Can You Help an Alcoholic in Denial?


There are a lot of things that are difficult about having a loved one who’s an alcoholic. One of the most frustrating is bearing witness to their alcohol-fueled descent but having them continuously deny that they have a drinking problem (a common behavior amongst substance abusers of any kind). Since acknowledging that there’s a problem is the essential first step to overcoming it, any potential recovery is likely still a long way off. Fortunately, there are ways that you, the parent, child, sibling, spouse, or friend of an alcoholic, can do more than just stand back and watch. Here are a few practical ways how to help an alcoholic in denial. 

1. Avoid placing blame

One way to significantly increase the odds that you’ll be able to get through to your loved one is by knowing what not to say to an alcoholic. Avoid harsh words that place blame or sound accusatory. They are likely already feeling defensive regarding their drinking habits, and any perceived attack on themselves (regardless of how true or deserved your words may be) will only push them further into their hole of denial.

While this is true for any sort of conflict-resolving communication, avoiding these types of words is especially important when dealing with someone struggling with addiction. Continuous substance abuse literally changes the surface of the brain, impacting how it communicates with the body, itself, and ultimately, the outside world. These changes include decreased logic processing, reduced ability to think in the long term, increased impulsivity, and difficulty regulating emotions (this is why sometimes an addicted individual’s personality may undergo drastic changes. To make a long story short: It can make them difficult to talk to and particularly volatile.

2. Be supportive (without being an enabler)

Despite the tremendous headway made in understanding and treating addiction, the condition is still heavily stigmatized. For these reasons, addicted persons intentionally avoid acknowledging the truth of their condition. They don’t want to feel shame or embarrassment. So rather than confronting an alcoholic in denial (for reasons detailed above), set the stage for them to come to you

Create an atmosphere of loving support that lets them know that you would accept them through their addiction and are willing to stick by their side to see them get better. Knowing they have a non judgemental ear to turn to could make them more inclined to let their guard down. Ask them open-ended questions, sympathize (when appropriate), and remind them of the unconditional love of their family and friends. Getting them to talk gives you more opportunities to find items you both agree on or can relate to and opens the door for strengthening feelings of trust and safety. 

There’s a fine line, however, between being supportive and being an enabler. Don’t agree with them blindly in their rationalization or justification of their drinking problem. You would just be adding fuel to the fire and furthering their victim mindset.

3. If all else fails, plan an intervention

Interventions are not to be taken lightly. These are meant to be last-resort efforts to confront someone about their substance abuse and shock them into realizing the extent of the problem as well as how it’s affected those around them. The reason is that if an intervention goes wrong (which is not unlikely), the nature of the confrontation can elicit strong negative emotions from the person. This can cause them to distance themselves from those trying to help them. It’s possible to minimize the odds of a disastrous outcome through careful planning and the involvement of a professional intervention specialist.

When planning an intervention, it’s helpful to first enlist others who have a close relationship with the alcoholic and have been negatively impacted. These can be family members, friends, coworkers, or even community members. This core team will be vital in coordinating the time and place of the intervention, as well as coordinating with other attendees. Next, notify all potential attendees to write down what they want to say in advance and establish a speaking order. This keeps things orderly and organized and lessens the chance that someone may say something hurtful in the heat of the moment. 

Last but not least, it’s critical that any ultimatums or promises made during the intervention are upheld. Failing to follow through signals to the alcoholic that there are no consequences for their drinking and therefore, eliminates the incentive to modify their behavior. The ultimate goal of an intervention is to get them to go to rehab. If they resist, try smaller steps and start with 12 step groups that are free and require no commitment. 

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