What may help one alcoholic stop drinking may not work with another

April 11, 2010


It's not easy to convince alcoholics that they have a problem.

Their family usually knows.

Co-workers may be aware, but most problem drinkers have denial systems as vast as the great outdoors.

Even if they've been arrested for DUI, someone who suspends judgment when it comes to drinking will find endless rationalizations to keep on imbibing.

There really is no such thing as a typical alcoholic.

I've treated abusers who were gainfully employed, making six figures and immaculately attired. The notion that an alcoholic is a dirty street person who is socially ill at ease is antiquated and inaccurate.

Most of the alcoholics I know have jobs, families and are quite able to argue why their drinking is not a problem.

Presenting them with facts only reinforces their Herculean ability to dodge, minimize and debate.

I wish I could offer a way of cutting through the avoidance that surrounds most chronic drinkers, but each alcoholic is so different that what may be effective for one is worthless for another. Interventions -- meetings in which a person's family, friends, and co-workers gather to confront the drinker -- is a powerful but sometimes inadequate method. It works for many alcoholics, but it doesn't always succeed.

Another often useful approach is having a close relative or friend, who is themselves suffering from abuse or dependence, bring the person along to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Sometimes hearing about the disease from a peer can be eye-opening. Of course, it may also backfire when the alcoholic sees other drinkers and quickly decides they are different, worse off, or of a lower class than they are.

Ultimatums are tempting. Hearing a spouse tell their mate, "Get help or get out of the house," may be understandable, but if it's not carried out, it can backfire.

I would never fault a person for telling their partner, "I feel lonely and like a single parent anyway, so you might as well leave." But many alcoholics are very decent and nice people, so it is quite difficult to give a struggling person the boot without a safety plan of some sort in place.

The reality is that there is no single best way to make a person with an alcohol problem see the effect their drinking is having on themselves and others.

All of the techniques are at times useful, but one size does not fit all. It may be encouraging to realize that among those who successfully quit drinking, the majority do not do so on their first even second or third attempt.

When I speak with alcoholics who finally accept that they are powerless, I hear many different stories about what made them finally decide to stop. For some it was an intervention. For others it was hitting bottom with a DUI or arrest. Still others had to lose their families, jobs and dignity before they were willing to address their problem.

If there is a moral to the story it is this: Don't stop trying to help those who are self-injuring. It may not work today or even tomorrow but hearing someone you love say "I want you to stop hurting yourself" remains enormously powerful.

Mitchell Rosen, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist with practices in Corona and Temecula. Contact him at [email protected].

The Press-Enterprise, Bloomsburg PA

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