It is often remarked that those struggling with alcohol addiction are the last to know it; their friends and family members tend to pick up on the red flags and warning signs long before the individual will acknowledge the problem. This is a function of denial, something that tends to accompany addiction and makes it difficult for the individual to request the help that he or she so desperately needs.
Denial doesn’t just make things challenging for the person struggling with addiction, though. It is also problematic for the family members. You may observe that your spouse, child, sibling, parent, or friend is exhibiting the telltale signs of addiction, and you may feel a need to say something—but you may also realize that the person will flatly deny you, and refuse to have any kind of a candid conversation with you about addiction.
Does this mean that you don’t broach the topic at all? By no means. All it means is that you must engage the topic tactfully and strategically.
The Right Beginning
To begin with, make sure you have a proper understanding of denial. Your loved one who struggles with addiction may have some plainly obvious consequences in his or her life, such as relational difficulties, legal problems, financial ruin, a hard time at work, or poor physical health. You may struggle to understand how the person could possibly deny that the drinking or the drug use is a problem. What’s critical to remember is that addiction is a disease, and denial is one of its symptoms. Your loved one is not simply choosing to be irrational; the denial is dictated by brain chemistry, not stubbornness or obstinacy.
Approaching your loved one while your mind is still reeling, while you’re still wresting with anger or frustration, can cause the conversation to be less than helpful. Take some time to cool down, calm yourself, and remember that you’re dealing with a true disease—a disease that must be addressed with delicacy and compassion.
Once you have a sound mindset, remind yourself of why you’re broaching the topic of addiction with your loved one: Because you know that they have a problem that could prove lethal; because you care about them; because you are worried; because you wish to see them seek help.
That’s important to remember as you actually start the conversation, as heated discussion and confrontation are frankly quite likely. Your loved one may respond defensively, even angrily. Again, this is the addiction’s sway; this is the power of the disease talking.
There are some ways you can mitigate this kind of response. One of the best approaches is to speak in I statements, not accusatory you statements. For example, don’t say this: “You are drinking way too much.” That immediately puts your loved one on the defensive, and makes you seem like a judge, not a friend. Instead, say this: “I feel like your drinking is out of hand, and I am worried about you.”
Also make it clear that you are not trying to “fix” your loved one, or try to force them to seek treatment before they are ready. Instead, what you’re doing is simply showing care, compassion, and support. Express your unconditional love, and your willingness to keep the lines of communication open.
You may need to reaffirm expectations for yourself, too: You cannot change anyone, and shouldn’t try. All you can do is be a friend. All you can do is be there, and offer your support and encouragement.
So keep the conversation going. Reiterate your desire to help, your willingness to offer support in whatever ways you can. You may not break through the denial in the first conversation. Gentle persistence can work wonders over time, however—and finally let your message sneak past the disease and convince your loved one to let you help.
The author of this article Sam is a freelance writer and also associated with Chapters Capistrano. This is an executive rehab facility that provides confidential, compassionate, clinical care to those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, throughout Southern California.