My close friend from childhood, “Jake,” is a kindhearted person with a drinking problem. I have learned that his drinking problem is not something for me to either fix or enable, so I do neither. Most of the time I simply hang out with him before he starts drinking for the night, and then excuse myself once he begins, to avoid being around him while he is drunk. This works 9 out of 10 times and has kept our friendship intact for fifteen years now.
My question is not about my relationship with Jake, but about how to deal with other people affected by his out of control behavior on the rare occasions that I am present to witness to it.
I invited Jake to my recent birthday dinner. My work colleagues were there. Jake, who is gay, made unwanted (verbal) sexual overtures to my straight male coworkers. He made loud, explicit and insulting observations about my female coworker’s outfits and bodies. I was fairly mortified and also speechless when it happened, cringing silently in disbelief. (He would never have said anything like this while sober, of course. When I asked, he told me he doesn’t remember the evening at all.)
What does damage control look like in a case like this? What do I say to these people now? Is there a better strategy than “sorry my friend harassed you, he’s an alcoholic”? I know Jake’s comments are not my responsibility, but I feel like I need to let my acquaintances and colleagues know that I don’t condone the things he said. I’m friends with the real Jake, not the distorted person he becomes while under the influence.
I think an apology will definitely go a long way to mending fences with your coworkers. I would keep Jake’s good qualities and non-drunk self out of it. Be brief and don’t make excuses. This isn’t about rescuing his status in their eyes, this is about repairing your relationships with these people.
“Coworker, my old friend Jake was drunk and extremely out of line the other night, and I’m so sorry about his behavior toward you. I’m also sorry I didn’t do more at the time to put a stop to it. I was so taken aback and mortified that I froze.”
And then, if you really want to make things better for those folks going forward, I have two suggestions:
1) Practice speaking up more in the moment to curb the bad behavior and shield your guests. “Jake – that’s enough!” “Not cool, Jake.” “Jake, I’m gonna call you a cab. Time to go now.” You aren’t responsible for his behavior, but if you’re hosting events you are taking on some responsibility for other people’s comfort. Jake’s targets were likely also speechless because they had no basis for anticipating his behavior or knowing how to react to it in a way that wouldn’t make everything worse for you. If you don’t feel up to redirecting him or shutting him down in public, I understand, but that makes suggestion #2 even more important.
2) Don’t cross your wider social streams with Jake again, especially not when it involves people you work with. That means Jake might get excluded from things like intimate birthday dinners in the future, not because you are a bad or disloyal friend, but because he can’t hang.
Think of all the letters here from people who are like “I love (friend/relative), but seeing them means I also have to see Drunk Mean Asshole, and I worry that if I tell them that I don’t want to hang out with DMA anymore that they’ll disown me, but DMA is ruining all the time I spend with them.” I’m sorry, but you are That Friend now! If you enjoy Jake’s company when he’s not drinking, think about enjoying that solo and keeping group events for people who can behave themselves. If Jake protests not being invited, tell him exactly why: “You were such a jerk to everybody at my birthday, I don’t want to cross those streams again. We’ve made a way to make our friendship work despite your drinking problem, and let’s stick with what works.” Please don’t make your wider social circle absorb his bad behavior for your sake. You can’t fix him, you don’t want to enable him, so what’s left is shielding the other people you care about when Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde.