Living with an alcoholic in denial can be overwhelming and draining. The person may disagree that they have an alcoholism problem, refuse to acknowledge their destructive behaviours or truly believe they don’t have an alcohol addiction. However, it’s likely that their drinking is having a negative impact on their health as well as the general wellbeing of those they are closest to.
It can be difficult to know what to do when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial. Here, we provide tips on some of the practical steps you can take, and provide information on the specialist alcohol addiction rehab we can offer at Life Works in Surrey.
How to help an alcoholic in denial
There are a number of things that you can do to help when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial. These include:
- Learn as much as you can about the symptoms of alcoholism
- Have an open and honest conversation with the person about their drinking
- Set clear boundaries
- Ensure that you look after yourself too
- Support the person to get the professional treatment they need
How to tell if your loved one is an alcoholic
If you think you’re living with an alcoholic in denial, it’s important to take the time to learn as much as you can about the symptoms of alcohol addiction. Do you find that the person:
- Is irritable and angry when they haven’t had a drink?
- Needs to drink more to get ‘drunk’?
- Continues to drink even though this has had a negative impact on their life?
- Drinks heavily when they’re on their own?
- Drinks alcohol at times when it’s clearly unacceptable to do so e.g. when they first wake up in the morning?
- Misses out on special occasions or important events because of their drinking?
These are all signs of alcoholism. When someone is in denial about their drinking problem, they may also:
- Find excuses to have a drink e.g. celebrating the start of the weekend or drinking as a ‘pick-me-up’ after a stressful day
- Appear to be flippant and regularly make jokes about their drinking habits to try and downplay how much they’re actually drinking
- Be secretive about their drinking habits, activities, whereabouts or associates
- Lie about how frequently they consume alcohol and the amount they drink
- Store alcohol in strange places such as in the garden shed or in their car to try and stop you finding it
- Buy expensive brands of alcohol to try and ‘prove’ they don’t have a drinking problem
These behaviours could suggest that the person is aware they have a problem but is trying to cover it up or justify it, as a way of denying they are struggling with alcohol addiction. By learning as much as you can about these signs and symptoms, you’ll be able to spot patterns in their behaviour and develop an understanding of why they’re acting this way, even if they deny they have a problem.
Talk to the alcoholic in denial about your worries
If you’ve recognised the signs and symptoms that an alcoholic in denial may be displaying, it’s important that you try to reach out and have an honest conversation with the person about their drinking. There are a number of things to think about before having this discussion:
- Choose the right time and place - Try and have this conversation somewhere that’s private and where the person feels comfortable. You could suggest going for a walk together or having a cup of tea at home when you won’t be disturbed by anyone else. Having this conversation when the person feels safe and relaxed makes it more likely they’ll be able to open up to you about their drinking in an honest way, instead of denying their behaviour
- Prepare specific examples of their behaviour - If you think the person is in denial about their alcohol addiction, make sure you prepare specific examples of their drinking behaviour before launching into a conversation with them. This means that if you’re met with denial you can gently point out the times their drinking has been a problem and has had a negative effect on other people. Being able to point out their past actions in a calm and non-judgemental way, means they’re more likely to take this on board and accept the fact they may have a problem
- Don’t be judgemental or accusatory - Even though you might find their behaviour frustrating, it’s really important that you approach this conversation in a patient and compassionate way. If you respond calmly to what they have to say, the person is less likely to feel attacked or criticised and is therefore more likely to open up to you. Remember, an alcoholic in denial may already feel defensive and ashamed so you should avoid adding to this by being gentle and understanding
- Try to avoid negative labels or language - Another way to make sure you’re approaching the conversation in a gentle way is to avoid using negative labels such as ‘addict’ and ‘alcoholic’. This type of language could be perceived as critical, which could just make the person want to deny their problem even more. Instead, try to use positive or neutral language such as ‘challenges’ and ‘concerns’; this type of language is a lot more compassionate and sympathetic. It shows you’re coming from a good place and have their best interests at heart
Having an open and non-confrontational conversation with an alcoholic in denial means you’ll be able to get your concerns across and help them to recognise that they need help. It also opens up lines of communication, meaning that the person is likely to come to you again to talk about what they’re going through and realise that they don’t have to deny their problems to themselves and others.
Set boundaries to protect yourself and your family
Just because your loved one is in denial about their alcoholism, this doesn’t mean their behaviours aren’t real and aren’t having a negative impact on you and other members of the family or household. That’s why it’s important that you set some boundaries with them as a way of minimising the impact their destructive behaviours are having on other people. For example, you could make it clear that it’s unacceptable for them to be intoxicated when they’re around your children, and let them know that you will make arrangements for your children to go elsewhere if this is ever the case.
Setting and sticking to boundaries could make your loved one realise that their behaviours really are far reaching, and they do need help.
Look after yourself
Living with an alcoholic in denial can be draining and difficult. That’s why it’s so important that you look after yourself too so you’re able to support them with what they’re going through.
Make sure that you set time aside every day to do things you enjoy or find relaxing. This could be having a warm bath, listening to music or reading your favourite book. Also, make sure that you look after yourself physically – eating healthily, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep at night.
It can also be a good idea, as well as a relief, to share what you’re going through with a trusted relative or friend. That way, you’ll also be able to receive some emotional support at this time. You could also reach out to specialist support groups such as Al Anon and Families Anonymous, in order to connect with people who may be going through similar issues to you.
Help the person to seek professional support
While the above steps can help you some of the way when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial, ultimately, addiction is an illness that will need specialist treatment within a dedicated addiction rehab centre. That’s why it’s really important that you support your loved one to get the help they need.
You could offer to contact an addiction rehab centre, such as Life Works, on their behalf to find out about the expert alcohol addiction support that we can offer, and the journey that they could be taking towards recovery and wellbeing.
Our evidence-based alcohol Addiction Treatment Programme at Life Works consists of:
- A free, no obligation addiction assessment
- 10-day medically assisted withdrawal detoxification to remove all traces of alcohol from their system
- Group therapy, family therapy and individual 1:1 therapy programmes
- A wide range of therapeutic techniques including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) informed groups, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) informed groups and mindfulness
- A high quality family programme
- Access to 12-Step support groups
- Access to 12 months of free aftercare and family support following treatment
With your help and support, as well as expert treatment within a dedicated rehab centre, your loved one can overcome their problems with alcohol and take steps towards a lasting recovery.
We have now resumed face-to-face therapy at some of our hospitals and wellbeing centres, as well as continuing to offer this remotely. We continue to offer access to inpatient services where this is required. For more information on our online therapy service, please visit our Priory Connect page or read our latest online therapy blog. For the latest information on how Priory are responding to coronavirus, and keeping our patients and staff safe, please visit our COVID-19 preparedness page.
While the current coronavirus restrictions and social distancing measures are in place, we are offering online support to both new and current patients. We continue to offer access to inpatient services where this is required. For more information on our online therapy service, please visit our Priory Connect page or read our latest online therapy blog. For the latest information on how Priory are responding to coronavirus, and keeping our patients and staff safe, please visit our COVID-19 preparedness blog. You can also find out about our approach to addiction treatment during COVID-19 by accessing our dedicated page.
This blog was reviewed by Siobhan Ward (BA(Hons) Graphic Design, MSc in Addiction Psychology and Counselling, PgDip in Addiction Psychology and Counselling), Addiction Programme Lead at Life Works.
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