How can I help? How to approach a problem drinker

Helpful hints on how to talk with someone about their problem of abusing alcohol.

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  • Approaching someone (particularly a family member) who is abusing alcohol can be quite a challenge. No one enjoys being called out for negative behavior, and it is possible that the person in your life who drinks too much may not even realize that it has gotten as bad as it has. That being said, alcoholism is a legitimate and serious problem. It is important to not jump to the conclusion that the person in question is an alcoholic unless he or she has been diagnosed by a professional or admit it themselves. Here are some ideas for talking to people about their drinking.

  • Be vague at first, and give the person an opportunity to speak

  • Being a good listener will give you the chance to see where a person is with his or her level of awareness of the problem. Starting with a simple statement such as, “I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking a lot more lately,” is a fairly inoffensive way to open up a dialogue. This beginning may be all that is necessary to inspire a change.

  • Be honest and direct about how their drinking is affecting you

  • If the drinker is receptive to further discussion, now would be a good time to state plainly how you feel about their problematic drinking. An employer may say, “I’ve noticed that when you come in smelling of alcohol, our customers are uncomfortable.” A wife may candidly express, “When you come home drunk, I worry about you driving and hurting yourself or someone else.” Be careful to use “I” statements, and keep your discussion free of blame, even if you are angry or hurt. If you know the conversation will be emotionally-charged, take some time to write out your feelings on paper before you express them out loud. It will make it easier for you to stay focused and avoid conflict.

  • Let them know you are there to be supportive

  • Ask your friend how he or she feels you can help them. Remind them that you are not bringing the issue to the table because you are judging, but because you are concerned and are in their corner.

  • If circumstances warrant, ask a recovering alcoholic to speak with them

  • Regardless of how bad your drinker’s problem may be, a recovering alcoholic will be helpful in laying out their own experience of some of the pitfalls of alcohol abuse. Quite often, people who struggle with alcohol addiction and abuse are far more ready to open up to someone who understands their struggle than they are to the family or friends they are unwittingly mistreating. Twelve-step programs emphasize the importance of reaching out to those who are struggling, and most people in recovery will be willing and eager to talk with your friend.

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  • Get educated about alcoholism

  • You will certainly fair better in your relations with a problem drinker if you know more about what their struggles may be. Try to approach the problem free of fears and stereotypes, and learn what may be the cause for your friend’s alcohol problem. There are hundreds of books about alcoholism and alcohol abuse, local support groups (Al-Anon is an Alcoholics Anonymous affiliate that offers education and support to family members and friends of alcoholics), and churches that may offer some assistance with the situation. The more you know, the less you will fear.

  • Understand that you cannot fix it

  • Problem drinkers have to be willing to change for themselves. You can help, by leading them to potential solutions and being supportive, but ultimately the person has to want to change.

  • It is cliché, but it’s true. Admitting there is a problem is the first step. Be encouraged that you are doing the right thing by not ignoring the elephant in the room. Problem drinkers can often quit simply by being gently counseled by a concerned friend. People who may have a more serious problem or alcoholics still have access to help. There is always hope as there are thousands of success stories of lifelong sobriety. Honesty and openness are the keys to being supportive.

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Margaret Crowe is a poet and mother of two from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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