How to Help Someone Who Drinks Too Much
Expert advice on confronting and assisting a friend or family member who's abusing alcohol
En español | 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.”
Books and Resources for Family Members
- Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem? by Joseph Nowinski and Robert Doyle (2012)
- The Complete Family Guide to Addiction by Thomas F. Harrison and Hilary S. Connery (2019)
- Treatment options: samhsa.gov
- Support and information: Al-Anon (al-anon.org)
Create a script
“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.”
Talk it out
Approach the person, alone, in a private place where your loved one feels comfortable. Do this when the person is sober. Stay calm. Don't threaten or shame, and don't pass judgment. “A person with a drinking problem already feels guilt,” says Robert Meyers, research associate professor emeritus in psychology at the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction and coauthor of Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening. “If you shame them, it may lead them back to the bottle, because those feelings are often a hidden motivator for them to drink.” The vibe should be one of concern rather than confrontation and criticism.
"Try not to trigger their defensiveness, because if you do that, the conversation shuts down,” Harrison says. “Craft everything in terms of an ‘I’ statement, rather than an accusatory ‘you’ statement. Instead of, ‘You behaved like a jerk at that party last night,’ say, ‘When you raised your voice and insulted Jim at the party last night, I felt embarrassed.’ You're not talking about what the person did; you're talking about what you felt. That takes away their ability to challenge what you're saying.”
Brainstorm with them or present them with options — plural — on how they might want to approach the problem, such as a professional they can talk to for help, an online resource they can check out, or a 12-step treatment program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. “Give them a menu of options to choose from, giving one tends to back people into a corner,” says Wilkens. To find treatment options, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration site, samhsa.gov, and go to “Find Treatment.” Your family physician can also help.
Consider different approaches for different people
If your loved one is living under your roof, you have leverage, Harrison says. But if the problem drinker is a son or daughter who is living with a spouse or partner, you might broach your concerns with the other person. “Say, ‘Here's what I'm worried about. What do you think?'” Harrison says. If your adult child's significant other is concerned, the two of you can talk about the best way to approach the drinking.
Sometimes an elderly parent is the one with the problem. “Some seniors are limited in their mobility and stuck at home with very little social interaction,” says Nowinski. “Loneliness and social isolation — both of which can lead to depression — are triggers for drinking. And, unfortunately, drinking tends to worsen depression over the long run.”
If you live far from them, Nowinski suggests, consider having a caregiver visit a few days a week to provide companionship and let the family know of troubling changes in behavior. Many religious congregations also have volunteers who are happy to stop by and visit.
Watch the big occasions
If a loved one is in recovery and trying to avoid relapse, then you definitely don't want alcohol in the house — period. If he or she tends to overindulge at family gatherings, it can't hurt to exclude alcohol so you can avoid embarrassing episodes. But you may want to collaborate with your loved one. “It might make them feel uncomfortable and feel singled out if you make a choice like that without asking,” Wilkens says. “Simply say, ‘Hey, would it be helpful if we didn't have alcohol around?'”
If alcohol has typically been a part of family gatherings, you could limit how much is available, Nowinski suggests — perhaps serve a single glass of wine with dinner. “If you're someplace where you can't control the situation, such as a wedding, hang out with the family member who is trying not to drink and give them a safe word to use if they get shaky,” says Harrison. “Something that means, Hey, I need to get out of here in a little while.”
Be good to yourself
Be supportive during your loved one's recovery. Drive them to meetings. Suggest twice-a-week walks to help take their mind off drinking. Let them know that you're proud of them. But don't let their problem take over your life. Take a step back from time to time and take care of yourself by getting enough sleep and exercise and eating well. And don't isolate yourself. “There's so much shame that surrounds substance abuse problems,” Wilkens says. “People think, ‘Nobody can know what's happening in my home.’ Let others support you emotionally.”
Seek help from a trusted friend, therapist or clergy member if you feel stressed or depressed. You can also participate in a support program designed for the friends and family members whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking, such as Al-Anon.
"I was so protective of my family that I didn't tell anyone about my wife's drinking,” James says. But when he finally did, he adds, it was a relief:
"Letting go of that burden, all of the stuff I was keeping inside — the worry, the fear, the shame — was like a huge weight that had been lifted off of my shoulders. The thing I'd tell people in the same situation is, ‘Don't try to bear it all by yourself. Turn to your loved ones or a professional and talk it through. They're waiting to help.'”
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