No one wants to believe their loved one is an alcoholic. Whether it’s a parent, a child, a spouse, or a dear friend, the desire to deny the presence of alcohol addiction can be overwhelming. Your denial may spur you to invent all manner of stories to alleviate your suspicions; he just had a bad night, everyone drinks at her age, the DUI was just a momentary slip of judgment. But while the families of alcoholics are often deeply invested in denial, alcoholics themselves are even more so, which means that you are likely to identify their alcoholism before they do. By moving beyond your own denial to recognize the signs of alcoholism and offer meaningful support, you can open up a door to recovery that may otherwise have remained closed indefinitely.
The Many Guises of Alcohol Addiction
Sometimes, identifying alcoholism is easy. Charlotte was fifteen years old when she discovered her dad was an alcoholic. “I realized his relationship with alcohol was incredibly unhealthy because he was hiding it,” she says in an interview with the BBC. “He’d lie to my mom and say, ‘I haven’t had a drink today’ and you’d think ‘I saw you earlier. Yes you did.’” She’d find wine bottles hidden behind the sofa and heard stories from her friends about seeing him passed out drunk on the street. He was fired from his job, his wife left him, he lost his house; his life transformed into a cautionary tale of what happens when you become an alcoholic. His addiction was evident in every aspect of his life, inextricable from others’ visions of him.
But alcoholism doesn’t always reveal itself so plainly. As one anonymous essayist writes in The Guardian,
It’s far easier to conceal a drink problem than you’d think. My dad does it every day, his alcoholism almost invisible (unless you know what to look for) … His alcohol abuse, if only witnessed down the pub amid so many others, can easily be construed as, “he’s just having a good time.”
There has been no catastrophic event that revealed his alcoholism to the world—no blackouts outside bars, no social withdrawal, no losing his job due to intoxication. In fact, he is the life of the party, hosting weekend barbecues and winning the adoration of everyone around him, even as he outdrinks them all. His addiction is so well-concealed that only those who observe his daily routine at close range know the truth.
Recognizing the Signs of Alcoholism
While Charlotte’s father’s alcoholism may look worse from the outside, hidden addictions can at times be more dangerous precisely due to the addict’s successful containment. Without overt signals that their drinking is out of control, denial comes more easily and external intervention is less likely. If you are concerned about your loved one’s drinking, coming to recognize even the most subtle signs of alcoholism can be critical to helping them start on the path to healing.
Signs of Alcoholism
- Being unable to control how much alcohol one consumes
- Being unable to cut back on how much or how frequently one drinks
- Experiencing cravings for alcohol
- Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities due to drinking
- Continuing to drink despite negative personal, professional, or health-related ramifications
- Giving up things one used to enjoy in favor of drinking
- Using alcohol in unsafe settings
- Excessive time spent thinking about, planning, recovering from, and participating in alcohol consumption
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as tremors and nausea
It is important to note that all of the signs of alcoholism relate to thoughts and behaviors rather than to the amount of alcohol consumed or frequency of consumption. While it is true that many alcoholics drink often and in large quantities, this is not necessarily the case for everyone; it is possible to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol even without drinking vast amounts or drinking constantly. What matters is the motivation behind, and the effects of, someone’s drinking.
Guiding Your Loved One to Treatment
If you have determined that your loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, it is time to raise your concerns. This can be a scary prospect. How will they react? What if they get angry? What if I push them away? These are all real and valid concerns. If you do not feel comfortable approaching your loved one alone and would like them to seek treatment immediately, you may enlist the services of a professional interventionist who will work to guide your loved one into treatment while providing meaningful support for your family as a group. Regardless of whether you partner with an interventionist or go it alone, the right preparation is key to making the conversation as healthy and productive as possible.
Before you approach your loved one, learn everything you can about alcoholism in order to more fully understand the illness itself and the experiences of people struggling with alcohol addiction. As Dr. Laura J. Martin says, “You can read books, look online, or ask your healthcare provider for information. The more you know, the more information you’ll have ready to help your loved one.” A high-quality addiction treatment program will also be happy to provide you with any guidance you may need.
Practice What You Are Going to Say
By preparing what you want to say, you give yourself the time to formulate your thoughts in a thoughtful and supportive manner. Take care to use “I” statements and avoid accusations, shaming, lectures, and threats. According to Stephanie Watson of Healthline, “It may be helpful to bring up a specific concern. You may mention when alcohol caused an unwanted effect, such as violent behavior or economic problems. Rather than saying, ‘You’re an alcoholic—you need to get help now,’ you can say, ‘I love you and you’re very important to me. I’m concerned about how much you’re drinking, and it may be harming your health.'” It may help you to write down your thoughts beforehand, to clarify and organize what you want to say before you try to say it.
Choose an Appropriate Setting
Select a time and place to talk where you both feel safe and comfortable and where you will not be distracted.
Offer Your Support, Love, and Compassion
Speaking to your loved one about their alcohol abuse will likely be difficult for both of you, but it is vitally important. Tell them that you love them, are worried about their drinking, and that you are there for them if they want your help. If your loved one responds negatively, do not take it personally or blame yourself; they may simply not be ready to talk about their struggle with you and may need time to process what you have said.
The ultimate purpose of speaking with your loved one about their alcoholism is to get them help. Alcoholism is not simply an arbitrary personal choice, but a medical illness that requires dedicated professional treatment to achieve the best outcomes. As such, it is critical that you have prepared a list of medical resources they can connect to following your meeting. Ideally this list should include residential program options, which can offer the most complete alcohol addiction treatment experiences for your loved one and your family as a whole. Such programs will always make themselves available to you and your loved one as you navigate the next steps in the journey toward healing. If you are working with an interventionist, a space at a residential facility should be reserved in advance to allow for immediate transfer.
Recognizing the signs of alcoholism in your loved one can be deeply painful and giving voice to your concerns is profoundly brave. While the choice to seek treatment ultimately lies with each individual, your guidance can play an instrumental role in helping them choose recovery and create lasting freedom from alcohol.
Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of treatment programs for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative treatment approach and how we can help your loved one start on the path to true healing.
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