How to Talk to an Alcoholic

Published On: June 7, 2021

It can be hard to know what to say to an alcoholic. You may worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, or that they will be angry with you for challenging them about their addiction.

When you live with someone, the stakes are especially high. You know that if things go wrong, it could cause tension.

That’s why it’s important to prepare for these sorts of conversations. There are things you can do in advance of talking to an alcoholic which will help you to offer the best possible support.

In this article, we discuss the most important things to remember when talking to an alcoholic, such as being honest, establishing boundaries, suggesting treatment options and being kind and considerate.

With the help of our advice, we hope you can have a useful and productive discussion with your loved one about their alcohol use.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is an addiction to alcohol. It is one of the most common forms of addiction worldwide.

In the UK, according to government statistics, 59% of people starting treatment for substance addiction had problems with alcohol. [1]

Like any addiction, alcoholism can have negative consequences in all areas of life, from work to relationships, to finances.

What are the signs and symptoms of alcoholism?

The signs of alcoholism include:

  • Drinking by oneself
  • Drinking despite significant negative consequences
  • Eating sporadically or unhealthily
  • Finding any excuse to drink
  • Lying about alcohol use
  • Needing more and more alcohol to feel inebriated (tolerance)
  • No longer participating in activities or hobbies which brought joy to make more time for drinking
  • Not going to work or school in order to drink

The main symptoms of alcoholism are:

  • Cravings for alcohol
  • Gaps in memory
  • Shakes and tremors
  • Symptoms caused by alcohol-related liver diseases such as cirrhosis and fatty liver disease
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, nausea and vomiting

How to talk to an alcoholic: start by planning what you want to say

It may sound simple, but the best place to start if you want to have a conversation with someone about their drinking is by writing down some key points to get across.

Conversations like this are never easy, since there is every chance the person you are talking to will not want to hear what you have to say.

Writing down your main points will help you to focus your thoughts. It will also help ensure that you communicate all the things you want to communicate, without getting side-tracked, or overly emotional.

So, what are the key points you should focus on?

  • How does your loved one’s drinking impact you? Addiction can be all-consuming. When someone becomes wrapped up in the endless cycle of procuring and using substances, they can easily forget about the impact this has on their loved ones. By talking about how your loved one’s alcohol use makes you feel, you remind them that their actions have consequences for the people around them
  • What effects has your loved one’s drinking had on their mental and physical health? Addiction almost always has a negative effect on both physical and mental health. With alcohol, you can expect physical health problems such as memory loss, weight gain, and shaking. In the longer term, there is a risk of liver damage. Mental health problems such as depression are also common with alcoholism. [2]
  • What treatment options are available to your loved one? It is important to be able to suggest treatment options, such as seeing a doctor or going to rehab. However, bear in mind that people do not respond well when given heavy-handed advice, such as ‘You need to go to rehab.’ Try framing any advice as a gentle suggestion, such as ‘Have you considered getting some help?’ This is much more likely to elicit a positive response from your loved one.

How to keep the conversation as calm and productive as possible

One of the biggest challenges when having a difficult conversation with someone about their drinking is making sure that both parties stay calm and listen to what the other has to say.

The person you are talking to may feel they are being patronised, or they may be in denial about the extent of their addiction.

Every conversation is different, but there are a few general points to consider about language, tone and so on which can help you keep conversations as helpful and constructive as possible.

  • Use destigmatised language. Lots of research has been done on the subject of stigma around addiction, including by the UK Drug Policy Commission. One of the ways in which stigma persists is through the use of derogatory terms such as ‘junkie’. The way to counter this is by using less stigmatised language, especially around alcoholics. Instead of talking about ‘relapses’, ‘binge drinking’ and so on, try to stick to terms like ‘alcohol use’. More scientific terms like this are less likely to produce a negative reaction
  • Try to take a kind, compassionate tone. Being censorious, or overly severe can make your loved one less sympathetic towards what you’re trying to say, even if what you’re saying is kind and helpful. Try to adopt a gentle, compassionate tone of voice. This will lend weight to your words, and make your loved one more disposed to listen

How to prepare yourself for a conversation with an alcoholic

As well as planning things you want to say, and moderating how you say those things, there are some more concrete actions you can take in order to get ready to speak to your loved one about their drinking problem.

1. Look after yourself

Your ability to support your loved one as they are going through their addiction depends in part on your own mental state.

If you are depressed and anxious, not only does that make your own life difficult, it also makes it harder for you to be there for your loved one.

So, what steps can you take to look after yourself?

One step you can take is to reach out for help. There are several charities, organisations and support groups aimed at the loved ones of people with substance use disorders.

They include:

  • Adfam. Provides local support for families that have been affected by drug use.
  • DrugFAM. Can be accessed by phone and email. Offers support and advice for the families of drug users.
  • FRANK. Offers support to both drug users and their families.
  • Families Anonymous. Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, Families Anonymous provides support groups in person for those affected by their loved ones’ drug and alcohol use.

Other steps you can take to look after yourself include taking a break from your loved one to do something alone. Living with an alcoholic can be very demanding, and you should give yourself the opportunity to step away from that situation every once in a while.

Research treatment options for your loved one

Another concrete step you can take to prepare yourself for a discussion with your loved one about their alcohol use is to look into treatment options.

People with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) often display a reluctance to get treatment. By offering your loved one a range of options, you can help give them the extra push they need to get treatment.

The ideal treatment for your loved one will depend on the specifics of their case. Less extensive forms of treatment are available for milder drinking problems; more extensive forms of treatment (such as a full inpatient detox and rehab) are available for those with more severe problems with alcohol.

You can read more about the range of treatments available for alcoholism here.

Help your loved one once they enter treatment

If and when your loved one does decide to enter treatment, you can help them in a number of ways.

Family therapy is a form of therapy where the loved ones of people with SUDs are invited to join in with therapy. During family therapy, you will be asked to sit in on therapy sessions. Though the focus of family therapy is the person with the SUD, you can still contribute, and your presence at therapy will help your loved one enormously. Having someone else there during therapy provides support; it also helps to bring home the effects of addiction on the families of those with SUDs.

Another way you can help your loved one during treatment is by facilitating their recovery. You can take them to therapy sessions, make sure they eat healthily and make sure that alcohol and other substances are not in the house. Most of all, you can provide support and encouragement for them during this difficult time.

Helping your loved ones through treatment can be hard, but remember that once they have entered treatment, they are making a concerted effort to get better. The best thing you can do is help them get better as quickly and effectively as possible.

Final thoughts

Having a conversation with your loved one about their alcoholism is a difficult thing to do, but it is also very important for everyone concerned.

We hope you have picked up a few useful ideas from this article which will allow you to have a productive conversation.




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