General Question

marinelife's avatar

What are the right things to say to an alcoholic?

Asked by marinelife (58602 points ) August 18th, 2009

My brother is a long-term alcoholic. My mother enabled him for years by letting him live with her, giving him money, etc. She is now in an assisted living facility.

(I am telescoping multiple attempts by multiple family members during many decades.) Can’t count the times I and others have driven him, drunk, to detox or rehab. He has lied. Has has stolen from family members.

He then went to my sister’s. She told him to get help or get out. He kept leaving the facilities with one excuse after another.

After he was found drunk lying in the snow in January on a sidewalk, we shipped him to my niece. She finally kicked him out for good (after several temporary kicking him out and letting him back). He came back and has been at the old city for a week.

He did day labor to get enough money to drink. He showed up drunk at the assisted living facility. He showed up drunk at my sister’s. We have closed ranks in that we cannot continue enabling him to drink through “helping him out with money and shelter”.

He just called me to tell me goodbye and that he was killing himself. I spent an hour talking him down. He promised he would not do it tonight, and he will wait until he can get into detox. Who knows if he will?

What else could I say that might be effective in getting him to go and then stay in treatment?

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30 Answers

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

I’m sorry to hear that.
Alcoholics are good at alienating everyone close to them in their lives.
If the person is hellbent on self destruction, there comes a point where you have to take care of yourself lest you be pulled down with them.

If the person is threatening suicide, call the police.

jfos's avatar

2 things…

1) Though science suggests that alcohol in itself is addictive, something has to spur the alcoholism. Anything you say to him that doesn’t lead to / involve the CAUSE of his addiction is just bubblegum talk. I suggest (if you don’t already know why) finding out why your brother can’t get off the drink. Something in his childhood maybe? Some kind of insecurity? ... And then deal with it as you will.

2) Although I am not suicidal, and although I don’t know anybody who has successfully killed him/herself, and although I do not promote suicide at all, when I think about the whole ordeal, I can’t help but believe that any person has the right to kill him/herself. And it may be hard, because he is your brother and all, but I wouldn’t call the cops on him. Not for threatening to commit suicide—that’s his business. If he gets drunk and is jeopardizing your or someone else’s life, that may qualify.

jfos's avatar

Also, sorry to hear that.

Jeruba's avatar

Call the suicide & crisis hotline.

http://suicidehotlines.com/

Those folks are trained to know how to talk to someone who is threatening suicide.

tinyfaery's avatar

If you are scared for his safety maybe you should try to get him put into protective custody. Otherwise, there is no right thing to say. Rock bottom has to happen.

marinelife's avatar

@jfos Yes, he has underlying clinical depression I suspect.

@Jeruba For some ideas, you mean? I am 3,000 miles away from where he is.

@tinyfaery Hmm, I could look into the rules for that in his state, I know there was the Baker Act in Florida. Thank you.

Jeruba's avatar

Yes, you can find out what they advise you to say: to ask whether he has a plan, for instance.

Better still would be if he would call.

augustlan's avatar

I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this issue. I agree with @The_Compassionate_Heretic‘s advice here. You’ve done what you can, and you may not be able to help him any more. Turn it over to the police.

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t think the police can intervene when nothing has happened, can they?

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

@Jeruba Many calling plans have 3 way calling. There’s no reason the suicide hotline can’t be conferenced in on a call like that.

augustlan's avatar

@Jeruba I think if he’s a danger to himself, he could be involuntarily committed by the police.

tinyfaery's avatar

In CA it’s called a 5150 and the police can do this. But, someone must “prove” that the person is either a danger to themselves or others.

Darwin's avatar

If he openly threatens suicide you can call the police, but he would had to have said it to you or to other witnesses who can vouch that this is what he said. Additionally, if he has ever made any other attempts they should know about those, as a measure of how serious his attempts are.

Otherwise, all you can do is tell him that you love him but until he stops drinking he is not to contact you. Then research rehab facilities so that if he does contact you about wanting to get clean and stay that way, you know where to point him.

Good luck. There is nothing you can do to make an alcoholic stop drinking. Only the alcoholic can decide to do that.

Jeruba's avatar

@Marina, you can ask him if he is sick enough and scared enough to get with the program at last. People do come back from where he is, but they have to be ready to do what it takes, and that means taking the first step.

cak's avatar

@Marina – I’ve had to deal with my sister, long-distance, before. It was so bad one time, I call the police in her city. They did a well being check and called for an ambulance, as well. It’s something to consider. She wasn’t going to kill herself, but she was so drunk, she had alcohol poisoning.

It is so hard to do these things long distance, sometimes, you must resort to calling the police. Make sure, if you do, you are very clear and concise about the issue and let them know that it sounds serious enough that he really may need to be looked in on. If you do this, be prepared for him to be angry. If you are like me, which I am sure you are – you can deal with a ticked off relative far better than a dead or seriously ill relative.

My best wishes to you, I know this is difficult.

bumwithablackberry's avatar

It’s sad, showing compassion is sort of a double edged sword in this matter. I have known people like this, where family felt that they had to show “tough love” there is no such thing. I know that there is a line, a thin line, that they walk, and that they may fall on either side, life or death. Well, the love and help you show could either set them on the right path for good, or as they say “give them enough rope to hang themselves” Alchoholism they say is but a symptom. A form of suicide, a suicidal person is a bad investment. When and if they get well, some close very key loved ones may still treat them as if they were still sick, possibly causing some regression, some, but shouldn’t unchange them. It is possible for seemingly hopeless people to snap out of it, to really change. I like to say if you’re on the fence it’s because you like wood in your ass. I know I can be abbrasive, I apologigze for that, but maybe this helps.

rooeytoo's avatar

Call suicide hotline by all means. But then find an Alanon meeting for yourself and anyone else you can round up from your family. Alanon is for the family of alcoholics and they will help you to cope and you will get ideas of how to deal with your brother. You can’t really help him, he has to help himself, tough love. It is not easy but it is the only way to go. Alanon puts out a booklet called “Getting Him Sober.” It is an excellent guide if you can’t get to meetings.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

I agree with @rooeytoo about Alanon. What you don’t want to let him do is use threats of suicide to guilt you into taking him into your home. You cannot make him well, or undo the years of damage he has brought upon himself. He has to choose sobriety, and own his own life.

hearkat's avatar

@Marina: I went through this with my ex husband. I am so sorry that you are facing this.

I can’t tell you what to say or do that will make him choose the path of sobriety – no one can. It is near impossible to know what is the “right” thing to do so don’t blame yourselves if it doesn’t go the way you want it to.

Always be honest. Tell your brother that you love him, and that it hurts you to see him abuse and neglect himself. It’s like dealing with a child… don’t criticize the person – criticize the behavior/choices.

Tell him you don’t like the position he has put the family in… he asks for your help and support and then rejects it, and then disrespects you by lying and stealing.

Ask him to consider how many people he knows that wish they could take on some of the challenges he would face should he choose to get sober… have him name each one. All those people love him enough that they would willingly subject themselves to pain (and have subjected themselves, emotionally) for him… yet he can only do it for himself. Can he draw some strength in knowing that all those people see something in him that’s worth saving? Can he look in the mirror and see at least a hint of what you all have been fighting for?

Trying to get him to see the situation from your perspective, and trying to get him to see himself through the eyes of those that love him are the only things I can think of that might make him believe that he is worth the effort. Remind him of happy times when he felt close to others or where his particular strengths or talents were allowed to shine. Help him imagine a future where he can have those experiences again.

Is there a trauma or issue that preceded the addiction/depression that needs to be addressed? Why does he loathe himself or what is he trying to avoid by staying inebriated? It isn’t always a single incident, and sometimes they hate the things that the addiction has led them to do, so that damages their self-esteem and it snowballs from there.

I wish for a happy ending for your family. And if there is none, I want you to know that it is not your fault. It took a long time after my ex’s death for me to handle the guilt I was feeling, and also to forgive him for the choices he’s made. Do what you can to forgive him now to help him forgive himself. Best wishes to all of you.

PapaLeo's avatar

I’d say @The_Compassionate_Heretic hit the nail on the head. It sounds cold hearted and unsympathetic, but there’s literally nothing you can do.

I know your frustration. I went through this with two of my brothers. One saved himself, pulled himself up out of the gutter and through an amazing application of will power stopped cold turkey. I admire him enormously, but realize it had absolutely nothing to do with anyone but himself.

The second brother is still torturing his wife and children with his drinking, and still denying that he has a problem. I know from experience now the only thing I can do is to pray for him.

marinelife's avatar

I wanted to update everyone who helped with their posts, especially @tinyfaery. I looked up the involuntary commitment procedure for Washington State. It fit the circumstances. I spoke with my sister and sent her the information.

She called the hotline, then went and got my brother and is taking him to the hospital right now. (Washington does not require the police to do it.) He called to tell me that and to thank me this morning. He said I did stop him from killing himself last night.

I am immeasurably relieved he is getting care in the short term. Wary about long term prospects, but ever hopeful.

Like many alcoholics, he is a wonderful man when sober. Just a wounded duck.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

previous statement retracted.

mass_pike4's avatar

You need to get him to stay in detox and rehab so he can turn his life around and get away from thoughts of taking his own life. I think your entire family should have an intervention with him first however. For everyone to take one day out of their own life to attend to an ill family member can make all the difference. He needs to here from everyone how much they care for him and that you guys want him to get help. He needs to hear it from everyone.

As an alcoholic myself, one scare after the other isn’t enough to stop obviously. You need to hear from the people that are closest to you on how much they care for you. In my opinion it is the strongest way to get to a person with such an illness. They need reassurance constantly. Bring up all the good times you have had and how much you miss him since his drinking habits have gotten in the way. Make it so you can convince him that this is not the life he has to live. An alcoholic vaguely remembers their life before a drinking problem, so briing him back to reality and mention how much you loved the “old” brother in him. Hope this helps and God bless

VS's avatar

@Marina – I am so sorry your family is having to endure this, but hopeful that your brother is in treatment now. Tough love is what it is called when you have to make the horrible decision to not allow the alcoholic to call all the shots. Both of my parents were alcoholic and my alcoholic ex-husband’s parents were as well. I made a decision a long time ago that I was NOT going to live that way. I divorced my husband who I loved dearly because he was unable or unwilling to stop drinking or to even consider the possibility of entering treatment. Once he had hit the very bottom, DUI, jail, etc., he understood that he required help and got it. He is sober today.
I wish your brother luck in his sobriety. He is lucky to have sisters who love him.

Jeruba's avatar

@hearkat, your straight-from-the-heart wisdom grounded in sober experience touches me in a place that not many know about. Thank you.

hearkat's avatar

@Jeruba: You’re most welcome… Sharing my experience and hindsight helps me process the emotions that still surface after more than a decade. That others find it touching or beneficial gives me a sense of connectedness, although it saddens me that so many have such pain in common.

@mass_pike4: Thank you for giving us the perspective from the other side of the bottle. I find it encouraging that what you said reinforces the point I was trying to make about helping the addict see and beleive that he and his future are worth fighting for.

pathfinder's avatar

Chose where do you want to be.

augustlan's avatar

How is your brother doing now?

wundayatta's avatar

I want to piggyback on what @hearkat and @mass_pike4 said. One reason (and it may be the reason, except when physical illness is involved) that people think about suicide is because they are in the deepest pain imaginable. In that state, at least in my experience, one believes that one is unloved and unlovable and undeserving of love, anyway. I.e., anyone who did claim to love the suicidal person is either deluded, mistaken (in that they don’t have full information), or lying.

As such, suicide is a call for help. It may not be a deliberate call, but it is the only solution that a person can think of that will release them from the pain of being a horrible, despicable, inhuman alien.

When I was thinking of suicide, I didn’t really want to blame anyone or use it as a call for help. I felt like that was manipulative, and would sort of defeat the point about love. If someone loved me, it had to be because they wanted to love me, not because I was manipulating them into it. Thus, I gave noone any help in loving me. In fact, I tried to do everything I could to be the most unworthy person I could be. If someone could voluntarily see enough value within me to actually love me, and demonstrate it by going out of their way to be with me when I was pushing them away nearly as hard as I could, then I might believe it.

It’s such a trap that I put myself in. I knew it was a trap. I knew I was bent on destroying myself—it was the only thing that felt right, even if, intellectually, I knew it wasn’t right. So, seeing the trap, I still walked into it. Unfortunately, if I ever feel like that again, I’m sure I’ll walk knowingly into the trap again.

So what others have said—reassuring people they are loved, although you don’t like what they are doing—probably will help. I think people want to push the people who love them away, by drinking and being miserable and hurting their loved ones, partly because they want to punish themselves, and partly because they want to test you.

The trick is to find a way to get a complex message through to them. The message is that they are a valuable and lovable person (and it helps if you don’t merely say that, but repeat the reasons why you believe that over and over), but you are not going to let them ruin your life along with theirs. In other words, you will love them, but they do have to find a way to let you help them—a way that does not allow them to manipulate you.

Like others have said, urging the person to get treated, to check themselves into a hospital; to go into detox; whatever it is, is a good way to deal with this. You have to do this over and over. It’s your “broken record” message. It has to be consistent. It shows that you care enough to try to get them to help themselves.

However, the part about not letting them manipulate you, is also crucial. That also sends a message. That says you care about yourself enough to take care of yourself. It is a model that perhaps, seeing it, the sick person will try to emulate. I don’t think of it as “tough” love. It’s responsible love. It’s taking care of yourself love. You would love to take care of them, but you can’t take care of yourself at the same time. Your priority is yourself, just as their priority should be themselves.

The thing about alcoholics is that they usually have to go through detox programs over and over again. Some can break the habit on their own, but that’s fairly rare, I believe. Your message, I believe, has to stay consistent. Get professional help. I love you, and for that reason, I will help you solve your problem by getting professional help, but I will not help you do anything else.

I do believe that there are underlying reasons for people to “self-medicate.” Depression is a common reason. But pain of any kind can be medicated with alcohol. I know some people say that you should deal with the alcoholism first, and then the underlying problem. I lean more towards the other way around. Deal with the underlying problem, and you can deal with the alcoholism. Since I’m not really conversant with alcoholism and alcoholics, I could be way off.

I suspect that detox programs are usually too short to teach people the skills they need to deal with underlying problems. Support afterwards then becomes very important. The alcoholic needs new patterns—staying away from people that share the problem; getting onto a more regular schedule; doing more productive and useful work. They need to do things that will help them feel better about themselves. And they need to continue working on the underlying problem(s).

I doubt that many people get much help this way. I’m pretty sure that AA provides this kind of support, but I don’t know if it’s enough. Still, people have to make a choice—to continue working towards a way out of the pain. Love, as they say, is the answer. But it has to be delivered in a productive way, not a way that helps the alcoholic continue to drink.

bumwithablackberry's avatar

How about what shouldn’t you say, I find saying the wrong things creates situations that quickly throws all your good, heartfelt, support, straight out the door. Like a match is easier to put out than a forest fire kinda thing.

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