Q: How can you encourage a family member to get help? What is the right way to approach her?

Loved ones may often experience secondary denial about alcoholic family members, particularly HFAs, by not believing that they are "real" alcoholics or that they do not fit the stereotype of the "typical" alcoholic. However, it is crucial that loved ones and friends express how the alcoholics' drinking negatively affects them. HFAs often need tangible evidence that their drinking is affecting people other than themselves. Any conversation with alcoholic about their drinking should occur when they are not under the influence of alcohol and can often be most effective when they are hungover and possibly feeling guilt or remorse. It is important to express how their drinking is negatively affecting you and how you perceive it is harming others as well (friends, children). In order to prevent alcoholics from getting overly defensive, you can place the emphasis on your feelings and concerns, instead of stating how you think they should be living. You can also dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about alcoholics and explain that individuals can be high-functioning, successful and still alcoholic. It is possible to slowly chip away at their denial, but it is also important to come from a place of concern and not from a position of judgment. Just because you open up about this issue does not mean the alcoholics in your life will immediately get help. However, what you are doing is planting a seed that may encourage these individuals to get help in the future. In some cases, it may be necessary to set limits, boundaries and to pull away if they decide not to pursue help.

If your family members are high-functioning, then they may not be convinced that they are alcoholic. Therefore, you could suggest that they try to control their drinking or to cut back on their drinking. If a person is alcoholic, then they would not be able to permanently adhere to these low-risk drinking goals, therefore providing more evidence that they need professional help. In the case of HFAs, they often need tangible evidence that they are alcoholic in order to penetrate their powerful sense of denial. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has an online program that offers assessment, assistance in cutting back on drinking as well as treatment resources.

Finally, there are professional "interventionists" who are available to assist family and friends of alcoholics in appropriately confronting those individuals, presenting ultimatums, connecting all involved to treatment resources and following up on aftercare with the intention that the alcoholics will ultimately agree to seek help. The Association of Intervention Specialists has a referral network nationwide of board-registered interventionists.


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