How to Really Talk to an Alcoholic

Q: How can I approach someone about their beer drinking without having them go on the defensive and possibly turning their back on me?

I  feel it is increasing because he lives alone and at present is not working regularly so he is home alone all day. He is divorced and I think his wife left at least partly because of his drinking. He is an entirely different person when he drinks than when he does not. Also he eats only one meal a day and this also concerns me.

Is there any way I can help him see the destructive path on which he is headed?

A: Your question is in search of a rational principle to guide you.

In psychology and therapy, we’re supposed to be ethically and otherwise neutral, and therefore not speak of principles. Nevertheless, all psychological theories are based on explicit principles, and my answer to you will be, as well.

The first principle that comes to mind here is: ‘Ruin and waste your life if you choose—but not with my help.’

So long as you say nothing, you’re helping this person stay as he is. The moment you say something, you’re no longer helping him.

It sounds like this is someone you value as a person. This implies he has something to lose—or something to waste. What is it that you see in him that he’s squandering by spending his life the way he does? Tell him that, too.

He’s arguably committing slow suicide here. Many have this false idea that alcoholism is just one big party. It may start out that way, but in reality it has nothing to do with the pursuit or attainment of pleasure. It’s about avoiding the responsibility one has to oneself for living.

That brings up another problem. Many have internalized the idea that an individual’s purpose is to live for others. You can take responsibility for achieving in your own interest, and to most that’s fine—but it’s not meaningful or important. It’s only what you give up that matters, and giving up is virtue. As our President and all our spiritual and moral leaders tell us every day: We are, supposedly, each other’s keepers.

Alcoholics are often the type who take this to heart. ‘If I don’t want to live for others, then my life has no meaning. I’m not a good person. I might as well just drink it away.’ It’s not usually a conscious or deliberate conclusion, but if their motives could speak, this is what they’d probably say.

When people criticize the alcoholic for wasting his life, they usually observe, ‘How selfish of you. Instead of contributing for the sake of others, you’re self-indulgently living your own life for yourself.’

This merely reinforces the alcoholic’s false belief that the primary purpose of life is to sacrifice for others. ‘That’s right,’ he’ll think. ‘I’m a bad person. Might as well have another drink.’

Given the probability this is going on with your friend, you might suggest to him that it pains you to see him selflessly squandering his life. It’s not harming anybody else, unless he does something to physically harm someone (driving while drinking, for example.) But it is most definitely hurting himself. This kind of selflessness is the only kind of sin there is, and it’s the root of any harm that occurs towards others.

Provoke him by talking to him about this issue. Do whatever you can to convey the attitude that his life should be supremely important—to him. And remind him that the only reason you’re expressing your concern is because you do see potential being wasted. If you see this, why doesn’t he?


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