The slurred speech. The bottles of vodka hidden in dresser drawers. The depression that casts a pall over a home. “When she drank, she just wasn't the same woman,” says James Robinson of his ex-wife, Karen, who struggled mightily with alcohol for the entirety of their 20-year marriage.
Through the years, the same scenes would play out over and over again. The arguments. Karen disappearing into their bedroom, drinking for days, leaving James to tend to their two children. She'd promise to quit and things would get better — for a while. But she would always return to the bottle. “It got to the point where I would have trouble concentrating at work because I was constantly wondering what was going on at home,” he recalls.
Approximately 53 percent of men and women in the U.S. report that one or more of their close relatives have a drinking problem, which can fall anywhere on a spectrum “ranging from low-risk use to severe abuse, with graduations in between,” says Joseph Nowinski, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist and coauthor of Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem?
An unhealthy relationship with alcohol might include over-imbibing fairly often, or having frequent episodes of binge drinking that result in bad behavior — such as embarrassing oneself at a party, nursing a hangover and missing work, or making unwise decisions, like driving under the influence. At the other end of the spectrum is alcoholism, which refers to a long-term dependence on alcohol.
Some problem drinkers don't see their alcohol use as, well, a problem; others are aware they have a precarious relationship with booze. Either way, confronting someone about a drinking problem can be tricky at best.
Experts offer some suggestions on how to approach someone with your concerns and persuade them to get the help they need.
“You can't problem-solve in a box,” says Carrie Wilkens, cofounder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City. “Let other people brainstorm with you.”
Find out as much as you can about the effects of alcohol and the signs of misuse to help you understand your loved one's behavior. Attend Al-Anon meetings — support groups for people who are worried about someone with a drinking problem — in your area, or join an online support group. If you know someone who has successfully quit drinking, ask them for advice.
"Talk to a therapist who has experience with drinking or substance abuse disorders,” says Tom Harrison, coauthor of The Complete Family Guide to Addiction. “You can get a sense of ‘How concerned should I be?’ and ‘How can I approach this problem?’ That's helpful as you get ready to have a talk to clarify your concerns.”
Create a script
Books and Resources for Family Members
“A lot of people start the conversation and then don't know what to say,” says Harrison. “Ask yourself: What do I want to get out of this conversation? What would be a victory? Do you want the other person to say ‘I'll drink less,’ ‘I'll never drink again,’ or ‘I'll go to Alcoholics Anonymous'? Have a specific plan in mind — for instance, ‘Could we agree that you'll limit yourself to two drinks when we are out in public?'”
Some find it helpful to practice what they're going to say. If you have a family member you can confide in, role-play. “Get the other person to play the part of your loved one and respond in challenging ways,” Harrison says. “Then when you have the talk, you'll be more confident.”