Breaking the silence: What to do when someone is struggling with alcohol (part 1)

Illustration of man confined to bottle

Few people would deny that alcohol is an intrinsic part of Australian culture. It plays a central role in many people’s lives and is a staple ingredient to most professional functions, networking events, personal celebrations and get-togethers. In fact, there are few social occasions where drinking alcohol is discouraged–making it even harder to spot problematic drinking. So, what can you do if someone you care about is leaning too heavily on this popular and socially accepted activity?

Suspecting or knowing that a colleague, friend or family member drinks more than is good for them is difficult. It puts you in a tricky spot and can bring up some negative emotions, such as frustration, helplessness, anger and confusion. On top of all that, their behaviour may start to affect their work quality, their ability to be a trusted advisor to their clients and a reliable colleague for their peers. Their drinking may begin to negatively impact their personal life as they could start neglecting their responsibilities, getting into financial difficulties, or mistreating others.

But how can you bring it up? Would they accept your help? What if you misread the signs and got it all wrong? Perhaps it’s not your business in the first place? The following two articles offer critical information and suggestions to help you respond effectively and support the person you care about.

What signs should you take seriously? 

The following signs are “red flags” that may indicate a problematic relationship with alcohol:

  • binge drinking, or drinking more than intended
  • staying out late and encouraging others to keep drinking, even when people have indicated they want to go home
  • difficulties with meeting their responsibilities at work or home because the person is spending a lot of time drinking, or recovering from drinking
  • lying or trying to hide their level of alcohol consumption
  • inability to remember what they said or did when drinking (for example, blacking out)
  • continuing to drink even when it is causing problems at work or in their relationships
  • using alcohol to self-soothe (for example, when stressed) or to self-medicate a mental health problem (for example, anxiety or depression), and;
  • spending a large amount of money on alcohol.

Other symptoms may be harder to spot as they may not be outwardly visible to those outside of the struggling dependent. These may include:

  • thinking a lot about when they will be able to have their next drink
  • consuming alcohol regularly on their own
  • an inability to get to sleep without drinking alcohol
  • thinking about drinking alcohol, or wanting to, when first waking up in the morning
  • sweating or feeling nauseous when not drinking alcohol, and;
  • getting other people to make excuses for their alcohol-related destructive behaviour.

What is a good strategy to approach the conversation? 

  1. Arm yourself with knowledge
    You do not have to be an expert in the field to provide meaningful support to someone, but finding out as much as you can about the effects of alcohol, the signs and consequences of alcohol misuse and where to get help, will enable you to enter the conversation with useful facts and insights. A lot of valuable information can be found online.1
  2. Choose a good time
    If possible, pick a time when you are both well-rested, clearheaded and have the time for an unrushed conversation. It is not advisable to attempt a conversation when the other person has been drinking as they will not be in the right mental and emotional space to engage in the topic in a focused and effective way. Think about where you would like to talk to them, for example, in a quiet and comfortable space that affords privacy, and that is free of interruptions. Make sure you are in an undistracted and calm state so that you can give them your full attention.
  3. Use I-Statements to express your care and concern
    It is unlikely that they are willing and ready to talk to you if they feel under attack, judged or pushed towards a particular outcome. When a person feels that they are being blamed, reprimanded or given a lecture, they are likely to respond with defensiveness and will close off to you. Focus on your own perceptions and concerns instead of accusing the other person of any wrong-doing. “I-Statements” enable you to express your thoughts and concerns in a non-blaming, non-critical and non-shaming manner. For example, you may say “I am concerned about how much you’ve been drinking lately”, rather than “You are drinking too much” or “People think you are a drunk and it’s bad for the firm’s reputation”.  Ensure you always focus on the person’s behaviour and not their character to emphasise your concern for them. Try to stay away from discussions about the number of drinks that are acceptable, or whether they are an alcohol abuser rather than an alcoholic–these arguments are likely to go nowhere and raise their defences. Instead, make it about the behaviours they exhibit while under the influence of alcohol, and how this is causing problems for others.
  4. Expect pushback
    Before you enter the conversation, check-in with your own expectations and remind yourself that you may not get the response you are hoping for. Your colleague, friend or family member may become defensive and deny your concern, take it personally or get annoyed, dismissive, and refuse to talk about it–or just laugh it off. Keep in mind that they might not recognise that they have a drinking problem, and feeling forced to admit they have an issue may cause anger. Do not take these reactions personally, but think about it as planting a seed that may come to fruition at a later stage. It is not reasonable to expect a change in the person’s thinking or behaviour right away, especially if this is the first time they have been called out for their drinking. Accept their choice and clarify that you are there for them to talk further if and when they are ready. At the same time, set limits around the behaviour that you are ready to accept from them, and make clear where your boundaries are.
  5. Encourage positive action
    If the person is open to it, tell them what you are willing and able to do to support them. This may range from being an empathetic listener to organising professional help or accompanying them to see their GP or attend counselling sessions. You may also want to provide them with useful links and resources2 so they can do their own research. If they refuse your offers, continue to suggest professional help. This is particularly important if they are putting themselves or others at risk of harm.

In next week’s article, we will explore behaviour you should try to avoid when supporting someone who has a drinking issue, practical tips for low-risk drinking, and how to look after your own wellbeing. 

If this article has caused distress or you would like to learn more, reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

Other resources:

Rebecca Niebler is the Organisational Culture and Support Officer for Queensland Law Society. In addition to her degree in Business Psychology, she is accredited in the Hogan assessment tool and holds a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.


1Useful websites in this regard include the “Alcohol think again” website, and articles “Alcoholism and Alcohol abuse” (helpguide.org) and “Alcoholism” (healthline.com)
2 Useful resources include the “Hello Sunday morning” website for support, the “5 Minute drinking audit” for a self-assessment, and the article “Worried about someone else’s drinking” (drinkaware.co.uk)

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