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How to talk to someone with alcoholism or drug addiction

A and NA meetings

Reaching out to an addicted person

Having someone close to you who abuses drugs or alcohol is very difficult. People are often unsure of the right approach to take, so in some cases may simply ignore the problem, hoping the individual will get better by themselves. In other cases, people are scared to broach the subject as they are scared of pushing the person further away, and making them even more vulnerable and isolated.Contact us for professional alcohol and drug interventions and treatment.

Families often unwittingly enable the addicted person’s habit by financing their drug or alcohol use through lending them money, or paying off their debts. If the person is a heavy alcohol or drug user, then they are less able to make good decisions and urgently require the input of family members and friends to guide them.

How to approach the addicted person

When you have decided to speak to someone about their addictive behaviour, plan how will you approach them beforehand. If you have a script, you will be less likely to say things in the wrong way, or things that you will regret. Do not not take a heavy-handed, authoritarian, or confrontational approach. Instead, try to be gentle, caring and persuasive.

Your word choice is important; try not to accuse them. For example, instead of telling them you think they are a drug addict, you could say, “I believe you have a problem with drug addiction.”

These interactions are rarely easy; expect the person to defensive and angry. Regardless of how they respond, it is important that you stay calm. Even if you are angry or scared, do not express these emotions to the addicted person. It should be what you are saying that is the focus, rather than how you are saying it.

Offer your support

Start off by making sure they know you are worried about them and want to support them in making positive changes to their life.

Give them the facts

Before approaching the person to speak about their addiction, prepare facts about their drinking or drug use habits. Avoid vagueness (“You drink too much”), and moral judgements (“It’s disgusting how much you drink”). Instead, be specific and speak accurately about incidents that took place. For example, you could say, “Last night you were shouting at me and driving on the wrong side of the road, which I found very scary.”

Explain that addiction is an illness

Emphasise to the addicted person that addiction is an illness, rather than a character flaw, or moral failing. Assure them that they are a good person who happens to be suffering from a destructive disease – one which causes progressive mental and physical decline, and could ultimately be fatal. Persuade them that abstinence is the only way for them to get better, and promise them that you will be there to support them recovery.  

Bargaining can be effective

The greater your bargaining power, the more effectively you will be able to persuade them to enter treatment. Do not threaten them, but calmly offer them a choice. You must carry out what you say, or they will learn over time that you do not mean it, and that there will be no consequences for their behaviour. Addicted people must learn to take responsibility for their behaviour and be set clear boundaries by their loved ones in order to get better.

Examples of these could include an employer offering a staff member the choice of getting treatment or losing their job; a sheriff may offer the choice between treatment and prison; while a parent could decide that until a grandparent gets addiction treatment, they should not have contact with their grandchild. When you are offering choices such as these, convey your concern for the person, but also express your resolve to uphold this offer.  

Intervene as a group

Approaching an addicted person about their behaviour can be more effective if done as a group. If you are the only one, it can be easier for the person to shrug it off, and deny the importance of your claims. There are a variety of people you could involve in the intervention.

An addicted person’s spouse could ask older offspring to be part of the intervention. While a group of colleagues or friends of the addicted person could approach them together. If each person in the group has different facts to relate to the person concerning their behaviour, this can be very effective method.

Alternatively, a group of people could approach the person at different points over a short period of time such as a week. They can all express their desire that the person seeks help, and direct them to the same place for professional help.

Offer professional support

When you plan to approach someone to speak about their addictive behaviour, make sure you are equipped with the contact details of addiction specialists. This is so the person can take immediate action in seeking help. If they don’t want to phone, offer to phone for them straight away. Often, the person will agree that they need help, but will not follow through with seeking advice and treatment.

In the case where they do not agree to seek help, it isn’t helpful to nag or berate them. Sometimes it can take months before someone is ready to seek the appropriate treatment.

Let them take responsibility

The addicted person must take responsibility for their actions; do not try to share responsibility with them. An essential part of successful rehab programmes is learning to own up to your actions and deal with it in an emotionally mature.

Suggest treatment as hope for recovery

Often, people see addiction as a hopeless condition that cannot be treated. However, many people with drug and alcohol addiction problems do successfully recover. Treating the problem early on is important, as success rates are higher for early interventions. Approaching the person as soon as you notice that they have a problem is the best course of action.

Give them details of a peer-support group

When approaching the person with the drug or alcohol problem, be equipped with information about peer-support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) that they could attend. The first time, they may find it daunting, so offer to accompany them or at least take them there.

AA uses a gentle method of promoting abstinence, and advises people to take one day at a time. AA will give the person hope that they can recover, as well as putting them in touch with a support network of others in a similar situation. People suffering addiction problems may have alienated their support network through their addictive behaviour and are likely to be lonely. AA is therefore extremely important in reconnecting them with others.

Attend al-anon meetings

Although AA meetings are not always open to family and friends, contacts of the addicted person can attend Al-Anon meetings. These are aimed solely at this group, and help them to cope with the effects addiction may be having on their lives. It also supplies them with the best ways of supporting the addicted person in their journey to recovery. In turn, it will provide family and friends – who may have felt hopeless and isolated in their struggles with the addicted person – with a support network,.

Early intervention is best

Intervening at an early stage is the most beneficial course of action for the addicted person. Like any illness, the condition responds best to treatment in the early stages. It is important not to simply ignore the problem until a major ‘breaking point’ occurs. It is unlikely that the addict will seek help for their problem by themselves during this time, so your intervention is crucial.

In the workplace, the addictive behaviour of a colleague is often endured until they are fired or offered a redundancy package. This course of action will not help the individual, and instead they should be given the choice to access treatment in order to keep their job. The risk of long-term psychological damage, and irreversible harm to health, both increase the longer a problem is ignored. In Ireland, alcohol is implicated in over 1000 deaths per year.  

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Last updated & clinically assessed 3 September, 2021