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How to Talk to an Alcoholic

For those of us who are free of mental illness, it can be difficult to comprehend the powerful nature of addiction. As a result, interactions with a friend who is an alcoholic can feel awkward. When you speak with a recovering alcoholic, it’s normal to try to fill the conversation with unrelated topics. Here are a handful of simple guidelines to keep in mind that may help ease the uncertainty.

Talk to the Alcoholic Like You Would Anybody Else

Male friends having a serious talkYour friend is still your friend. And he is a human being, just like you. If your friend has diabetes or osteoporosis, would you feel differently around them after they returned from a four-week wellness program? Probably not. If you and your alcoholic friend John have always bonded over sports and seafood, talk about your mutual interests.

In terms of questioning the alcoholic about his stint in rehab, keep it simple. While the individual is in a rehab center, he is surrounded by other alcoholics, AA slogans, anonymous fellowship text, life lessons, and much more. When he’s free of the 24/7 emphasis on recovery, chances are he is ready to talk about normal things. However, everyone’s different in this regard.

Going forward, if you’re close with the alcoholic, consider the following:

  • Differentiate between helping and enabling.Ask yourself if the help you’re about to provide—such as paying off this month’s credit card debt—is something he could do for himself if he were sober. If the answer is yes, you are doing both yourself and the alcoholic a disservice by following through. By stepping in to “solve” the addict’s problems, the enabler takes away any motivation for the addict to take responsibility for his or her actions.[1]
  • Practice detachment. In other words, try to view the alcoholism as separate from the friend in which the disease resides. If it helps, consider the person chemically compounded with two brain hemispheres -the alcoholic brain, and the logical brain. When you hear the alcoholic brain talking, attribute the behavior to their alcoholic circuitry. This will help you keep separate it from their lucid self.
  • Don’t blow up or react emphatically to a relapseIf your loved one goes on a drunken, week-long bender, yelling at him may actually push him into isolation and social withdrawal. The stronger your reaction, the more the alcoholic will focus on your words and anger. Putting on a poker face when your friend tells you he went out and got sloshed last night forces him to analyze his part in the relapse.
  • Set healthy boundaries. There’s no need to threaten an individual about the consequences from a sobriety slip. However, you can uphold a light, congenial conversation with your alcoholic friend post-treatment as a means for highlighting your newfound boundaries. Remind him that the boundaries are not a form of punishment, they are a byproduct of healthy differentiation.

In many cases, relapse happens after rehab. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse at some point is not only possible but likely. Relapse does not mean the treatment has failed.[2]

It’s natural to want to “save” or “help” your friend, especially if you witness hardships after he falls off the wagon. Stay strong by reminding yourself of the founding principle upon which Al-Anon is based –the only behaviors you can control are your own. Focus on being a good friend without enabling alcoholic actions. Remember when you set healthy boundaries and love your friend, the two behaviors are not mutually exclusive.

If you have questions about the treatment process or would like more information about alcoholism, please feel free to call us at Michael’s House. Our admissions counselors are ready to answer your questions and will provide you with the highest quality care.

[1] Psychology Today. Khaleghi, Karen. Posted on July 11th, 2012.

[2] Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.