While you can’t make the choice for them, there’s a lot you can do to help a loved one who’s living with alcoholism.
If you know someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD), it’s natural to be concerned and want to help.
However, many people with AUD use denial as a self-defense mechanism. People using denial are unlikely to admit they use alcohol heavily and that their relationship with alcohol is unhealthy. This can be very frustrating for friends and family, but there are ways to make a conversation easier.
Denial is often a self-defense mechanism for people under stress, whether or not they drink heavily. People who are displaying denial are typically using it as a way to avoid facing truths that they are unable to deal with. They might feel powerful, unpleasant emotions such as shame, stress, and fear at the thought of confronting the problem.
People with AUD are likely to employ denial because admitting that alcohol has become a serious problem can be incredibly difficult. Many people with AUD drink more than they intend to but want to believe they are still in control of their drinking. Not everyone with AUD demonstrates denial, but it’s a common occurrence that can prevent people from seeking treatment.
In addition to feelings of shame about drinking, people with AUD might deny they are having trouble with alcohol due to:
- Friends, family members, and social situations that enable and encourage drinking: It can be easy to deny a problem with alcohol use when the people around you also drink or when the people in your life enable your drinking.
- A lack of knowledge about how much alcohol is safe or healthy to drink: Drinking alcohol is normalized in many social circles and in society at large. It can be difficult for people to figure out what amount of drinking is healthy or normal and what amount signals an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
It can be difficult to help someone with AUD who is in denial about their drinking, but there are ways you can start the conversation. It’s important to stay calm, supportive, and non-judgmental throughout any conversation and to remember that acknowledging AUD can be overwhelming and frightening.
You can help by:
- Asking questions about their alcohol use: Sometimes, asking open-ended questions about someone’s alcohol use can be useful. Asking how they feel it might be affecting their health, career, and personal life can be a great way to start the conversation and may be the first step toward recovery. It’s important for the person with AUD to lead the conversation.
- Speaking empathetically: Conversations that involve anger and accusations are likely to fail. It’s best to let the person know you care and to express that you are concerned for their health and well-being.
- Offering supportive resources: It can be helpful to have contact information for professional support ready before you begin a conversation. Addiction professionals are trained to help people accept their AUD.
A note on consent
You can never force someone to accept their AUD or make someone quit drinking. The change has to come from the person with the addiction. Starting treatment needs to be a choice, and the person with AUD needs to be ready to make it. Otherwise, the treatment is unlikely to be effective.
That can be frustrating. No one wants to watch a loved one experience AUD or any other health condition. However, no one can be rushed or pushed into recovery. You can offer support to someone with AUD who is in denial and take steps to ensure you’re not enabling their drinking, but you can’t make them get help.
There are options available to help people overcome AUD. For some people, outpatient programs with therapy treatment sessions are a great way to start the recovery journey. For others, an inpatient program that can help with withdrawal and mental health concerns might be a good choice.
To read more about getting professional help for alcohol addiction, you can check out these articles:
- How to help someone with an alcohol addiction
- Treatment options for alcohol use disorder
- Alcohol isn’t a controlled substance, but it is regulated — here’s why
- Your guide to the benefits of alcohol rehabilitation programs
- Living with Someone with Alcohol Addiction: How to Support Them — and Yourself
You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Helpline. This free helpline is available 24/7 and can help match you to programs, treatments, and support groups in your area if you live in the United States. Help is available in English and Spanish.
You can reach SAMHSA by calling 1-800-662-4357, by sending a text with your zip code to 435748, or by visiting their website.
People with AUD often deny they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Often, this is due to factors such as shame and fear, but it can also be because people genuinely do not accurately see or understand how their drinking has become unhealthy.
You can’t force someone to quit drinking, but you can start a supportive conversation. It’s a good idea to ask questions, let the person with AUD lead the conversation, and avoid judgment and accusations. This can help the person with AUD feel more at ease and might help them accept that they need treatment for their alcohol use.