What can you do when you’re concerned about a loved one’s drinking ? are there signs you should look for? is there really anything you can do?
It generally starts out as a feeling — a nagging feeling — a sense that a loved one’s drinking (whether it’s a spouse, parent, child, friend or sibling) is getting out of control. You mention something, and they give you a plausible response — something like, “Yea, well, I wasn’t the only one.” or “What’s the big deal? It was a party — so I had a few too many. So what?” or “I hadn’t eaten all day, and they served dinner so late, the wine just went to my head.” And you let it go, but there’s another “next time” and then another and another until you realize you’re spending a lot of time thinking about that loved one’s drinking. You’ve likely had many arguments about it, as well, and then found yourself giving in because they always have an answer and since you don’t really know what makes drinking a problem, you don’t know how to counter their arguments.
So what can you do when you’re concerned about a loved one’s drinking?
Get Informed. Learn as much as you can about what is and is not normal drinking. Check out this post, Alcohol Use / Abuse / Addiction – What’s the Difference? to learn what is normal and what is not. Knowing this will help you immeasurably, and it will cut down on the types of arguments you’ll be willing to engage in (for example, how much is too much or how often is too often). This post also provides assessments that you can use to determine your loved one’s drinking patterns, and where they fall on the scale of use/abuse/addiction. Check out this website — www.hbo.com/addiction, as well. It’s another great resource and produced by HBO in collaboration with The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) and NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse). You’ll find videos and short articles about addiction and adolescent addiction (IT IS DIFFERENT), as well as interviews with medical professionals and people who’ve sought and succeeded in treatment.
Find Help For Yourself. Often the family members get lost in the confusion of the craziness that surrounds a loved one’s alcohol abuse or addiction. They become unnerved, confused and frustrated, and in time, walk on eggshells, hoping that if they just do _________(fill in the blank – get better grades, keep a better house, keep their siblings quiet), then things will get better. Some wonder if they should leave or would that be wrong? Most are confused by the Jekel and Hyde personality of the person who drinks too much and by that of the person who deals most closely with them (like a mom or a dad), who also seem to change their behaviors in reaction to the drinker’s alcohol use. I wrote If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! What You Really Need To Know When Your Loved One Drinks Too Much for this very reason — to help those who love someone who drinks too much find the information they need to help themselves (in fewer than 120 pages!).
Talk About It. Don’t wait for your loved one to hit bottom — especially if they are young. Alcoholism (an addiction to alcohol) is a disease and almost always starts before the age of 25(1), but it can take up to 20 (or more) years before the person seeks treatment. Young people are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing until their early twenties, making addiction a more likely outcome of alcohol abuse. Additionally, they have a long way to go before they “hit bottom” (they don’t own a home or have children or something “big” to loose), which is why it’s important to intervene early — don’t think of it as a phase or something they’ll grow out of. They may, but then, again, they may not.
Intervene. Don’t wait. Here are some suggestions:
- Whether your loved one is an adolescent, young adult or middle age, share the information you’ve learned with them in the same way you’d share any other kind of important news.
- Work on your angry feelings (once you understand what problem drinking is all about, this is easier to do) and try not to act on them. Shaming, blaming or raging at your problem drinking loved one is not an effective way to deal with the problem.
- Accept that you cannot “control” their drinking — hiding bottles, covering up for their behaviors, nagging, trying to limit access — none of that works. It will only drive you crazy and make you more angry. You can decide what you will tolerate and then let them know. (You’ll find suggestions for this in my book.)
- Look into treatment programs and insurance coverages so that you have the information ready should treatment or therapy be necessary or desired.
- Talk to your family internist or pediatrician and share with them the NIAAA publication, “Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much, A Clinician’s Guide.”
- Host family events and activities that do not involve alcohol nor allow it to be served.
- Understand that all alcoholics go through a period of alcohol abuse (which is not alcoholic) but not all alcohol abusers become alcoholics. In other words, if your loved one can get control when their drinking is only in the abuse stage (and “control” is defined as returning to safe drinking limits or stopping all together), your loved one may not have to deal with a lifelong addiction.
Loving someone who drinks too much is a huge personal challenge. Try these suggestions and please share some of your own by adding your comments below.