why, you can let her know that she seems different lately, more withdrawn, and you're worried about her. If she says nothing is wrong, I would let her know that you're there for her if she ever does want to talk. Tell her that if she does, you'll be there to support her in any way you can.

Here are the things I would avoid: I would not specifically ask her about drugs. If she does have a drug problem, it’s very unlikely that she’s going to admit it the moment you ask about it. Giving her an opening to talk about whatever is bothering her, however, might lead to that discussion. I would also strongly suggest focusing on what you personally have noticed, and not mention your group of friends. While your group has likely noticed the same things you have, your friend is already suspicious about y’all talking about her behind her back. When you suspect someone is talking about you behind your back—even if the reasons for them doing so are rooted in concern and friendship—you become increasingly paranoid after your suspicions are confirmed. That's not a feeling that’s likely to make her want to open up. Stick to addressing your concerns and offering your support, and leave the rest of your friends out of it.

This may not be a one-time conversation. She might shut down the conversation ASAP. I certainly did when my friends approached me with their concerns. If you are really concerned, however, it’s up to you to circle back and start the conversation again. She may not be any more receptive a second or third time around, but sometimes a seed needs to be planted before a person is ready to talk. If she shuts you down again, there’s not much you can do except tell her you'll be there for her if she changes her mind.

If she does confide in you that she’s struggling with a drug or mental health problem, the best thing you can do is encourage her to seek help from a professional. A therapist will be able to better assess the reasons behind her behavior: if there’s an incident that prompted drug use, if there’s a physiological concern, etc. While you are in a good place to start the conversation with her, it would be best for the conversation to continue with a professional. You can be there to support her, but you can’t fix her.

If you have reason to believe she might harm herself, please look at the resources here.

If she’s not ready to confide in you about what’s going on, that doesn’t mean your friendship has to be over. The line between being supportive and pushy is fine and hard to navigate. But if you focus more on listening than assuming you know what she’s going to say, you’re much more likely to learn the answers to your questions.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery-related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Send your general advice questions to Katie at [email protected] with the subject "Ask Katie." 

By submitting a question to this website, you grant The Fix permission to publish it on this site. All questions will remain anonymous. Due to the large number of questions received, we cannot guarantee a response. But we do our best so check back frequently!

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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