Confronting a Friend About Alcoholism for the First Time

A common occurrence among alcoholics and friends of alcoholics is denial. We oftentimes deny that there is ever a problem with alcohol because it is such an uncomfortable subject to approach. Other times it can be difficult to tell whether someone truly has a problem with alcohol.

However, if you are concerned about a friend’s drinking, it is alright to approach them. By skillfully approaching the subject, you can hopefully help them make important, potentially life saving changes.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 15 million adults ages 18 and over qualify for having alcohol use disorder. That’s more than 6.2% of the adult population in the United States. Odds are, you know at least one person with alcohol use disorder. Since only about 6.7% of those 15 million ever get clinical treatment, the odds are also high that you know someone who needs help.

While it can be uncomfortable to approach someone regarding their alcohol usage, there are some steps you can take to ensure that you do more to help than to hurt. Here are general guidelines for bringing up and discussing the subject in the most supportive way possible.

Confronting A Friend About Alcoholism For The First Time

Time Your Approach Carefully.

The first thing to keep in mind when planning your approach is to talk with them while they are sober. You’ll have a much better chance of reaching them if they aren’t under the intoxication of chemical substances.

If your friend is someone who is frequently drunk and it’s difficult to find a moment of sobriety, then you may want to try them early in the morning or during a period when they are supposed to be sober, such as while driving or at work.

It’s also best not to approach your friend during times of great stress or anguish. The added difficulty of dealing with alcoholism on top of personal issues may cause them to shut down. Instead, try to find them at moments of relative peace and solitude.

Approach as a Friend, not an Authority

Make sure they know you’re approaching as a friend, not an authority. Some people assume that taking a hard-line approach is the way to go, but you may wind up only alienating your friend further and hurting them even more. Scolding a child or a pet for their behavior may work, but you need to have respect for your friend as an individual with free agency.

Instead of condemning them, take a compassionate approach and use non judgemental language. Don’t label the person as an alcoholic or demand that they get treatment. Simply offer your love and support as a friend and state your concerns about their drinking.

Friends Talking

Offer Help, Don’t Demand It

It’s important to offer your help as a friend and loved one, not to demand that your friend seek it. You can tell them about treatment options, or just urge them to consider an assessment by an addiction professional. You’re not there to save them, you’re just there to let them know that they have a friend available who is concerned about their well-being.

If your friend is ready for help, you can come prepared with treatment centers, counselor contact information, and directions to local AA meetings. You can even offer to drive them if they need it. They may refuse to seek help, and in this case there is not much you can do. A person who gets treatment for addiction needs to be ready to receive it.

State the Consequences

When speaking with your friend, make sure to mention specific instances or events that made you concerned about their drinking. This could be one too many nights they can’t remember, a drunken brawl, or destroyed property. Chances are that there have been multiple events you can reference.

Sometimes however, alcoholism can be more subtle and less physically evident. This doesn’t make the pain and destruction of the disease any less valid. Your friend may have grown distant or verbally abusive. They may appear depressed, anxious, and aloof. You should mention the specific ways that their drinking has affected your relationship in negative ways. Using real, concrete examples brings their drinking behavior into the real world.

You can also look up information about the health consequences of drinking. Explain how drinking can be negatively impacting their health and how it can only continue to cause harm.

Friends drinking

Be Prepared With a Plan of Action

If your friend winds up being open and receptive to the idea, you will want to have some sort of plan of action in place. Have some concrete steps for them to take, such as the location of nearby AA meetings and treatment providers who work with their insurance.

In some situations, it may be useful to call treatment centers and get pricing information beforehand. You can have admissions representatives hold a bed for your friend so that it only takes one car ride to begin treatment.

In some cases, the situation may not be so dire as to need treatment. In these cases, you can provide your friend with informational resources or the contact information of another friend in recovery. Offer your love and support and make sure that they know this conversation stays between you two.

Be Prepared For Pushback

Some people may become hostile when they are confronted with their drinking problem. It’s important to stay resolute and not cave to their pressure. Try not to take their hostility personally, as it’s a natural defense mechanism to deny a problem and direct the anger back at the accuser.

If your friend becomes angry, it’s best to remain calm and approach them at a different time. However, do not consider this backing down. Restate your concerns and tell them that if they continue to drink this way, you will continue to have an issue. Assure them you will be there to offer love and support and that you only wish to see them well.

There you have it! Every person and situation is going to be different, but these are some general guidelines for approaching a friend about alcoholism.


About the Author

Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a chain of drug and alcohol rehab facilities in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Indiana. He has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years with a new emphasis on recovery. Before his ventures into healthcare, Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After Duke Matthew went on to work for the Boston Consulting Group before he realized his true passion lies within Recovery. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment, and intervention.


 

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How Secondary Gain Fuels Alcoholism

While you may not know it by this name, secondary gain exists in alcoholism, whether we like it or not. Secondary gain plays a huge role in addiction, and, can be a significant contributor to denial and likelihood of relapse once sober.

Simply put, secondary gain equates to: what specifically alcohol is achieving for you, personally, as a “side-benefit”. If they go unchecked, these side-benefits can later morph into the main reasons we’re using alcohol at all.

But, there are ways to understand these underlying factors in our addictions, and undo the damage done. Let’s take a look.

While denial exists to protect our access to the coping mechanism called alcohol; secondary gain is more like – “what benefits am I getting from alcohol, that I may not have thought of?”….and what issues do those point me to?

How Secondary Gain Fuels Alcoholism

Consider the key questions:

  • How has alcohol served me?
  • How has alcohol not served me?

What has alcohol helped me do? What feelings does it help me achieve, that I’m unable to achieve  in other ways? What situations does it help me cope with, and what feelings am I running from, in those scenarios?

I could be drinking because…

  • When I have a drink, I feel “more worthy” or “good enough” again.
  • When I have a drink, I feel more important or respected
  • Or, when I have a drink, I feel more lovable, accepted…. or like “what I say matters”.

At one point in our lives, having a drink was ONE way to cope, but for the alcoholic in us, it quickly became the ONLY means to cope, because of these secondary benefits it gave us.

So we’ve learned over time, a survival strategy belief, for instance:

  • “the way to feel good enough again, is to drink”
  • “the way to feel worthy again, even in the face of outside stressors, is to have a drink”
  • “the way to feel like I matter again, is alcohol”
  • “the way to feel competent again, is to drink”

It’s clear therefore, that we’re using alcohol as a means to quell the underlying self-esteem beliefs, like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not worthy”, “I’m not important”, or “I’m not acceptable”.

Do you recognise these underlying themes in yourself? In your behaviours when stressed?

Now, if we address these underlying core beliefs, therapeutically, (instead of with alcohol) is it clear  to you that there would be much less need to even turn to a coping mechanism at all?

These are the core elements of self – the highly individual, person-centered elements, that we must understand about ourselves, beyond the group support mechanisms such as A/A, N/A, mutual aid support, etc. Often these are discovered and explored in private rehab settings, such as the folks over at alcohol rehab Scotland.

These elements of secondary gain are the underlying drivers behind the addiction – that sit underneath the addiction. It is the fear of these underlying issues surfacing, untempered, that then drives the patterns of denial, and keeps us in the cycle of addiction, without ever truly understanding *why* we feel the way they do.

Bar Counter

So…How to break the cycle of alcoholism using this understanding?

  • Using the questions above, take the time to consider what secondary advantages alcohol could be giving (or have given you previously) in your life
  • To help this along, try to identify common patterns in your trigger situations, “I always turn to alcohol in _____ situation;” “I always feel like a drink when ____ happens”. What might you be trying to avoid, or gain, in these situations?
  • What feelings does alcohol bring to the fore in these situations, that weren’t there before? What does alcohol help you feel in these situations?
  • When you *do* have a drink, what does it make you/get you/get for you?
  • Now consider the mirror opposite – e.g. when you’re tempted to drink, and you don’t drink, what feelings surface at that point, that weren’t there before?
  • Now using your answers from the above, fill in the blanks: “What makes me ________ is drinking alcohol”; and “The way to feel _________ is to drink alcohol”
  • Usually, the blanks in the above are your core issues and core beliefs which need attention, to change the pattern of the addiction in your life.
  • Finally….stop blaming yourself for the small relapses – but instead – use them to help you truly know yourself, and your addiction, better. Examine what led to the binge or relapse, what you were trying to cope with at the time – and understand that these moments point you to the underlying issues – and as such – are a huge help in overcoming alcoholism in the longer term.

Often times the issues revealed from this exercise are deep core issues, self-esteem blocks, or specific traumas from the past, that need professional mental health assistance.

Just as in our step work, they require us to face our issues directly, accept responsibility for them, and accept that we have a human tendency to choose a negative behaviour over a positive one, whilst in the darker clutches of addiction.

But moving through these issues, getting the third-party help and fellowship we need, and making consistent progress, no matter how little, will ultimately result in us simply no longer needing the coping mechanism we once did….because the underlying truth has been faced.

Now, let’s be realistic, there’s much more to maintaining abstinence and long term recovery than just these issues….but, when we add this self discovery to the bigger picture of mutual aid support, sponsorship, and other mental health care tailored to individual needs – then recovery can feel much more realistic, and one degree more achievable. And that can make all the difference.

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