One of the touchiest subjects we can come across is how to talk to a loved one who drinks too much. How do you encourage them to drink less without offending, which is easy to do. It’s a very slippery slope. I was the person who was ‘talked to’ about my drinking. Since 1 in 3 households suffer from addiction the question of how can we help those we love is enormously important.
I remember feeling like I was being judged when my husband said something about my drinking. When I felt judged I felt separate – apart. I knew my drinking was an issue but I couldn’t admit that to him – admitting it would mean I would have to change and the terrifying thing was that I didn’t know if I was able to change. I now understand that him not saying anything would have felt -to him- like accepting or enabling my drinking too much. I did not understand that at the time.
Defense was much less painful for me than any other avenue – I was afraid of my behavior and I felt like I had to justify my behavior or else the guilt, shame and helplessness of it would have eaten me alive. At some point in my drinking career even my husband ceased encouraging me to stop. When that happened – I had no funnel, no outlet for my defensiveness. Ironically, I had to start looking at my own behavior. As long as he was bugging me to drink less any change I made was for him (and I was resentful of it). When he stopped and just accepted that that was who I was then when I drank too much – and was not where I wanted to be – the only person I could look at was myself.
It is my belief that change cannot be forced.
So on one hand I have my own experience – first of feeling pressure, guilt, judgment and distance from my husband to then feeling accepted and loved for being me – despite my bad habits – and the change that ultimately did take place.
On the other hand, I have done research into this very topic over the years and found five themes that seem to have the most positive influence in helping someone change their behavior – because the truth is that you can’t change anyone. Your job is to make the safe and loving space which allows them to come to their own understanding and desire to change. How you talk to a loved one who drinks too much will make a significant impact in their desire to change.
Understand the addict
First – Understand the addict; enough to go beyond sympathy to expressing true empathy. In contrast with sympathy, which is more closely aligned to pity, empathy means you actually experience another’s pain.
So how are you supposed to understand, feel and experience the pain of an addiction when you are not addicted? In order to experience you must understand that addiction is much more like being in prison than like having a simple choice. While the addict made the initial choice to try the substance they became addicted to in the later stages of addiction their brain has actually been rewired, and they no longer enjoy the drug yet they still crave it. One of the aspects of craving is that the craving happens in the mid-brain – the survival part of the brain. This means the brain of the addict has been changed through time and exposure to believe that the substance is vital for survival. More important than practically anything else. We see this in rats that are addicted, they will forego food, water, sex even taking care of their young to get their next fix. This happens because the brain has been rewired. Just like exposure to a toxin can cause the disease of cancer, long term exposure to an addictive substance can cause the disease of addiction – disease being defined as an organ – in this case the brain – becoming damaged and unable to work as it should.
Those who aren’t addicted struggle with this because of the choice factor. Generally people drink or smoke because they want to and because they like to.
With addiction the liking and wanting functions actually separate, the addict desperately wants the substance even though they no longer enjoy it.
Addicts end up doing something they hate. Their justification and protection of their drug is a coping mechanism. They can’t explain why they can’t stop so they must tell themselves they enjoy it.
Reality is that addiction is like being in handcuffs. You put them on yourself but you don’t remember when and now your life is being ruined. You want nothing more than to escape but you don’t have the key.
Addiction steals the addicts freedom, it is akin to being trapped in a maze without a clear way out. Further the addict feels they have no one to blame but themselves, so they pile on self-loathing and guilt. The internal pain of addiction is so severe that suicide – often through overdose – may seem like the only way out of the horror an addicts life has become.
I felt trapped in my drinking – and while it felt so inexplicably important I wasn’t even really enjoying it anymore.
Empathy is vital
Empathy is vital and true empathy can come from learning what its like to be inside their head. If they are willing to talk about it this can be a great way to learn. Unfortunately, many of us don’t understand the disease of addiction and we blame ourselves. We feel so much shame that we are unwilling to talk. If your loved one is willing to talk – be sincere in your desire to understand just for the sake of understanding – rather than for the sake of forcing them to make the change you desire.
Avoid arguments and confrontation in order to ensure the addict does not become defensive. Once you understand that the addict is effectively trapped in their addiction, that this is no longer a simple choice, it will be easier to avoid arguments.
Addiction is confusing – many addicts feels like they are losing their minds. They feel as if they are becoming disconnected from themselves – because the truth is just like you can’t understand their behavior they can’t understand their behavior.
They realize that what they are doing is no longer beneficial and they see the pain it is causing yet, on some deep level, they feel unable to stop.
When you see this from the outside doesn’t make any sense. Why won’t he or she just stop? The thing is, it doesn’t make any sense inside the mind of someone who is addicted either.
Since they can’t understand why, they rationalize their behavior in all sorts of ways. They need their rationalizations to become real in order to reduce the discomfort of addiction. Now eventually, in order to change, they need to see the falseness of the rationalizations they give for their behavior. The issue is that by trying to make this happen on your terms you risk making them defensive.
We defend alcohol, because we know we are trapped. We have to defend it in order to cope – in order to reduce the horror of the fact that our behavior no longer feels completely in our control.
I speak from experience, making an addict more defensive is counterproductive and studies show that making someone defensive can actually makes them resistant to change.
I realize all this acceptance can make you feel helpless – so here is something you can do that will help. Try and help your loved one perceive a discrepancy between where they and where they want to be. In Prochaska & DiClemnte’s stages of change they say the first step is to begin to consider the need for change. This is the move from the “precontemplation” stage to the “contemplation” stage of change. I highly recommend Googling “The stages of change” – as the information is very helpful.
Help them remember the good times
You can do this by helping them remember good times before they were drinking so much. You can do this by talking honestly, asking questions and bringing up memories to help them see how much better things were and can be again. You can gently remind them of how healthy or fit they were or things they used to enjoy. Instead of accusing or telling them you simply shine a light on what used to be. This allows them to draw their own realizations and conclusions about their current reality. You can try to ask questions and lead them down a path to seeing how far they are from their ideal self.
Provide hope through encouragement and support. Studies show that even if someone is persuaded they need to change. They will not move toward change unless there is hope for success. A huge barrier to accepting a change needs to be made is the belief that change will be impossible. You can support this process with encouragement and support. Learn about how others have successfully changed and motivate your loved one with stories of success. Again, encourage them to remember the good times before addiction and reassure them that life can be that good again.
Be graceful and forgiving
Once they are trying to make a change, make sure you are graceful and forgiving. Always respond with encouragement rather than condemnation. Remember – we’re rethinking how you talk to a loved one who is drinking too much so the way you want to do it might not be the way it needs to be done. Some people move through the stages of change to freedom and never look back. However, for most people relapse is an important – even vital and crucial – part of the journey. By realizing it is part of the process, you will save yourself heartache. More importantly your forgiveness and understanding, more than anything else, will motivate an addict to try again. It is vital to remember that this is a journey and to see the times when progress slows, or goes backward as part of the process, part of the journey. It is an important teaching experience that is necessary to build strength and resolve rather than mistakes. Guilt here will not progress but rather hinder change.
Ultimately change happens inside the individual. When they do realize the need for change, I highly recommend an approach that works through the person’s motivations for drinking and then exposes the falsities of each – ultimately devaluing alcohol in the persons mind. This method allows more freedom – alcohol becomes something they don’t really want rather than something they believe they want that they are no longer allowing themselves to have.
Download a sample of my book which explains addiction and how the mind works in greater detail.