It can be painful and scary watching someone you love struggle with alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as uncommon as some people may think. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), approximately 14.5 million Americans aged 12 or older have alcohol use disorder.
As is the case with any substance disorder, individuals struggling with alcohol addiction are likely to deny and get angry when confronted. For this reason, loved ones must know how to talk to an alcoholic that’s in denial. The cliche “the first step is admitting there’s a problem” exists because it’s true. Without acknowledgment of the addiction, there is no desire to get help.
If you know someone in denial about their alcohol disorder, here are some tips on how to talk to them.
The Role of Denial in Addiction
Denial is a common symptom in people struggling with an alcohol disorder. There are many reasons why a person may deny their substance abuse problem, but it often comes down to:
- They’re not ready to accept they have a problem and need to change
- They genuinely don’t recognize the symptoms or see the problem
- They feel guilty or ashamed
Additionally, denial can come in many forms, not always looking the same. You may not even realize that your loved one is in denial because it looks different than what you associate “denial” to be. The common types of denial are:
- Rationalization: They may try to rationalize their behavior (i.e., everyone was drinking) or the consequences of their drinking (i.e., it was foggy, I wasn’t drunk driving).
- Blame: They may shift the conversation to be about blame rather than their drinking (i.e., well, if you hadn’t given me such a hard time all day, I wouldn’t have had those drinks).
- Dishonesty: They may start to lie about their drinking to avoid the conversation (i.e., I didn’t even drink that night, I was just tired).
- Defensiveness: They might immediately turn to defending themselves (i.e., you always accuse me of drinking and being a bad person).
- Comparing Situations: They may draw comparisons with other situations to downplay their actions (i.e., well, you had a lot to drink at your birthday BBQ and I never attacked you for that).
- Being Dismissive: They may try to dismiss your concerns (i.e., everyone drinks and I am not drinking more than anyone else, you’re being silly).
- Avoidance: They may leave or change the subject to avoid the problem (i.e., listen, we’re having a nice time together, can we not ruin the moment with this heavy conversation? Let’s talk about it later).
How to Talk to an Alcoholic in Denial
Talking to someone about their addiction is challenging in any situation, but it’s especially hard when they’re in a place of denial. Some tips you should keep in mind as you try to engage in a conversation with them are:
- Have a plan. This isn’t a conversation to have out of nowhere, you want to know what you’re going to say and the points you’re going to make. If you have this conversation without a plan, it’s more likely you’ll get upset or angry and won’t get your main points across.
- Don’t accuse, judge, or blame. This is a standard piece of advice when talking to anyone about addiction but is especially true when they’re in denial. It’s not helpful to come from a place of anger or judgment, as the person still needs to come to terms with their addiction.
- Focus on your fears. You’re likely having this discussion because you’re worried about the person’s well-being and future. Make sure to highlight this with examples. Point out recent incidents where they’ve engaged in high-risk behaviors, have jeopardized their work, or have disappointed loved ones. This is meant to serve as a gentle reminder that the problem is real and impacting their lives.
- Avoid labels like “alcoholic” and “addiction.” If the person is still in denial, they may not be ready to deal with these labels. Instead, you can focus on their behavior and the consequences of their actions.
- Be empathetic. It’s important you recognize that they’ve been struggling and this has potentially been the root cause of their drinking. Make sure to use statements like, “I know work has been really stressful lately” or “I know you’ve just gone through a major life change.” This shows that you’re on their side and understand their position.
- Offer options, not demands. It’s best to plan what you would like the person to do after this conversation (such as getting professional help), but this isn’t the time to make demands yet. Instead, offer them up several options. You can talk about how professional help comes in many formats and they can choose the program that best fits their needs.
Having this conversation may feel daunting, but it’s an important step. Your loved one needs to be reminded that people care for them and want what’s best for them.
America’s Rehab Campus
America’s Rehab Campuses offer modern state-of-the-art alcohol treatment facilities with a wide range of inpatient and outpatient programs. The facility uses evidence-based treatments to help people on their journey to recovery. Contact us today to find out how we can help your loved one.