Doing the "right" thing can depend on how severe the alcohol problem is and on how in touch with it the person in question seems to be. What works for someone who is highly functional in daily life and who knows that alcohol is causing trouble, for instance, may not be the solution for someone who denies that there is a problem.
Suggestion #4: Address the drinking problem directly
Over and over, people shared comments like these:
- "Let them know that you are aware of their drinking problem. I thought I had everyone fooled, and they never told me otherwise." – alcoholic lady.
- "Hold a mirror up to the person, showing his or her behavior clearly and honestly." – wife.
- "Be open to discussing the behavior – it makes the loved one uncomfortable, but it needs doing." – partner.
- "Explain that you think they have a problem and which of their actions gives you that idea. Offer to help." – husband.
Although nagging and complaining are certainly ineffective, so is the contrary tack of ignoring a drinking problem. Avoiding the problem is counter-productive. A wife told me, "In our family. His drinking was hidden from the public and other family members. I was constantly mediating between him and the children and him and the world. I was exhausted from keeping things looking okay. He didn’t have to acknowledge or deny anything. There was tremendous relief when I first named the problem – initially to him, then to friends and family. I said to him, ’Darling, from what I know about it, it looks like you are an alcoholic.’ Saying and hearing the words in a loving conversation made it real for both of us. We could each decide on our own how we would respond. It was no longer unspoken and hidden – kind of like unveiling the two-ton elephant sitting in the middle of the room."
He says, "When my wife asked me to consider whether I might be an alcoholic, I rejected the idea, but I took enough warning from the question to modify my drinking in the direction of less hard liquor and more beer and wine instead. This softened my drinking behavior somewhat."
A woman alcoholic says that although her husband was forever on her back, not once during her drinking years did an employer address her alcohol problem – despite the fact that she held more than thirty jobs in twenty years. "None of them lasted for long," she remembers. "I would come into work hung over or return from a lunch break high from drinking. Often I would get sent home, or they would fire me. I never connected it to my drinking." Because the employers never told her that her alcohol use was the reason for termination, Elena thought she was fired for incompetence, which only made her drinking worse.
Similarly a lawyer who was able to practice despite his heavy abuse of alcohol, often to the point of unconsciousness, does not recall anyone other than his wife intervening about his drinking. He notes, "People just accepted me the way I was and made adjustments. I don’t remember running into any direct challenge to my drinking from school authorities when I regularly got drunk in college, nor from employers or doctors later in life." Looking back, he says, "It might have helped if someone somewhere along the line had said, ’Stop or you have to go.’"
Many alcoholics say they wish they had been confronted. As one puts it, "I don’t know if I would have listened, but I’ve always wished that someone in my family or friendship circle had expressed concern about my drinking, and then I would have stopped sooner." Another laments, "When I called my sister two nights in a row telling her the exact same thing, I wish she had confronted me. She knew I was drunk but didn’t mention it. Several other people spent lots of time on the phone with me and knew I was drunk but never confronted me. I believe it would have brought reality to me sooner if these people refused to talk with me and said something like ’Call me back when you haven’t been drinking – I am not going to speak with you until you are sober.’"
A husband offers some sound advice if the person seems resistant to facing his or her alcohol abuse: "Don’t avoid opportunities to relate the drinking problem to other problems." Another agrees, noting that "you don’t have to put the alcohol problem up front. Another way to go about it is to point out some other problem the person is having related to his drinking." In the multiple employment example, someone might have helped her look at the fact that she couldn’t hold down a job – and led her to see the connection with alcohol.
There is disagreement about just how confrontational family and friends should be when addressing the alcohol problem. Many stress that the approach should be non-threatening and loving but honest. A good number of others think that family and friends should consider serious confrontation, such as giving an ultimatum with consequences or arranging a formal intervention.
Whether you use a confrontational or a gentler approach may have to do with what else you’ve already tried. Timothy O’Farrell, Ph.D., chief of the Harvard Families and Addiction Program, offers some logical advice: "I would not start with confrontation. But if direct, softer approaches don’t get the person’s attention, then I’d consider more confrontational strategies."