Days of Wine and Roses Redux?
December 28, 2008 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I think my sister and her boyfriend have a drinking problem. How can we help?

My sister (28) and her boyfriend (31) are what I consider to be heavy social drinkers and my family is concerned.

It's a bit hard for me to judge because I don't live in the same city, but they tell anecdotes that lead me to believe that they have a drinking problem. Here's what I know: I'm not sure what, if anything, they drink on the weeknights, but for all I know it could be a lot. On weekends I think they regularly get completely drunk. I've very rarely actually seen them wasted, but I have definitely seen them tipsy. The do a lot of shots on weekend nights, and put away a lot of beer. (My sister, who weighs about 100 pounds, says she can easily drink 12 beers a night.) Recently they came to visit me and got in a big fight where he stormed off and eventually made it back to our house. My sister said he 'always' does this, and he's driven drunk the wrong way on a major highway in our home city, and he's driven drunk more than once, and that his friends - college friends, who drink a lot themselves - think it's fun to make him "confused." I was pretty shocked to hear all that - until then I would have said they drink a lot but definitely can handle their booze. They are both in fabulous shape - they work out a lot, and are generally just blessed with great physiques and great looks - and so there's zero indication from looking at them that they drink this heavily. Basically, I think they drink like irresponsible college students, except they're not in college anymore and I don't see any trigger that will make them stop drinking like this unless someone intervenes. They have a lot of friends, and they all seem to drink to excess. They're very into sports and drink heavily when watching baseball, football, etc. They do have a puppy and they are absolutely fantastic with him - they take him for 3-4 very long walks a day, discipline him well, etc. (I say this because I think maybe a baby would be that trigger - but that's a few years away and maybe it wouldn't help at all.) They are both quite successful at work. They've been together about 3 years and my family loves him (and her, obviously) very much.

I'm worried about their current safety, their health, and their futures. My whole family drinks quite a bit, but not like this. His siblings drink heavily but his parents are teetotalers. We're afraid their story is going to be the Days of Wine and Roses story, if they don't stop or change the way they drink. They - especially he - are very likeable, friendly people. We have a great relationship with them. They like to tell us anecdotes about their drinking. They think it's a bonding exercise to play cards with me and my parents and do shots when we screw up. My sister has been a bit distant with me and my parents until she started dating him - he's very pro-family and he's the reason we now spend a lot of time with them both. We're worried (1) that if we bring this up it's only going to drive them away; (2) it's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black because we're all social drinkers (but not at all like this); (3) we're not sure they need AA or the like, but we do think they need to seriously cut back on their drinking.

I know you can't tell me what to do, but what do we do?!
posted by n'muakolo to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If they're putting other people's lives in danger, call the police. Driving the wrong way up a freeway? WTF?

Other than that, there isn't a lot you can do. They're both adults, and they'll stop drinking when they want to.
posted by Solomon at 10:01 AM on December 28, 2008

A quick note: Alcoholics can be slim, good with puppies, successful at work, and so on. The main sign that someone is an alcoholic is that they are addicted to alcohol. Please don't look to the other to inform you if they are or are not addicted.

If they are alcoholics, I don't think there is much you can do to help them. They won't quit until they want to quit. You can't convince or pressure them into it.

If they are just drinking more than you think they should, perhaps change the activities you do with them -- make it so they can spend time with the family without everyone drinking (that means your family cuts it out, too).
posted by Houstonian at 10:06 AM on December 28, 2008

It's a bit hard for me to judge because I don't live in the same city, but they tell anecdotes that lead me to believe that they have a drinking problem.

and then

Here's what I know: I'm not sure what, if anything, they drink on the weeknights, but for all I know it could be a lot.

I've very rarely actually seen them wasted, but I have definitely seen them tipsy.

My take: you don't actually KNOW anything. Unless you have personally witnessed all the things you lay out here, you have no basis for an intervention or anything else.

People like to tell stories. And people just out of college may have trouble adjusting and think that the bs stories from college are still a way to get status.
posted by micawber at 10:11 AM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think the first step is talking to your sister about how you are concerned about them and their health and safety, not to mention the safety of others if they are driving drunk. If they are surrounded by friends who validate their lifestyle, and their family is tacitly validating it, then they might not realize that there is anything wrong with what they are doing. Sure you might risk her being mad at you, or "driving them away", but won't you feel worse if something bad happens and you hadn't said anything? They might just need a wake up call.

On the other hand...Driving the wrong way up a freeway?? That wasn't a red flag to them?
posted by apricot at 10:14 AM on December 28, 2008

Alcoholism is when drinking interferes with your daily life or happiness or relationships in a negative way. Until something negative happens that doesn't seem like a "wacky" story for later (job loss, DUI, physical injury, loss of relationship, etc.), nothing you say or do will likely impact their drinking habits.

There is no number of drinks, frequency of drinking bouts or level of intoxication that indicates alcoholism. It's different for everyone. My college roommate went on a bender the very first time she drank (she drank until she was screaming, naked, in the front yard and cutting herself with broken bottles). She never drank alcohol again and would beg me to pour out leftovers after parties in our apt. ended. A family member drank a pitcher of gin and tonics a day every day for 12 years; I never saw him drunk. One day he packed off to the rehab.

It's different. FOR EVERYONE. That said, why don't you try having a family event that is alcohol-free? Agree with all attendants ahead of time that there will be no drinking. Make sure sister and boyfriend know not to bring any. See how they behave. Do they complain about not being able to drink? If you want to discuss this with them, put it in the context of a situation, not a confrontation. They may perceive confrontation as hypocrisy if everyone else drinks heavily or socially, especially during the discussion.

People who are confronted about things that they don't see as a problem tend to just get better at hiding the problem, if there truly is one, or pulling back from the accuser. Just my two cents (with alcoholics on both sides of my family for many, many generations).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:33 AM on December 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

This really isn't any of your business, especially if you don't know the details you admit to not knowing, and especially since, for the most part, both of them seem perfectly functional. If (probably when) something goes seriously wrong, you may find yourself in a position to ask questions or make observations regarding their lifestyle, but to do so now is only going to push your sister away at a time when she's just getting used to being involved in your life again.
posted by hermitosis at 10:35 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's not much you can do. If you or anyone else in your family knows that anyone is driving drunk, you must call the police, but try to prevent the drunk driving in the first place by talking them out of getting behind the wheel if you're on the scene. And I totally agree with the people who say all family events should be alcohol-free from now on.
posted by orange swan at 10:39 AM on December 28, 2008

Like everyone else says, there isn't much that you can do. Join Al-Alon.
posted by k8t at 10:52 AM on December 28, 2008

I agree 100% with micawber. You clearly don't know enough to properly asses the situation. Perhaps a reminder that driving drunk is dangerous (socially and physically) would be appropriate, but other than that you can't really intervene.
posted by FusiveResonance at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2008

Seconding micawber: They might be doing a bunch of "oh, man, I was so wasted..." bragging, which is not exactly endearing, but probably somewhat exaggerated and common among their peer group. If you actually see them drinking heavily or considering driving drunk, though, that's different.

Also, you misspelled the tag.
posted by silentbicycle at 10:56 AM on December 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments (and the spelling correction!)

A few responses:
- I'm not ok with doing nothing. I'm not a meddlesome person by nature, but this has been a real concern for a few years now, and I am no ok with my sister ruining her life while I stand by and do nothing. My parents are also concerned. My friend has three brothers, one of whom battled alcoholism and seems to have regained his life but one recently drove himself to the hospital and died (in his twenties) of liver failure and the other has alcohol-induced seizures from secret drinking (and no one, including his live-in girlfriend) knew he even drank more than in moderation. I don't want any of those fates for my sister. I don't want her to have a miserable life, and/or liver failure in ten years. And I disagree - I do think it is my business.

-Re: the drunk driving. That is him, not her (she never drives drunk as far as I know). She is horrified about that. I expressed my horror at that. They do think it's a problem. That's all I know.

-Re: what I do and don't know: It's true I'm really not sure how much of a problem this is (besides the obvious drunk driving incident(s?). But I have frequently seen them both drink enough that I would be completely passed out, and they've basically been fine (which suggests a high tolerance). And, for example, christmas eve the rest of us all went to bed at a reasonable hour and they stayed up for hours playing cards and doing shots.

-I do agree that any overt intervention would make them more secretive; drive them away. My sister is already very private.

-We have largely given up drinking with them around, but we can do that better. We can't entirely give up drinking w/o explaining to them why. I just mentioned to my father that we should refuse to do the shots while playing card (not fun for the rest of us anyway), and he said he's on board, but he has to think of how to refuse.
posted by n'muakolo at 11:12 AM on December 28, 2008

talking to someone about overdrinking is never comfortable, but your father does NOT have to think of how to refuse doing shots on card night. he just tells them that he's done it for years because it's important to THEM, that he doesn't particularly think there's anything fun about it, that he feels that by not doing shots he won't be tacitly encouraging their drinking, and oh by the way, since we're already talking about not encouraging your drinking, i think we need to have a serious talk because i see a huge problem in your future.

*that's* how he should refuse. and it will piss them off & it won't change a thing. but there is absolutely no reason in the world to fabricate stories to not hurt their feelings. you love them; that's reason enough.

practice phrases like 'from everything i've heard' and 'maybe i'm wrong, but ...' and 'forgive me if i'm overstepping my bounds but i just want to tell you how concerned i am.'

alcoholism is not some form of mental condition that won't allow the alcoholic to take criticism; it's a serious life-threatening disease. prepare that your efforts will fall on deaf ears because you can't cure anyone. that shouldn't prohibit you from speaking your mind & expressing your concern.

forgive me if i sound a bit too strident, but i am a nonpracticing alcoholic. it took a lot of years & a lot of tears to stop. someone else tiptoeing around the subject never helped a thing.
posted by msconduct at 11:40 AM on December 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am no ok with my sister ruining her life while I stand by and do nothing.

What people are trying to tell you is that without evidence of chronically dysfunctional behavior as a result of the drinking, then "abuse" is in the eye of the beholder.

You are completely entitled to share with your sister the fact that your exposure to alcoholism via friends and family makes you uncomfortable around anyone when they're drinking, and she may respect this quirk and not drink around you, and may even take it to heart and think a little bit about the ramifications of her own consumption; your position will be noted for posterity. But it sounds like you want more than that.

Look at that sentence of yours I quoted and imagine it being applied to any number of situations. Do you see how subjective it is? It hurts to imagine someone doing slow, long-term damage to themselves, but as adults that's the bargain each of us strike with our own consciences.

I've actually been in your situation a few times, with people in varying stages of dependence. Generally, unless the other person already wants to change, you can expect responses ranging from incredulity to polite dismissal to total outrage. The best you can do is live by example and maintain the best relationship with her that you can, in hopes that if she ever gets to the point where she really needs help, she'll come to you.
posted by hermitosis at 12:51 PM on December 28, 2008

PS: the Al-Anon suggestion above will probably give you all the support you need in the meantime.
posted by hermitosis at 12:53 PM on December 28, 2008

I'm not ok with doing nothing.

I understand your frustration and fear. That's the frustration and fear that every person who loves an alcoholic feels. And still, not much works. Don't you think your friend tried everything she could for her brothers?

Here are some things people try:

- Confronting. You tell her, "I'm worried about you. I think you are drinking too much, too often." She denies there is a problem.

- Forcing. You coerce her into getting treatment. She resents you, and continues to drink.

- Anticipating. You make every situation a fantastic one, and take care of her every need. She drinks.

- Nagging. You scold and yell. She feels guilty and drinks. Or she hides the drinking, feels guilty, and continues to drink.

- Educating. You talk to her about the dangers of drinking, her liver, her riding in a car, etc. She has not experienced any negative side effects to her drinking, or none negative enough to get her to realize she has a problem, so she denies and drinks.

- Worrying. Your parents talk to you. You talk to them. Everyone tries to hide the drinking problem from your sister. She feels fewer consequences for her drinking, and so continues to drink.

- Isolating. You decide you will have nothing to do with her, until she stops drinking. She feels bad and drinks.

I am very sorry that there's no magic for this problem. The best you can do, I think, is to tell her you are worried about her drinking, then wait for her to want to stop. In the meantime, you and your family can learn how to take care of yourselves while a loved one is a drinking alcoholic.
posted by Houstonian at 1:10 PM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wanted to add: I loved a man who is a drinking alcoholic. I tried reading a lot about it, and even went to open AA meetings and group recovery meetings with him (at his request), and so on. The thing I read that made the most sense to me, that really helped me understand all of it, was this article: Addiction, Lies, and Relationships. I hope it will help you understand what is going on with your sister if she's an alcoholic.
posted by Houstonian at 1:18 PM on December 28, 2008

Ha ha, driving the wrong way on a freeway, how zany! Ho ho, all they need is a baby, that'll fix everything! Tee hee, a 100 lb woman who drinks 12 beers at a sitting is in "fabulous shape!"

Your first step is to learn a lot more about the serious disease of alcoholism. You need to get to where you can understand the serious implications of the things you stated. Others have recommended some books.

Your sister and brother in law both suffer from it, and it is a debilitating, severe behavioral illness likely to lead to major problems in their physical and mental health and their social functions. Like all behavioral disease, the old joke applies:
How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
The best things you can do are to communicate your concerns and your love and support; and then be there when/if your loved ones need your help.

You may also want to think about setting limits. Where are you willing to draw the line? When your brother in law head-ons someone the next time he takes a wrong-way freeway spin, for example, will you be willing to go to the morgue to identify his mangled corpse?
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:52 PM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would say alcohol doesnt get in the way of their normal life, except for the drunk driving part - that's really not cool because it affects other people too. If I were you I'd continue building your relationship with them and when you talk to them don't tell them they drink too much, but comment on how fun their stories are and then express your concern for the driving. So they don't immediately get defensive about it, like they would if they thought you were criticizing everything they do, but maybe they'd start thinking about it more.

Something like "wow that sounds like a hell of a night, I can't believe so-and-so did that! But driving after that?? You really should've gotten a cab, you seriously should've given your keys over from the way you describe how drunk you were" - if they get defensive just say honestly "look I don't want anything bad happening to you, I was just concerned, but anyway, that sounds like a lot of fun" and make sure you end the convo on a good note so they don't think of you as an overprotective parent and hopefully continue talking to you about their partying. And maybe over time they'll start considering your thoughts on this all.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 3:46 PM on December 28, 2008

But I have frequently seen them both drink enough that I would be completely passed out, and they've basically been fine (which suggests a high tolerance).

That's right; it does suggest a high tolerance. But what does a high tolerance suggest? (Nothing, is the right answer)

And, for example, christmas eve the rest of us all went to bed at a reasonable hour and they stayed up for hours playing cards and doing shots.

Just sounds to me like they're having a good time? Pardon my gall, but perhaps they're drinking because the rest of you are so boring. I have been to many a party where boredom struck 15 mins after walking through the door. I'm not gonna walk out of a family event, but I might as well have another drink (provided I'm not driving).

I am no ok with my sister ruining her life while I stand by and do nothing.

All in all, the main problem with your sentence above is still the lack of hard facts. Have you ever seen your sister throw up (more than once) due to drinking? Have you ever seen her drive home after drinking? Have you ever seen your sister get abusive after drinking? It is quite offending to accuse someone of a problem. Be wary of false accusations
posted by FusiveResonance at 5:00 PM on December 28, 2008

There isn't necessarily proof that she is an alcoholic, and honestly, you probably can't do anything that will make them want to change their lifestyle. Something negative will have to happen to them as a result of their drinking to make them take a look at their habits, maybe a lot of negative things (they often call that hitting bottom).
However, if your parents don't want them drinking like that in their home, it is their right to tell them so.

They're definitely binge drinkers from your description, but since you don't know what, if anything, they drink on the weekdays, it seems your feeling that they're alcoholics is not very strongly supported.

One thing you could try is telling the story of someone you knew (maybe your friend's brother) who had terrible things happen as a result of their drinking. This could maybe at least make them think a little about what they're doing.

I'm a 100 lb girl and TWELVE beers?!?! At 100 lbs, more than 2 drinks and she would be legally drunk in most, if not all states.
posted by fructose at 6:09 PM on December 28, 2008

Response by poster: OK.

@ikkuyu2-I know you're well respected around here, but either you didn't read my question carefully or you didn't understand it. I obviously don't think this is a joke or I wouldn't have posted this question. And for the record, my sister doesn't drive drunk.
@ everyone who thinks I may be overreacting-it's certainly possible and I'd love that. I'm still worried though. I-and my parents-may be boring, but that's because on the average weekend night we go to bed at midnight after a few drinks rather than staying up until 2am doing shots. Which I don't think is sooooo boring it can't be tolerated.
posted by n'muakolo at 6:58 PM on December 28, 2008

I have a friend who is in AA, tells me that the textbook definition of an alcoholic is someone who cannot stop drinking when they really, really want to do so.

My friend tells me that a heavy drinker and an alcoholic can look identical in the way that they drink, and that a heavy drinker can continue in this for years, or maybe for most of their lives, and their family or friends think they are alcoholics, but if for a sufficiently strong reason - ill health, falling in love, change of environment, or the warning of a doctor - both the heavy drinker and the alcoholic try to stop or moderate, the heavy drinker will be able to do so. But the alcoholic will not.

Which is to say that your sister and/or her beau may or may not be alcoholics, could 'just' be drinking foolishly and heavily, and they (and you) will not know if they are alcoholics until they try to stop. If they cannot stop when they try to do so, when they really want to, then they probably have the illness, they probably are alcoholic.

Neither the heavy drinker or the alcoholic want to hear about their drinking -- they think it's cute, they think it's fun -- it can be fun, from what I hear, until it's not fun anymore. But they think the stories are oh so funny. Hardy-har-har!! From what you say, you're going to get in their face with it regardless they want to hear about it or not, and I think that's a good thing, as it's then in their head, a seed's been planted. If they are heavy drinkers, one or both of them may even stop, or moderate. But if they're alcoholics, if they have the illness of alcoholism, they are going to find that they are unable to stop drinking, regardless they want to or not.

My friend tells me that's when it gets, um, interesting.

That's interesting, spelled d-e-n-i-a-l, or spelled t-e-r-r-i-f-y-i-n-g, or, oddly, it seems that it can be spelled in both of those ways, at the same time even.

Since it appears you're going to tell them, well, do so. And then get your hands off of it, because you've now done all that you can do, short of locking them up for the rest of their lives. Which won't stop them from being alcoholics, if in fact they are alcoholics -- didja ever notice that alcoholics released from prison after a long period of enforced sobriety pick up right where they left off? -- but it would keep them off the streets.

Get thee to Al-Anon.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:00 PM on December 28, 2008

Well, I saw that you asked for advice about what to do, n'muakolo. There's not much to do, unfortunately. What there is to do, I did recommend to you.

I also differ from everyone who thinks you're overreacting. I think you're underreacting. I don't think you really understand the severity of the problem. Days of Wine and Roses is a fiction, a movie with witty, clever attractive people and a happy ending. OK, so your sister doesn't drive drunk. Does she ride in the car with her boyfriend when he drives drunk? You sure about the answer? Do you understand that it only takes one drunk driving accident to wipe your sister and her boyfriend off the face of the earth permanently?

With regard to setting limits: are these people allowed to drink at your house? Are you willing to accept the millions of dollars in liability for the minivan full of innocent little kids they kill on the way back to their home? If not, I suggest you quit serving them at your home. This is generally a good opening for the discussion you need to have with them.

I think it's good that you're thinking about these things. Maybe your involvement will be the wake up call they need to clean up their acts before permanent harm is done.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:07 PM on December 28, 2008

Why would a home owner be liable for the actions of someone who drinks at their house then kills someone drinkdriving afterwards? Surely a pub landlord isn't liable for drink drivers, so why would a home owner be?
posted by JonB at 1:13 AM on December 29, 2008

Why would a home owner be liable for the actions of someone who drinks at their house then kills someone drinkdriving afterwards? Surely a pub landlord isn't liable for drink drivers, so why would a home owner be?

Because the law seeks to eliminate drunk driving fatalities and injuries. Emphasis on the hosts serving alcohol rather than merely ownership of property. See, Dram Shop Laws.
posted by GPF at 7:26 AM on December 29, 2008

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