How Do I Handle My Drunk Friend at a Party?

(Image credit: Danielle Tsi)

I have a dilemma, and I’m not sure if I need etiquette advice or if I should talk to a therapist. My roommate and I love to have small gatherings in our apartment. I’m going to be honest: We like to drink. In my opinion, we handle it pretty well, and so do most of our friends. There are rarely cars involved (we live in the city), and no one leaves wasted — except for our one friend. We call her Lady Drinks-a-Lot, because she does. She’s great at the beginning of the night, but always crosses a line, to the point where other guests start to enjoy themselves less, and we worry about her health and safety. How can we handle this without hurting her feelings?

Not a Babysitter

Dear NaB,

If there is any question about safety, forget feelings. Hurt feelings are nothing compared to death, injury, or even a night in jail.

Even if your friend isn’t driving, you need to be sure she gets home safe. Getting on the wrong train (easy enough for me when I’m stone-cold sober — darn G train when I meant to take the F at Carroll Street) can be dangerous for someone who might fall asleep. A less-than-honest cab or Uber driver can take advantage of a drunk friend, and even a short walk to a car or train requires a degree of alertness, especially late at night. If your friend is disoriented, or if your gut says “caution,” politeness is not an option.

Refuse to give her the keys, explain you’re concerned, and let her know you really want her to spend the night on your sofa. She may refuse, and I certainly don’t want you restraining anyone, but I want you to do your best, even if you’re afraid of hurt feelings. Promise whatever it takes. You’ll provide breakfast, make sure she gets to work in the morning, lend her some clothes, whatever. Lie if you have to, but make sure she’s safe. You don’t want to regret this one later.

But what if she (or he!) is just an annoying drunk? Everyone else is ready to sip after-dinner cocktails, and Lady Drinks-a-Lot (LDaL) is hitting on someone else’s partner, using language that would make a sailor blush? (Do sailors still blush?) LDaL is so drunk, you can’t even play Cards Against Humanity, because she keeps knocking over the cards and forgetting how the game works. You also didn’t mention this, but I bet LDaL is killing your alcohol budget, pouring stealth cocktails when no one’s looking, drinking three glasses of wine to everyone else’s one.

But what if your friend is just your average, occasionally over-served individual? Take it step by step.

  • Say something, privately. Invite your tipsy friend to the kitchen or — don’t judge — the bathroom. I mean, we all hang out in the bathroom at parties occasionally, don’t we? Offer her a drink of water, mention something vague about how you can’t drink as much as you used to, and see if she takes the hint.
  • Enlist a friend who gets it. Before the party, talk it over with a mutual friend, and see if he can help distract LDaL from over-imbibing. Yes, this is venturing into the realm of babysitting, but if more than one person is on the same page, the burden is smaller.
  • Serve less alcohol. Some people are fine when the alcohol is limited — a single bottle of wine with each course, for example, for a party of six. They don’t do so well when the alcohol is a free-for-all, but do just fine if it’s served in smaller quantities, and they don’t pour their own. Bonus: No hangovers for anyone!
  • Put the alcohol away. You’re a good host — your instinct is to make sure everyone has what they want, at all times — but if you’ve moved on to the games portion of the evening? You might not need more alcohol. Put it back in the cabinet or fridge, and only those who really want it will seek it out.
  • And when nothing works? Well, your friend may have more than a social problem. It’s not your job to babysit, and if addiction is the issue, you won’t be able to curtail your friend’s drinking, no matter how many subtle tricks you try. And only you can decide how involved you want to be. If you’re close to the person, and comfortable doing it, initiating a conversation about how her behavior bothers you could be the thing that makes her get help. Or not. There are pros and cons to an intervention. As you mentioned in your letter, you might be better off talking to a therapist first. A therapist can help you plan the conversation and go through the potential outcomes. Once you decide to have that talk, it helps to be prepared.

You aren’t obligated to invite someone who ruins your parties. Maybe you can distract LDaL by limiting the alcohol, or maybe not. It may be that this friend doesn’t do well when the alcohol is flowing, so you should meet her instead for coffee or lunch (but not brunch!). And you may just have a friend who can’t drink.

Ultimately, you aren’t responsible for changing lives, but you do need to make sure your guests are safe. No matter how annoyed you are, and no matter how much of a hassle it is, please make sure your friend gets home safely. And please don’t feel bad for not including her the next time you host.