Eight unhelpful things to say to an alcoholic

Illustration of alcoholic drinks

It's painful to see someone you love struggle with alcohol addiction.

And it's easy to get angry about how their behaviour is affecting the people around them.

But if you want to help, you need to know the right things to say.

Newsbeat asked three recovering alcoholics to explain what didn't help them, and what they wish their families had said.

1. Why do you need to drink?

"At first I'd say, 'Because I like it,'" Tracey says.

Her husband had just left the family and she thought alcohol was helping her numb the pain.

But when her children asked her why she was drinking, she became resentful.

She says as a result she even increased the amount she was drinking.

"They were trying to be helpful but to me they weren't because I was in denial."

But as time went on, she became scared of the addiction.

"I got more open because I was frightened, and I could say, 'I don't know how to stop any more. I need help.'"

She says it's important to try to understand the reasons behind someone's drinking problem, and try not to be judgemental.

2. Why can't you just stop?

Bottle quote

Alcoholics can be physically addicted, meaning their body has come to rely on alcohol to feel "normal".

Stopping suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as agitation, hallucinations and seizures.

"I just couldn't stop. Not at the time. Medically I couldn't," says Tracey.

"You can go into fits if you stop just like that."

She was drinking a bottle of vodka a night and would have panic attacks if there was no booze in the house.

"People need to understand it's an illness," Tracey insists.

It can take between three months and a year to fully recover from the effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Tracey managed to quit because her family took her to the GP. She spent time in hospital and was put on medication to help.

3. You're selfish

Bottle quote

As families grow tired of an alcoholic's drinking, they can often start to criticise them more aggressively.

This made Tracey's behaviour more spiteful, she says.

"I was selfish," says Tracey. "But at the time I couldn't see that.

"It's dreadful to think that's what I used to do. I should have been coming home and thinking, 'What am I going to cook [my daughter] for tea?'

"But all my mind was fixated on was coming home to have a drink."

Ambrose, who's been off alcohol for nine months, says: "I could see I was hurting and upsetting people.

"I couldn't cope with feeling guilty so I ended up drinking more to forget that I felt guilty."

Tracey says it's best to avoid using combative language if you're trying to help someone with an alcohol problem.

Instead, try to be sympathetic.

"I just wanted them to say, 'Look Mum, we know you've got a problem. We're here to help you.'"

4. Don't you love us?

Bottle quote

Tracey says her children asked her this often.

"I thought, 'What a horrible thing to say.'

"I knew I did love them. Why would it change because I've had a drink?

"But obviously I wasn't showing them."

For Rose, who stopped drinking three years ago, it was "nothing to do with love".

"If I was able to have stopped of course I would have.

"It wasn't a choice. It was a necessity," she says.

5. How are you able to afford this?

Illustration of alcoholic drinks

"If I had no electricity I'd ask my mum for help to pay for more," remembers Rose.

"And sometimes she'd say, 'Oh - but you can afford drink.'

"Unfortunately she was probably right. But it doesn't help."

6. Shouting and screaming

"Get yourself together" and "you're a mother for God's sake."

Rose remembers these words being shouted at her but she says she only had time to reflect once the shouting stopped.

"There was silence and it gave me room to think.

"Calmly people said to me, 'We're so worried about you. You're going to die. We don't know what to do.'

"I wanted to die in my sleep. I couldn't see how I could ever stop drinking.

"But the silence let me see the pain my family were going through."

7. We won't drink either

QUOTE: None of us are going to drink

Rose finds it patronising when she goes for dinner with friends and someone says something like, "none of us are going to drink either".

"They make a huge deal about them not having alcohol. Actually it makes me feel uncomfortable.

"I'd much rather they said something like, 'Oh, do you mind if I have a drink?'

"When people are being obviously super careful it can be difficult."

Tracey still goes to the pub with her friends but she says she would never expect them not to drink on her behalf.

8. Are you strong enough?

Bottle quote

Since he stopped drinking Ambrose says he dislikes when people ask if he's strong enough to stay off it.

"When they ask that I think, 'Cheers mate, thanks for having faith in me.'"

He understands history may have taught people recovery can occasionally have setbacks but he says: "It's people having negative thoughts and passing them on to me.

"It puts a negative thought in my head and I start to wonder if I'm kidding myself."

Illustration of alcoholic drinks

Links to advice and help


You can get advice about alcohol on the BBC Advice pages.

Support groups and helplines are offered by a number of organisations in the UK including Al-Anon (linked to the Alcoholics Anonymous organisation) and DrugFam.

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics and Children of Addicted Parents groups can also offer support and advice.

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