How can you get through to someone who is in serious denial about their alcoholism? How can you convince them to get the help that they need, or to take action and go to rehab? Is an organized intervention the best way, or should you try a different approach? What can you do, and what are your options?
Dealing with an alcoholic is not easy. I did not really understand this when I was going through my own journey with addiction and recovery, though I had an idea about it. Later on, after I was clean and sober for many years, I started to learn for myself just how difficult it can be to get through to an alcoholic or a drug addict. Because today I have many peers and friends in my life, some of who continue to struggle with the disease. So I have learned much during this journey but these have not been what I would call “fun” learning experiences.
The nature of denial
Denial is really difficult to deal with.
The problem with denial is that it repels any attempts at logic. The alcoholic simply cannot see things from your point of view because they are stuck in their own little world.
I can understand this from two different perspectives. One, I was once in denial myself, so I know what it is like to really believe that alcohol is the only solution in the world that can make you happy. I know what it is like to feel like everyone is against you because they are trying to force you to quit drinking, and you just want to be happy (and drink).
The other perspective is that I have been clean and sober for over a decade now and I know what it is like to deal with someone in denial and try to pull them out of it. It is a really difficult thing to do because they simply cannot see your logic.
Recently I dealt with a friend in my recovery who had relapsed. They were drinking every day and they needed to get help quite badly. This person was convinced that they did not need to go to detox, and I found this to be rather insane. They were a complete mess and they could just barely function and they smelled of booze. How could they argue that they did not even need a medical detox? I was sure that they would go through serious withdrawal if they stopped drinking cold turkey. Yet I could not convince this person that they needed to seek professional help. Their level of denial was too strong.
Denial is rooted in fear. When you are dealing with denial from the outside it almost looks like an error in logic. Why can’t the person see that they are hurting themselves? Why can’t the person realize that they would be happier if they just did what you suggested? But it is not really an error in logic, because the person really believes that they would be even more miserable if they were to stop drinking. They are under the spell of alcohol. The alcohol has convinced them that if they become sober that their life will be totally miserable, even worse than it is now. They really believe this. Therefore there is no error in logic. The person in denial is being perfectly logical; the problem is that they believe the wrong things. But they are acting in accordance with what they believe to be true. They are only trying to maximize their happiness, just like any other rational person would.
What you can do that will bring a person closer to surrender
The person in denial can not make any progress unless they reach a point of surrender. This is the breaking point when everything changes for them. This is the point in their life when they decide that they no longer want to live in pain and chaos and misery and fear.
Surrender is the point where you get sick of being afraid.
So the question is: How can you convince someone to reach this point of surrender?
Well, it’s tricky. I will start out by telling you this much:
You can’t just talk them into it. You can’t just tell someone that they should surrender. That obviously won’t work, not in any kind of direct way.
And the alcoholic themselves may have been to rehab before (and since relapsed) and they may know full well that “surrender is the solution.” But knowing this does not necessarily help them. In fact, simply knowing that surrender is the solution does not help them at all, not one bit.
Because I had been to rehab myself and I knew that you had to surrender first in order to recover. And I actually tried to figure out how to do that. I thought about it quite a bit. And I could not figure out how to surrender.
Because in the end, I just wasn’t ready. I had several more years of drinking ahead of me.
Because I hadn’t had enough pain yet. I had not yet had enough misery and chaos in my life as a result of my addiction.
Oh sure, I had experienced some pain and misery already. But not enough to make me want to swear off drugs and alcohol forever.
So this is what keeps someone stuck in denial. They are in pain and misery as a result of their addiction, but the question is: “How much pain and misery?”
The answer is clearly told to you based on their actions: If they continue to self medicate with drugs or alcohol, then they have not yet had enough pain in their life.
Once they have finally had enough pain and chaos and misery, they will surrender. This will change everything, and they will become open to taking direction. They will become open to finding a new way to live. This is why humility is so important for overcoming alcoholism–if you have not yet reached a point of humility in your life, then you will not be in a position to take directions from other people.
How can you learn a new way to live if you are not completely humbled first? You can’t. I have tried it myself. It doesn’t work.
So now that we understand how denial works, what can we do to accelerate the process of surrender?
How can we bring the alcoholic closer to the point where they break through their denial and agree to surrender?
There are two parts to this answer:
1) You cannot directly force someone to surrender, or to break through their denial.
2) You CAN indirectly help someone to work through their denial, and get them closer to surrender by doing so. The way to do this is by setting healthy limits and boundaries.
Setting healthy limits and boundaries
It is possible to nudge someone closer to surrender. You cannot do it directly. You can only do it indirectly.
The alcoholic has (potentially) many different people in their life. You are one of those people.
You are either part of the problem, or you are part of the solution.
This is about enabling.
If you are part of the problem then you are enabling the alcoholic in some way.
If you are part of the solution then you are putting your foot down and practicing what is often referred to as “tough love.”
Now there are other people in the alcoholic’s life as well, and many of them might be enabling the alcoholic as well.
If they are, then you have two choices:
1) Let those people be, and stick to your own business, doing what you can to help the alcoholic on your own.
2) Attempt to talk to some of those other enablers and educate them about how to set healthy limits and boundaries.
Obviously there is some risk to attempting to persuade people into taking action on this. One way to do so might be to offer to take the person to an Al-anon meeting with you. By the way, this is one of the best things that you can do for yourself if you are dealing with an alcoholic: to attend Al-anon meetings. There you can get support, direction, and advice for the exact issue that we are discussing here today.
So what you would do in your life is to figure out what your limits and boundaries will be in regards to this person’s alcoholism.
For example, you may set a limit that you will not bail them out of jail if they get into trouble.
Or you might decide that you will help them by taking them to rehab, but you will not help them buy groceries for their kids. (Because you realize that buying groceries for the alcoholic’s children is actually perpetuating more drinking in the future).
So you need to figure out how the alcoholic is manipulating things, and vow not to be a part of that. You have to figure out how to step away from the alcoholic in order to not feed into their addiction. And sometimes it is tricky, because alcoholics tend to be pretty good at manipulating people. This is why you should seek guidance and counsel from Al-anon meetings, so that you can get additional insight into how you might set better boundaries in your life. You must decide what you will and will not tolerate in your life.
After you set these limits and boundaries in your life (to protect your own sanity), you must then communicate those to the alcoholic. Again, this is a tricky situation and can be a bit of an art form if done correctly. Obviously you don’t want it to turn into a yelling match. You might benefit from advice on how to communicate this from an Al-anon group as well. Without making threats or accusations, what you want to do is to simply tell the alcoholic in your life where you stand, and what you will tolerate. “These are my boundaries, and they actually have very little to do with you. They have everything to do with me and what I can live with.” Essentially your boundaries will push the alcoholic away if they choose to not get help. You must put a healthy distance there in between yourselves so that you do not get hurt or swept up into the chaos of addiction. The alcoholic always has a choice of course: They can choose to get help at any time and seek professional treatment services. I would recommend that you offer to help them if they are in treatment, and that you will not help them if they are trying to do things “on their own.”
Ultimately this is what worked for me in the toughest situations I have dealt with. The alcoholic in my life was manipulative and eventually I had to say that I would not talk to them or help them in any way until they were in a treatment center. After that, I would be more than willing to help them in any way that I possibly could. But not until they were in treatment. Because if they were not in treatment then they were still running on their own ego and they were manipulating everyone and everything in sight. I had to step away from that chaos and not be a part of it.
When you do this it can be emotionally tough, because the alcoholic will see it as a rejection. And it is a rejection. You are rejecting the disease. In order to do that you have to set serious limits and boundaries around yourself so that you no longer get dragged into the chaos. You cannot help the alcoholic with anything (except going to rehab) because otherwise they will simply manipulate you. And they are not trying to manipulate anyone, they are just trying to get drunk and stay that way. And that involves manipulating the world so that they can get what they want.
The last time I “rejected” a friend and cut them off completely (would not even talk to them on the phone any more) they were upset with me over it. But then they went into rehab and later they thanked me for putting my foot down. They said that they were glad that I finally put my foot down because they really did not realize how much help they needed. And yet I almost failed to do this because I did not want to hurt the alcoholic’s feelings by cutting them off from all communication. This is why you need support when you are dealing with an alcoholic or addict in your life! Because it can be emotionally draining and very difficult to follow through on. You have to make tough decisions and be strong in knowing that you are doing the right thing. Easier said than done.
Recruiting “help” in the form of peers or an old sponsor will probably not help until the person surrenders on their own
Having worked with alcoholics and addicts for over a decade now, I have watched a lot of people try to help others. Some things work and other things do not.
One thing that I have noticed is that people will try to recruit help. They will try to get someone else to persuade the alcoholic to take action, such as old friends or an old sponsor. They believe that there was a special connection between these people, so if they can just get the right person to talk to the alcoholic then they would be able to get through to them.
I have noticed that this does not work.
The reason it doesn’t work is based on the principle of surrender.
The alcoholic is in one of two states: They have surrendered, or they are in denial. One of the two.
Almost nothing moves the alcoholic closer to surrender other than more pain, chaos, and misery.
Consequences bring the alcoholic closer to surrender. Suffering brings them closer to breaking through their denial. All of the negative stuff–the pain and the chaos and the misery–this is the stuff that brings the alcoholic closer to surrender.
Having a positive influence come into their life does very little. It would certainly help if they were already on the path of recovery, but if they have not yet surrendered to their disease, then it brings them no closer to surrender.
This is why I am generally against the idea of a formal intervention.
The alcoholic can see (during a full blown intervention) that all of these people care about them. They can clearly see and understand that. Yet due to their denial, it just doesn’t matter. It makes no difference if all of these people love and care about them. So what? The alcoholic is dealing with denial. They believe that they will become so miserable that they will die if they stop drinking. Sobriety is a fate worse than death. Why would they want to get sober just to make all of these loved ones happy? It makes absolutely no sense to the person who is stuck in denial.
I had an intervention in my own life. I can remember arguing with the people there, saying things like “Why would you want for me to be miserable? If I can’t drink or use drugs I will be completely miserable! I might become so depressed if I am sober that I kill myself! Why would you want that for me?”
I could not see what they were seeing, that I was already miserable. I could not see that there was hope for happiness in my life if I were to be sober and free from addiction. I did not even consider that to be remotely possible. When they suggested that I get sober and learn to be happy, I looked at them like they were crazy. Because what they were saying was completely impossible to me (at the time).
Sometimes you just have to walk away and stop enabling someone
There are times when you have to seemingly “give up” and walk away from the alcoholic in order to help them.
But note that you are not really “giving up” at all. In fact, you are making your greatest effort to push someone closer to surrender.
The alcoholic is not going to change when everything is going well. They are not going to change if they are managing to keep their relationships even somewhat healthy.
Alcoholics do not change their lives when things are going well, or even just decent.
They only change at the bitter end, when things have become so bad that they are completely miserable.
The alcoholic is motivated by pain and misery.
I wish it were different, but this is how it really works.
Therefore one of the most important ideas you can remember is this:
* Do not deny an alcoholic of their pain and misery.
If you do deny them of their pain, then you are enabling them. You make it so that they can drink again without consequence.
Instead, take a step back and let them fall on their face for once. Let them fall on their face over and over again. You can learn to do this with practice. You can learn to do this by seeking help in Al-anon. You can learn to do this by setting healthy limits and boundaries in your life.
When we think about helping the alcoholic, we normally think in “direct” terms. Force them into rehab. Force them to change. Make it happen, now.
This never works. Instead, start thinking in terms of being indirect.
Stop enabling. Set limits. Set boundaries. Communicate them.
What about you, have you had any success communicating with the alcoholic in your life? What did you do to get through to them? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!