How to Talk to an Alcoholic Who Has Not Yet Agreed to Seek Help

When someone develops a drinking problem, it can create quite a conundrum for his friends and family. To prevent tragedy, they know they must intervene before the situation gets any worse, but they are usually at a complete loss about how to proceed.

Alcoholism is an insidious disease that approaches its victims with stealth and cunning, and because it takes over so gradually the fledgling alcoholic seldom has an accurate perception of what is really happening to him. Consequently, he will almost invariably remain in denial about the depth and nature of his problem in the early going, which can make it difficult if not impossible to approach him about his substance abuse without provoking strong resistance and even outright hostility. Even if they have never experienced such a situation before, family members seem to realize this instinctively, and they are often extremely reluctant to make the attempt to open an honest dialogue with the alcoholic because they know the message they want to convey is one that he in all likelihood will not be ready to hear.

The anxiety and frustration that the loved ones of an alcoholic who is not yet in treatment feel is understandable. But only infrequently will the denial stage end because the substance abuser comes to his senses all on his own. And if left unaddressed, denial is likely to harden into an impenetrable fortress, leaving an alcoholic’s loved ones with little recourse but to watch his descent into oblivion from the sidelines, powerless to make any kind of difference.

Listening with Your Heart

If you have a child, parent, friend, sibling, or cousin you cherish who is sliding deeper and deeper into alcohol dependency, no matter how daunting the challenge may seem to be you have no choice but to step in and take action. You will want others in his network of friends and family to get involved as well, but unless and until you are ready to organize a formal intervention, a low-key, divided approach is undoubtedly the best. Quiet, intimate conversations involving no more than one or two visitors at a time are likely to be most effective during the tender early stages of an alcoholic’s decline into problem drinking, and only if that does not work should the family consider consulting with an addiction specialist about the possibility of a group intervention.

When you first go to visit the alcoholic to discuss his situation, you will probably feel the urge to tell him how much you love him and care about him, and to let him know how devastated you would be if something terrible happened to him as a result of his drinking. If it is normal for you to express these sorts of sentiments and emotions in your communications with this individual, this is perfectly fine, and recommended. However, if this style of communication is unusual for the two of you, it would be a mistake to suddenly start speaking this way now. A person who is not used to hearing expressions of affection from you may be made uncomfortable by such an approach, and in a situation like this you should be doing everything you can to make the alcoholic feel at ease.

When you do express your concerns, it is important to focus on particular events rather than on the alcoholic himself. So if, for example, he has been involved in arguments or physical altercations while intoxicated, been issued a DUI, missed family holiday gatherings, or failed to show up for work because he was too sick or drunk, these incidents and their consequences should comprise the meat and potatoes of your presentation. The alcoholic may be inclined to rationalize and deny he has lost control of his drinking, but when faced with the real evidence he may have a difficult time sticking with that story.

Regardless of how self-destructive or harmful to others his behavior has been, an alcoholic in denial is unlikely to respond well to a lecture. If you expect him to profit from your visit you must be willing to listen to what he has to say respectfully, answer all of his questions without judgment or impatience, and accept his continuing resistance to your entreaties with grace and good humor if he is still unable to see the truth despite your best efforts. You do need to let him know that you intend to be heard, however, and if it becomes clear that he is not ready to have a serious discussion on the day of your visit you must let him know that you will be back, more than once if necessary. Above all else, it is vitally important that you not lose your temper and allow the conversation to turn into an argument; this will only make an alcoholic even more defensive than he already is, and your chances of getting through to him will be immediately reduced to zero.

The Virtue of Patience, the Commitment of Love

When a person has developed a drinking problem and is in need of help, there are no magic words that will automatically breach his wall of denial and send him dashing off to treatment. Convincing a substance abuser that it is time to address his behavior and confront his addiction is a process that often takes time and sustained effort, and you and the other members of the family must be willing to commit yourself for the long haul if you expect to accomplish your mission of mercy.

You may not know exactly what you are going to say to a person with an alcohol problem when you are face to face, but you must be willing to leap into the deep end of the pool even if you are not sure you are fully prepared. Your chances of making a dent in an alcoholic’s protective armor will be greatly enhanced if you resolve to treat him with dignity and respect in each and every moment, even as you are doing everything in your power to help him see the light and realize he is headed for disaster if he cannot open his eyes and finally see the runaway freight train that is bearing down upon his life.