How to talk to a loved one about their drinking
How to talk to a loved one about drinking is a question we get asked a lot. In this episode of the Club Soda podcast, we talk to Jo Huey. She is a daughter of an alcoholic father, and through sharing her story she has discovered that there is a need to not only create the advice that people are looking for – how to talk to a friend or loved one about alcohol – but also that those whose lives have been affected by an alcoholic parent need support too. A space to share and confide. She has a great podcast and blog.
We spoke to her about how to raise the subject, talk to a loved one about drinking, and support them through change. The below is an edited transcript from our podcast episode with Jo.
How did you start supporting family members affected by alcohol?
My dad was the alcoholic in my life growing up. I didn’t get too involved in alcohol misuse until about four and a half years ago when I had a conversation with a friend and she said, ‘you know, you’ve got a story to tell, you should tell it’.
I was very passionate at that time about alcohol misuse and recognising the impact that it had had on the family. There are plenty of people like me who have lived with a parent’s drinking, and are starting to recognise that they’ve got some issues in their adult life now. Problems can arise with relationships, low self-esteem, PTSD, all sorts of things. More recently for me was a journey with my sister, who is about four years into her recovery.
How would you know if a family member or friend needed help with their drinking?
I think that family members, friends, and colleagues can start to notice the impact that a person’s drinking is having on their life and the lives of those around them. They say up to about five or six people are usually affected by someone’s alcohol use.
Maybe it’s impacting their health in some way, sleep is a common issue. Perhaps it’s their ability to communicate, whether at work, with family, or with their partner. They may be less dependable, or have become more withdrawn. Are they acting in a way that they wouldn’t usually? Some people can hide it very well. So for family members and friends it can be hard to decipher. But if you pay attention and start to think back to how they used to be, you will be able to see the changes. There is always an impact.
How did you talk to your sister about her drinking?
I was a lot older when her drinking happened. So I was more educated and much more self aware, I was better able to talk to a loved one about their drinking, to know what would and wouldn’t work.
Since she’s been in recovery, we’ve talked extensively about her drinking and the similarities between her and my dad’s drinking. Until then we hadn’t recognised how growing up with dad’s drinking had affected us. Her drinking was a very difficult time for me. It triggered a lot of things about dads drinking and what I’d been through with him. It wasn’t until we started doing the training and sharing our stories that we actually saw how she interpreted ‘that’ completely differently to me, and I interpreted ‘this’ completely differently to her. It brought us closer together.
How do you talk to a loved one about their drinking in a compassionate way?
It’s definitely something that a lot of family members struggle with. You need to talk to a loved one about their drinking with compassion and a nonjudgmental approach. saying ‘I’ve noticed that you aren’t sleeping as well as you used to’, or ‘you’re not doing the things that you used to enjoy’. Say ‘I have noticed this’, rather than ‘you are behaving in a way that’s not acceptable and I’m not going to put up with it’.
Sometimes we can pre-frame it and say, ‘this isn’t about judging you. I’m trying to understand, and I’d love for you to talk to me about this if and when you’re ready to.’ Not everyone’s ready to talk about stuff. People can be very defensive when it comes to their drinking. They may well be in denial and unable to recognise that it’s an issue.
How do you make sure you don’t sound like you’re nagging?
Approach from a place of inquiry and curiosity, show an interest. You’re saying to the person that you love and care for them and you’d like to understand what’s going on. Ask them ‘how can I best support you?’. They might not know the answer. You need to accept that they might not want to talk about it. Let them know that you are there. Try saying ‘if it’s ok with you, I’d like to check in with you every so often to make sure you are alright. I wouldn’t be doing my job as a sister/brother/mother if I didn’t do that.’
We need to ask people what they want as well as being present and showing up for them when they don’t ask for it. They may well say, “actually, I just want you to listen” or “I don’t know at the moment, but actually just having you here is enough”. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. For family members, the hardest thing can be leading with compassion whilst dealing with the consequences of the persons behaviour.
Dealing with unacceptable behaviour from a loved one with alcohol issues
It’s not just about how to begin the process and talk to a loved one about their drinking. It’s about ongoing incidents that might arise, and choosing how you react to them. If the person is behaving unacceptably and you escalate things by retaliating, they may retreat and be less likely to open up to you. You need to be mindful about how you react and to avoid being judgemental.
We have to manage our own state in order to communicate well. If we have an innate need to fix things or we’re feeling very frustrated or angry, we need to have the conversation at another time when we’re not in that headspace, because it can cause more problems.
When you’re living in the same household as a drinker it can be intense and overwhelming. There’s no one answer because everyone’s situation is so unique. Some people have disabilities, some have children, there can be a lot of complexities. Regardless of whether the issue involves alcohol or drugs we have a choice, we do not have to just put up with a situation. We are within our rights to put boundaries in place. It’s our responsibility to demonstrate and communicate to people what is and isn’t acceptable to us.
Family members will often say ‘I just need to know that I’ve done everything possible to help this person’. They can’t find any peace of mind until they think they’ve done everything possible to help. Unfortunately, it could take years to reach that point. We need to make sure we look after ourselves, and setting boundaries is the first step. We have to make sure we keep ourselves physically and mentally safe.
To set boundaries you need to know what is and what isn’t important to you. Unless you know that it’s going to be quite difficult to draw those lines. In order to think about what’s important, you could think about what scares you, what frustrates you, what upsets you. Those can be really useful questions to ask yourself. Perhaps you feel anxious that they’re going to ring you in the middle of the night. You could set a boundary and decide that you’re not going to answer the phone after a certain time at night. Think of the things that hurt you, upset you, anger you and then flip it. Put things in place that are going to help protect you in that situation.
How do we know if alcoholism is affecting children?
If there are children present when someone is drinking heavily (I don’t just mean having a glass of wine after work now and again) it will always impact children. Children pick up on things that we don’t always give them credit for. I’ve heard many times ‘I protected the child’ or ‘they never see him drinking’, but children can sense something’s not right. I was very young and I could. We’ve always got to be very mindful of the impact. I’m very passionate about this because I’ve been there myself, I struggled with the fact that I felt so powerless. A lot of children of alcoholics say the same thing, because as a child you have no control.
Where would you send people who may want some additional help to deal with a drinking partner?
GP’s probably on the whole don’t offer much support for family members. They will usually refer you to a drug and alcohol service. Most drug and alcohol services do have family support facilities, but again, this isn’t their main focus. There is a perception that social workers will take your children away, which may be why we see fewer women going into the services.
Ultimately if someone’s drinking is placing children are at risk, then intervention is needed. The wellbeing and safeguarding of children is always the priority, but removing the children is never a social workers first port of call. Avoiding this issue doesn’t solve anything. Often things inevitably reach a point where they need to be involved whether you want that not.
What about somebody who just doesn’t want to be helped?
There are so many people, family members, that obviously want to help a loved one. It’s a natural response, to want to stop someone that you love from experiencing pain. This is particularly difficult for parents, whose natural instinct is to care for their children. That is their role. When it comes to alcohol, that doesn’t always apply and it can be difficult to stop thinking in that way and apply a different mindset.
You can’t make someone stop drinking if they don’t want to stop. Even if they are doing something to hurt themselves, unless you’re going to watch them 24 hours a day, it’s impossible. What you can do is be there to support them. We can encourage them. You can remind them of all the good things they used to love and enjoy doing. But if someone’s determined then they will do what they want, regardless of what you says or thinks. That is really hard to accept.
How can you support someone in
those early stages of changing their drinking?
We can support them in all sorts of ways. You could go to the GP with them, if that’s what they’d like, or to the drug and alcohol service. If someone is physically dependent, it is important that you do not stop them from drinking as this may cause withdrawal which can lead to seizures or worse. You could reduce the amount of alcohol you keep in the house, or help them to plan their tapering and cutting down. If they do want to drink, they are always going to find a way to do it. Pouring everything away is not always useful. You need to be reassuring and encouraging. Most people who are dependent have some sort of trauma or low self esteem weighing them down.
You could find social activities for you to do that don’t involve drinking. Think about times when they may feel triggered and crave a drink, and fill those moments with something new. Reminding people about the things they enjoyed and the good things in life, help them to build their toolkit for coping.
Is alcoholism genetic?
Gabor Mate is an amazing man. An expert in addiction and author of some great books. My understanding from what I read and my own belief is that I don’t think drinking is hereditary. In his books he talks about three things that have to be present: the addictive substance, the stressor, and a susceptible organism. My sister is not my dad’s daughter, so in that situation, no, it wasn’t hereditary. But she still had that addictive nature, if it’s not alcohol, it’s something else. And I do think the environment, where you’re living, all of that has an influence for sure. But in my personal opinion, I don’t believe it’s hereditary.
How do you help people who want to help their family?
My sister and I do a podcast ‘Two Roads Travelled‘ which we broadcast to educate families. We started it because funnily enough, families that are dealing with somebodies drinking aren’t always knowledgeable about alcohol misuse. Why would they be? They just live with the consequences of it.
I provide one-to-one support for people and pre-lock down, I started doing a self development group. It’s just over the telephone. Some people don’t want to meet face to face. It’s about giving them some tools and having conversations focusing on them. They will be used to the focus being on the drinker. My goal is to bring them back to themselves. To help them keep themselves safe, and to do the things that are going to help and support them. The things that are within their control and their responsibility.
I created a six week repair and reconnect course. It’s for people that are looking to develop themselves and recover from living with and being affected by somebody drinking. It uses my PEACE framework and we do one of the sections each week. It helps you to start digging deeper into your challenges and then moving through that to get to the other side so that you can feel more peace. It works for any challenge you may have.
Thanks there to Jo for sharing her tips on how to talk to a loved one about their drinking. We are so grateful that she has chosen to make this her mission, to fill a gap in support for those who are affected by others’ drinking.
For those interested, our Christmas support course starts next week – we will help get you through this festive season – whether your goal is to drink less or remain alcohol-free.
Catch up with you all next week on the Club Soda Podcast.