2013-12-19 / Relationships

What should you do when a loved one is drinking too much?

Jack motioned to the waiter to refill his glass. His wife Nina tried desperately to catch his eye — without calling too much attention— but to no avail. Jack either didn’t notice her gesture, or more likely, was deliberately ignoring her. Nina wasn’t sure if anyone else had observed what she saw — that Jack was becoming unsteady on his feet, and he’d begun to slur his words. Nina knew that not only Jack’s boss, but also his biggest client would be at this party and it was very important for Jack to make a good impression. She had begged Jack before the party to be careful with his drinking, but he’d brushed off her concerns. Lately, Jack’s drinking had become excessive and Nina was worried things were beginning to spiral out of control. It was hard for Nina to contain her anxieties. She knew she was making matters worse by constantly bringing up the subject. She and Jack were arguing all the time, and he was accusing HER of causing all the troubles at home.

So, what do we do when a loved one imbibes to excess? Especially, when they’ve resisted (and resented) every warning and heartfelt plea we’ve made for them to cut back?

Excessive drinkers often deny the seriousness of their drinking problem, even when they’ve begun a pattern that could be dangerous to their physical, emotional and financial health. They may also turn a blind eye to the pain they’ve caused their families, and the jeopardy to their livelihoods.

Many lay people have difficulties determining which problem drinkers could be considered alcoholics, and which individuals have the wherewithal to address their problem drinking on their own.

Some people have inherently been able to understand the dangers of overconsumption and begin a course of cutting down by themselves, without the need for total abstention. However, there are many problem drinkers whose behavior and patterns have escalated to such a serious place they are not able to make significant headway without professional help.

Convincing an alcoholic to stop drinking is a difficult, if not improbable, task. Our most realistic goal is to highlight the concerns in such a way that the alcoholic has no choice but to examine his own circumstances in an honest way. The hope is that he eventually concludes the stakes are now so high he must take critical rehabilitative steps.

It’s often difficult to broach this sensitive topic without a lot of heartache. Our family member may attempt to turn the tables around and may then ACCUSE US of nagging or controlling behavior. Now, we’re on the defensive and may either back pedal or up the ante. Regardless of our approach, things often deteriorate to a tense, demoralizing stalemate, with little resolution.

So, we probably know what doesn’t work. Obviously, critical name calling, threatening and blaming only serves to increase the hostility and estrangement, and may even paradoxically make matters worse, because the accused may drink out of indignation or spite.

It’s important to find a time that offers the best opportunity for clear, effective discussion. We should wait until we’ve sorted out our own feelings and have calmed down sufficiently, so we will hopefully have the inner reserves from our end to avoid escalating, destructive emotions.

While it’s important not to initiate a discussion while our family member is intoxicated, it can be valuable to start the conversation some time shortly after there’s been a distressing or embarrassing event. It’s much harder for the drinker to deny the seriousness of our concerns on the heels of an actual disturbing occurrence. The drinker may still be feeling the sting of humiliation and regret, and potentially may be open to a straightforward discussion about the damaging event.

We should formulate a message ahead of time because we have this key window of time to best present our concerns. We should take care not to preach and to remove the judgment or self-pity. This is the opportunity to spell out specific points such as health concerns, lateness from work, speeding tickets and neglect of family responsibilities.

It’s advisable to research local resources ahead of time so we have names of local services and information available. There are also many services in the community that help individuals assess the right steps to take, ranging from self- help groups, 12-step programs, outpatient mental health or addiction services, to inpatient rehabilitation facilities.

Sometimes, we may feel so vulnerable and worried we unintentionally intervene in ways that enable the drinker to continue on a destructive path. Clarifying what we will and will not tolerate — for example, getting into a car with an impaired driver, and physical or verbal abuse — helps us define healthy limits and boundaries.

We should not make admonitions we are not prepared to act on, because the drinker knows when we are making idle threats. Oftentimes, we find ourselves making excuses or minimizing the seriousness of our loved one’s behavior because it’s so painful to follow through with our stated course of action (even though we may know in our hearts what we must do.)

It’s also valuable to get our own emotional support and guidance to clarify how we can best take care of ourselves and our family in this difficult process. There are many self-help groups, such as Alanon, that are comprised of others who share the same struggles and will offer practical advice.

Importantly, we must all remind ourselves that this is a challenge the drinker must accept on his own. We cannot do it for him. ¦

— Linda Lipshutz, M. S., LCSW, is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 630- 2827, online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com, or on Twitter @LindaLipshutz.

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