How to help my lonely brother who I suspect is drinking alone?
June 11, 2013 7:26 PM   Subscribe

I don't think I'll sleep at all tonight because I just got off the phone with my brother and was pretty sure he was alone and drunk.

He didn't sound like himself, was slurring his words a bit and had delayed responses. I've never had a conversation like that with him before. I've been worried about him for a while because he's a very reserved person who doesn't express emotions or feelings, especially to his family. He sees my parents regularly and I talk on the phone with him about every two weeks, just general day-to-day stuff and tv/news etc (I live a half day's drive away). He's going to be reaching a milestone birthday and ever since college he has lived in our very small hometown, at first with my parents but on his own for a while now. We don't know of any close friends or any intimate relationships he's ever had. He seems to enjoy his full time job and tells us about very occasional coworker gatherings. He's also started going to more cultural events on his own, which I think is a good thing. But I've long suspected his solo lifestyle is getting to him. I heard through a mutual friend that he opened up to once that he wants a lady friend, so I'm not worried about him worrying about being closeted or anything. I'm worried about his general well-being and if there's anything I can do, especially now that I think he was drinking alone. He drinks regularly at casual family gatherings and I know he drank in college but I've never seen him affected by the drinking at all (I've never seen him drunk).

Any time in the past we (family) have tried to talk to my brother about "deep" issues he tends to shut it down very quickly and uncomfortably, so I for one have pretty much stopped asking more "serious" questions. My plan right now is to call him a little more often just to talk our usual general conversations just so he knows I'm thinking of him. Is this the way to approach this, or is it appropriate to say something like, "you know that other night you sounded really out of it, were you really just tired?" The idea of saying this to him makes me extremely uncomfortable and worried that he'll shut down even more to me and potential avoid our "general" conversations, but is it the right thing to do? I'm so so worried and anxious.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's better in person. Can you go see him, or perhaps charge a friend with doing it?

Your brother may be depressed and using alcohol to deal. But if you open up the topic on the phone, he can easily hang up on you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 PM on June 11, 2013

It seems like he doesn't really show signs of alcoholism (he doesn't get drunk, to your knowledge).

It also seems like he is showing more signs of being introverted than depressed.

Would it be so bad if he was drinking alone?
posted by sparklemotion at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2013 [18 favorites]

The stigma of drinking alone is somewhat misplaced. It is not meant to serve as a universal judgement, just something to look out for if its happening very often or otherwise interfering with life. Sometimes having some drinks by yourself is great, frankly.

He has a job he likes okay, he's getting out and doing things. It doesn't sound to me like there is any real reason for you not to sleep easy tonight.

Call him tomorrow if you want to check in. You sound like a good sibling. I understand that you worry about him, but I don't think him being drunk right should worry you too much.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:40 PM on June 11, 2013 [30 favorites]

Are you sure there is really a problem, aside from the fact that he was drunk one time on the phone?

I'm a loner, myself, and often drink on my own. Not because I'm a raging alkie or anything, but because I enjoy adult beverages and, as a loner, am not typically around other people every time I want to imbibe. I don't typically get slurring my words shitfaced, but I can't say it's never happened.

Did you call your brother, or did he call you? How long was the call? Was he very drunk the whole time? What did you talk about? What time of day was it where he is? Cocktail hour? 11pm? Noon?

Does your brother show any other symptoms of being unhappy? I'm also terminally single and not really on close emotional terms with my family, and yet am pretty content with the life I've built with myself.

I think calling more and trying to be closer with him is a great idea.
posted by Sara C. at 7:41 PM on June 11, 2013 [24 favorites]

How about you don't go too personal too quickly. If he is drinking heavily, and often, the signs will continue to be there. So right now work on building your relationship with him. Absolutely you should continue to call, to reach out, and be consistent even if he pushes you away by being distant, keep calling. Just keep showing your consistent & unconditional love for him, even if you're not going "deep." And if you plan on visiting in person, find activities you can both enjoy, like going for a hike or something. (The stoic men I've known open up a little while doing other things.) Then as you are building more of a regular relationship, you can ask how he's doing. Or maybe just ask him if there's anything he'd like to talk about, and see where he leads it. And if he shuts down when you start this- let him shut down. And then call him again at your usual time, to show him he can shut down and still be loved.

By the way, your sincere love and concern for your brother is very touching.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:45 PM on June 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

In alcoholism, the problem is not whether or not there are other people also drinking in the room. If a person reaches a point where they are drinking every day, or throughout the day, though, then eventually much of that drinking is done by themselves.
posted by thelonius at 7:45 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Honestly, I tend to drink alone myself - it's better then being out at a bar or with people. I can listen to better music, watch what I want, and play with my dog drunk. Unless you have some serious concerns about the "deep issues", why wouldn't you sleep well tonight? From what you're describing, it sounds like you're worrying over nothing. He has a good job, it doesn't appear to be affecting him that much - so what is the specific concern?
posted by lpcxa0 at 7:46 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

PS. I'm going against the grain here - I think drinking alone to the point of slurring drunkenness is not good. Sure we all crack open a beer at the end of a bad week, but what you described was more than this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:46 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm so so worried and anxious.

Why? You have a slight inkling that your brother might have been, on one occasion, drunk and alone at the same time, which is perfectly fine. You're not even sure he was either of those things. What you do know (from family outings) is that he can control his drinking just fine.

The reaction seems really over the top, frankly. Do you generally get overanxious about things? That may be something to talk to a doctor about.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:49 PM on June 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't think it's good, but merely doing it does not mean that a person is an alcoholic. It's a matter of how the alcohol affects them, do they do this as a lifestyle. do they lose control over how much or when they drink?

I'm not sure whether OP is concerned that the brother has a drinking problem, or if being drunk was an outcome of despair or loneliness or depression.
posted by thelonius at 7:49 PM on June 11, 2013

Once isn't a pattern. Ask him, "Hey, you doing ok lately?" And if answers yes, drop it until something else happens.

Also, people can be very different people around their family. It's possible my family thought I had no friends at some point, but I'm just so damned secretive about everything.
posted by milarepa at 7:50 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

You spoke to him on the phone? How do you know he was really alone? How do you know he wasn't enjoying a bottle of wine with a new-found "lady friend"?
posted by Jimbob at 8:14 PM on June 11, 2013

I wanted to add a couple of things, since the drinking might be a red herring. You want to get your quiet brother to open up. But consider that your brother isolates for a reason - a good one. He shuts down because it feels safe(er) for him to do so. And your brother doesn't have to open up to you ever. He doesn't owe you some any info. But you're his sibling, you care, and you want him to be happy, and you need information to help him. So let's consider some reasons why he's extremely private, and how you could help your relationship with him:

Control. Not sharing can be about control. What do you do if he did give you some info? Tell other family members "out of concern"? Try to jump all in there and solve his problem for him? Maybe he equates giving info with losing his autonomy somehow. Maybe he wants to control the depth and frequency of contact, so let him. Maybe for the rest of your lives you'll never talk about anything "deep" and that's his prerogative.

Safety. Was he teased a lot? Made to feel that his point of view was invalid? If he did tell you how he felt, would you jump into "logic" mode instead of listening and empathizing? Maybe you think you were listening, but maybe he didn't think so. Maybe he doesn't feel like the family accepts him for how he is. So how can you be safe and consistent towards him? If you pull away when he pulls away, you'll never get anywhere.

Feeling Understood. Maybe he tried to tell you, you just didn't get it, so now he doesn't bother. Can you really understand his point of view, even if it is completely outside the realm of what you'd consider "what really happened"?

Needy family. Are you all now hyper-sensitive to him and waiting with baited breath as to the next "deep" thing he'll say? That's a lot of pressure for some guy who's just trying to figure himself out.

What is help? True change comes from within. Unless you find out he's alcoholically drinking, it is his life to sort out and he'll crack open when he's damn ready. So you help by loving him consistently and giving the him the help that he is asking for (not what you think needs to change).

I just wanted to throw some things out there, since it could be that your brother is a really sensitive individual and the family's unaware of the little ways he was treated that taught him that shutting down was safer than talking.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:17 PM on June 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'm nthing that drinking alone isn't a terrible thing. As said above, it just is one of several factors that can point to alcoholism if it becomes a pattern. It doesn't sound like it's a pattern, or at the least you don't know enough to know if it's a pattern or not. I wouldn't lose sleep over it, or confront him on it.

Also, I'm a pretty social and expressive person but for whatever reason really never tell my family what is going on with me emotionally. My brother on the other hand is somewhat reserved around friends/public but tells our family EVERYTHING. Like long discussions with my parents about feelings and relationships that would just be inconceivable to me. We've both been like this since we were little. I don't think the fact that he's not expressive with family means anything negative.Or his being a loner.

However, it's totally OK to gently check in once in a while.

My plan right now is to call him a little more often just to talk our usual general conversations just so he knows I'm thinking of him.

I think that's a good plan. As long as it doesn't feel like you're pressuring him.
posted by sweetkid at 8:27 PM on June 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Are you sure he was drunk? Slurred speech and delayed responses could also be from something medical, like a stroke. If you've never seen him even seem drunk, I'd wonder if there was something else wrong with him.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:17 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is of course possible that he got drunk with friends and you called him after he got home.
posted by twblalock at 9:45 PM on June 11, 2013

Agree with Seymour Zamboni. Brother might have a medical condition rather than an alcoholic one.
posted by Cranberry at 11:59 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just adding to the voices saying that drinking alone is not necessarily a bad thing. Hell, if I never drank alone I wouldn't get to enjoy a drink anywhere near as often as I like to!
posted by Decani at 12:36 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do think it's worth point out that if he doesn't have any friends, drinking alone may be his only option and it may not necessarily mean he does it too much or has a problem with drinking. Is there a reason he has no friends? Anxiety, severe self-esteem issues, behavioral issues, etc.? Seems like really, those are the things that need to be addressed.

Certainly if he has no friends, talking to him more may be helpful. I am guessing that you initiate contact with him rather than the other way around, just based on how reserved and self-conscious he sounds. Reaching out more will project the idea that you like hearing from him and think he has something to offer, which might be nice for him, and may help him to feel closer and eventually open up a little more. You can't, of course, fix these problems for him. And if he has no desire deep down to, you can't make him. But he may be a good candidate for therapy or treatment for whatever may be stifling his life.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:45 AM on June 12, 2013

Firstly, I'm also thinking stroke or a similar neurological event is a possibility, people slurring their words and having delayed responses would often have other things going on in their conversation as well if they had been drinking. If something like that has happened, he needs help right away.

We don't know of any close friends or any intimate relationships he's ever had.

Any time in the past we (family) have tried to talk to my brother about "deep" issues he tends to shut it down very quickly and uncomfortably

Maybe he's just not comfortable talking about intimate relationships with you, that doesn't mean he isn't having them. Some people prefer not to have their families involved in that aspect of their life until there is some sort of major news like moving in together or getting engaged.

is it appropriate to say something like, "you know that other night you sounded really out of it, were you really just tired?"

You don't mention what his emotional state was, if he sounded drunk and jovial, drunk and angry, or drunk and sad, so you might need to modify this a bit. I'd avoid any implication of disapproval or worry over drinking if you want him to open up about it. Try something like "I figured I called last night after you'd had a few to unwind, but it occurred to me today that maybe your voice sounded different because you weren't feeling well or were coming down with something, how are you feeling?"

If you want your brother to open up to you, don't share even what seem like innocuous details to you with other relatives, he sounds like a very private person and hearing "So, I hear you went to cultural event!" from someone else is not going to make him inclined to share more with you.
posted by yohko at 1:33 AM on June 12, 2013

The old questioner about alcoholism that came from John Hopkins and had a question about drinking alone lacked an awareness of introverted personalities in my opinion.

A more modern test is that one's drinking disturbs them by causing career problems, social problems, or health problems. Then an individuals attempt to quit or curtail their drinking fails. That is when outside help is needed. Many people have gotten intoxicated without having a need for outside intervention or help. Many people with a problem get help without their siblings involbment and don't want their siblings in on either the problem or the solution. Some things are not for one's siblings just as some problems aren't for one's parents.

" But I've long suspected his solo lifestyle is getting to him."
Maybe, maybe not. Most of us have some aspect of our lives that is getting to us. A lot of life is less than optimal.

Am I coming across like a dick about this? I'll explain. If you were to act on your instincts about your concern I'd think that was in some ways pure. Conflicted emotional matters that get presented to friends or forums aren't about instinct, they are about hoping that one part of ones analysis gets bolstered and another gets minimized. I'm trying to bolster the part of you that realized this was none of your business and that you should back off. If you instinctively know there is real danger you will act without consulting a forum. IMO consulting forums about siblings is a seeking of permission to engage in drama. From my corner of the internet its permission denied.

People get to make mistakes. Most rescuers are hopelessly misguided. Most rescuers don't even have the first clue about what is actually going on.
posted by logonym at 3:58 AM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

My brother noticed when I was frequently drunk on the phone back when I had a bad problem with alcohol. I really wish he had come to see me and talk about it.
posted by idiomatika at 5:38 AM on June 12, 2013

I think you want to be very careful here, and my instinct is that you maybe reach out a bit more but generally, this doesn't sound concerning to me. Being a loner and/or being drunk alone and/or not being expressive doesn't actually mean that he's unhappy, alcoholic, or struggling. It sounds like you are more unhappy with his life than he actually might be -- and I realise it's probably coming from a good place, but projecting that to him is a sure way to get him to shut you out even more.
posted by sm1tten at 4:41 PM on June 12, 2013

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