New Zealand Law Society - Helping someone with an alcohol problem

Helping someone with an alcohol problem

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One of the biggest problems with being an addict is that you lie to yourself. I know that only too well from my struggles to give up smoking.

I had a friend who was an alcoholic. He lied about it often. He would often say to me: “I’m not an alcoholic. It’s ridiculous that Sally (his soon to be ex-wife) would say that I have an alcohol problem. I go into the office every morning and do my work. I’ll never be a bum.”

Yet he was an alcoholic. He had moved past the stage where he was a social drinker. He had moved past the stage where he was a problem drinker, but one who could just simply stop drinking if he wanted to.

He was physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. And he was well on the way down his slide to the bottom, a slide that would eventually take him into a difficult withdrawal with a variety of symptoms, including the DTs.

My friend was a lawyer. By the time he decided to address his addiction, he had lost his wife, his house and many of his friends.

These losses were not, however, the trigger for his first move to do something about his drinking. The trigger was that he did not turn up for work one day, missing a court appearance.

Although he still did not realise how bad his situation was, my friend was rapidly sinking towards rock bottom. He managed to keep his job by going to the doctor and getting a doctor’s certificate.

That just put off the fateful day, however, and he would soon also lose his job to alcoholism.

What later emerged was that many people had known my friend had an alcohol problem. The very few who did something, effectively just told him “straight” that he had a problem. His immediate response was to deny it. One or two tried to cover for him.

In my friend’s case, it may be that nobody could have helped him before he slid to the bottom. There’s a saying that goes something like this: “there’s nothing you can do for an alcoholic until they hit rock bottom”.

Time and time again, however, events have proven that this saying simply is not true, at least not all of the time. People have been helped, sometimes quite soon after starting down the slippery side of abuse. In fact many people have been successfully steered in the right direction.

How do you help?

So how do you help somebody you know who has a drinking, or a drug problem?

Firstly, there are some things that are likely to do harm, rather than help. Most of these involve being judgemental in some way, and then basically telling them that you are judging them.

“You’ve got an alcohol problem” or “I think your drinking’s out of control” are examples of an approach that is highly unlikely to succeed.

The response is predictable. “No I haven’t” (got an alcohol problem), or “No my drinking’s not out of control.” And it may well be immediately followed up with: “I can stop any time I want to.” I know one problem drinker who would go off alcohol for anything up to a week to “prove” he didn’t have a problem, only to compensate with a real blinder.

Approaching the person with empathy, rather than judging them, is much more likely to succeed.

From time to time, something will be happening in their life that you can get them to talk about with you. It may be a relationship difficulty. It may relate to one of the symptoms of abuse, such as increased tolerance or some symptom of withdrawal, such as shakiness.

It is often about waiting for a “critical moment”, when something comes along that makes your friend or colleague want to start thinking they may need help. This “critical moment” may well have been prompted by a well-timed open-ended question you asked, such as: “what would you most like to achieve in the next two months?” or “You don’t seem to have been yourself recently. Is something wrong?”

Getting a good question happening is much more likely if you have spent some time building rapport with the person, and doing this with empathy. Empathy and understanding is needed to match a good question with the way the person thinks and operates.

It is useful during this period, too, to realise that denial is very much tied up with the alcohol or drug abuse. The person is likely to say something like “I could stop any time I want to.” In fact their denial may be one of your biggest frustrations as you try to help.

This phase of helping someone can require patience. It may be necessary to wait for good moments to move. In the meantime, you are making progress just by being a friend and, in doing so, becoming more involved in their life and learning more about them.

It can also be helpful to actively look out for good times to help. An example may be offering to help someone shift their gear because their marriage or relationship has broken down.

Then, when the opportunity arises, you will need to be prepared to answer questions such as “where can I get help?” or “what do I do now?”

As part of the Law Society’s Practising Well initiative, we have an agreement with Lifeline Aotearoa.

Lifeline offers a discounted rate to New Zealand Law Society members and their families. Lifeline’s professional counsellors can help with a broad range of issues, including addiction.

You can contact Lifeline by email, phone 09 909 2917, or by filling out a request for counselling form on the Lifeline website.

Another useful resource is the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797. It provides free, confidential advice and support.

Two well-known providers of assistance to alcoholics are The Salvation Army, 0800 530 000 and Alcoholics Anonymous, 0800 229 6757.

Finally, an online directory of alcohol providers is available at

Three steps

The basic approach to providing effective help involves three simple steps:

  • build friendship and rapport;
  • seek opportunities to get the person thinking seriously about their problem; and
  • be ready with the contact details of where they can get help.

These three simple steps may sound like a “soft touch” to confronting the problem of alcoholism, but they really do require something of a patient and disciplined approach.

To see why, it may help to take a look at much more typical reactions by people to someone who has an alcohol problem.

One frequent approach is to “cover up” for the person with the drinking problem. Many people react by feeling an obligation to cover up, and they then take on the burden of cleaning up the alcoholic’s messes, lying for them, or working more to make ends meet.

Or, perhaps in the hope that the problem will soon come to an end (by some sort of magic), they pretend that nothing is wrong. This involves repressing all of their fears and resentments, which usually takes an enormous toll. And it often actually provides some “enablers” of the problem behaviour syndrome. At its worst, it can lead to co-dependence.

Another common reaction is to try and ignore the problem. This often happens because the problem actually seems overwhelming, and that denying it is the easiest option.

It may well be easier than actively working towards a creative solution, as suggested in the three steps outlined above, but in the long run denying it will be more damaging to you, other workplace or family members, and the person with the drinking problem.

Helping someone who has an alcohol problem is not easy. It is important to remember to look after yourself and that you get the support which you need.

Contacting Lifeline Aotearoa early in the process may be a very good option. Once again, their contact details are (09) 909 2917 and their email is

What not to do

Experience has taught that there are many things that are counter-productive when faced with people who have alcohol dependence. The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information in the United States provides a list of what not to do, adapted as the following bullet points:

  • don’t attempt to punish, threaten, bribe or preach;
  • don’t try to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to drink or use other drugs;
  • don’t cover up or make excuses for the alcoholic or problem drinker or shield them from the realistic consequences of their behaviour;
  • don’t take over their responsibilities;
  • don’t hide or dump bottles, throw out drugs, or shelter them from situations where alcohol is present;
  • don’t argue with the person when they are impaired;
  • don’t try to drink along with the problem drinker; and,
  • above all, don’t feel guilty or responsible for another’s behaviour.
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