I'm worried about my brother's drinking
January 29, 2017 5:33 AM   Subscribe

I think my brother has a drinking problem and I need help figuring out if I should talk to him and/or my parents about it, and if so, how.

My brother and I are both in our thirties. We were both sort of shy awkward kids, sort of late-bloomers. We both had to work pretty hard at learning how to socialize and date as young adults because it didn’t come naturally to either of us. The route my brother chose to learn those things was by learning how to party with his friends. My brother then started working in a city and in an industry where partying hard after work seems to be a pretty normal thing, and he’s been in that industry for the last 5 years. He still goes out drinking and clubbing pretty regularly. So, that’s the background.

If I thought he just liked to cut loose on weekends occasionally, I wouldn’t be that worried. But I’ve started to get concerned lately, because I’ve been noticing the following things: my brother and I talk on the phone or Skype once a month or so, usually when he’s home after work on a weeknight. Over the last 2 or 3 years, I think I’ve had two conversations with him when he’s been completely sober, because he’s usually having a beer or two, or working his way through a bottle of wine when we talk. In those conversations, I frequently notice that his attention span gets shorter, he stops being able to process more complicated things, and he starts forgetting stuff I’ve said. All of which says to me that he is getting drunk enough in those conversations that’s he’s not just a little buzzed. The two conversations I’ve had with him when he was sober happened when he called me in the middle of the day because he had screwed up at work so majorly that he was afraid he was going to get fired (shouting at your manager doesn’t go over well in an office setting).

The second thing is: I have been living in a city for the last couple of years that is apparently a really good beer town (I don’t drink but it has that reputation). The thing that concerns me even more than the phone calls is how he has behaved over the last two visits, which happened last year and the year before that. Our schedule during those visits went like this: we would wake up a little late and have brunch, where he frequently had something like a mimosa to drink. Then by 1 pm or so, I’d noticed that he was getting really focused on finding a place to have lunch and a beer (with the emphasis on the beer). After lunch, we’d hang out a bit and then he’d want to go find a cafe where he could sit and have a beer or two. And then after that, we’d go out to dinner and he’d have another beer. And part of me thinks, ‘Maybe he’s just relaxing because he’s on vacation and his job is really stressful,’ and part of me is deeply concerned by the way he gets so focused on finding the next beer.

So I am worried about him, and I am also frustrated, because it is hard trying to have conversations and a relationship with someone who is pretty much always tipsy when we talk. The difficulties in talking to him about this are: he has told me off-and-on my whole life that I’m sort of uptight and judgmental, he lives in a very different world than I do and has told me in the past that I don’t understand the pressures he’s under, and he lives really far away so I don’t see him in person very often.

The main difficulty in talking to my parents about this is that my my mom’s dad, my grandfather, was a violent alcoholic and so alcohol is a very charged subject for her, and even when it’s not about alcohol, my mom has a tendency to catastrophize things. So I don’t know how to have a conversation with my parents about this that doesn’t turn into a disaster of its own.

Do you have any advice about a) whether I am right to be worried and b) what I should do from here?
posted by colfax to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
a) Yes, I think you are right to be concerned.
b) Talk to him, not your parents. But prepare yourself for it to not go very well, or change very much. This is speculative but it sounds like he's well-fortified with excuses (I'm under a lot of stress/Everyone in my industry parties a lot/People who think I have a drinking problem are uptight/judgemental) and you are likely to get nothing but push-back.
posted by thelonius at 6:00 AM on January 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

Yeah, either talk to him or no one. But be prepared for angry denial. He almost certainly knows deep down he's got a problem. If you do talk to him it'll register even if he blows up. And that might just perhaps be one small push among others to get him to wake up. Google the "six changes of change" (example) for a useful theory on how we get ourselves to a point where we're finally ready to stop a destructive habit
posted by mono blanco at 6:28 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

It sounds likely to me that he does drink too much, though it's not clear if it's interfereing with his day-to-day life [yet? or are the work problems related?]. I would be concerned if it was my brother. For what it's worth, I drink regularly (less so now that I have an infant) and have friends who drink very regularly (a few times a week every week, including a glass or two of wine alone at home on a regular basis), and most of those friends don't seem to have any problem at all w alcohol. What your brother is doing seems very different.

I know several people who have found Al-Anon helpful in figuring out how to deal with and process having a loved one with an alcohol problem. Just like with AA, different meetings have different types of people and feel different - if you try one and it's not a fit, it's still worth trying a few more.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:33 AM on January 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yes, I'd be concerned. Ask him when the last time you two had a meal together without drinking was. Like others have said, he'll probably make excuses, but stand your ground. And if he comes to visit you again, take him somewhere where they don't serve alcohol.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:52 AM on January 29, 2017

I don't think talking to him is going to do any good if he sees you as uptight. Personally he's on the border of what I would consider a problem drinker. The visiting thing describes probably 25% of the people I know and I would be weirded out if someone insisted on going to places that don't serve alcohol. If you don't like talking to him while he's buzzed, don't talk to him and tell him why, but be prepared for him to just not talk to you. Do you know for a fact that the almost-firing thing was directly related to his drinking? If not, it doesn't seem to be affecting his life, just yours, and your life is the only one you have a say over.

And wow I wouldn't tattle to your parents, you're both adults, at least talk to him first. Is he stealing from your parents to buy alcohol or something? Otherwise it's unjustified for you to tell them his personal business. especially the almost-getting-fired thing.
posted by AFABulous at 8:13 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify: the almost-getting fired thing is not directly related to his drinking, and he has talked to our parents about that incident as much as he has talked to me about it.
posted by colfax at 8:23 AM on January 29, 2017

The amounts you describe don't seem obviously problematic to me, but it also sounds like there is being more impact on his life than is healthy, if your observations are correct.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Suggest having breakfast at home (with no mimosa offering), or at a bagel shop (with no alcohol licence). See how that goes over.

Beer is a part of the cultural road map of your city. Someone visiting your city has a lot of touristy beers to drink... So consider if having X beers is on his list, over Y waking hours, would you rather have him have a beer every X/Y hours, or would you like to have Z hours stone cold sober and then have him drink at a rate of X/(Y-Z)?

I also don't drink regularly, but I can. And, when I go on travel where I am expected to drink, I work on the X/(Y-Z) paradigm where I never drink at a rate where I ruin my career. On vacation, I drink, but - small kids... I keep my wits.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2017

His problem at work may be directly linked to the alcohol.
Alcohol and anger.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Suggest having breakfast at home (with no mimosa offering), or at a bagel shop (with no alcohol licence). See how that goes over.

This is a passive-aggressive test that sets him up to fail and accomplishes nothing. You already know how it's going to go over; he's not going to like it. Just say upfront that you don't want to be around him when he is drinking so you'd prefer to go to a place without alcohol, or you don't want to go out at all.
posted by AFABulous at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

If he wasn't having emotional outbursts at work before the drinking got to be such a big thing, they are almost certainly related.

Talk to him, but be prepared for it to go poorly. Pretty much no one is ready to be told they have a substance abuse problem.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:37 AM on January 29, 2017

"sets him up to fail and accomplishes nothing"

Half of that is correct. The failure is the point. You can talk all day about how you think he has a problem. He'll ignore it, he make excuses, he'll rationalize. That's what alcoholics do. It's a little harder to rationalize throwing a fit at 9am because you're not yet wasted. And if that somehow doesn't open his eyes, that's tells you it's time to move on, that you're unlikely to be able to help.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:44 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

That sucks, but not all alcoholics get mad when offered help. Maybe you could just say you are worried about him and if he wants help you can help him research ways to quit. There is a book by Alan Carr that is supposed to be phenomenal.

Also, his drinking may be related to the getting mad at the boss thing, somehow, but it really might not. I would really not bring it up in that context, sounds like it could lead to unnecessarily hurt feelings.
posted by benadryl at 10:53 AM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Beer is a part of the cultural road map of your city. Someone visiting your city has a lot of touristy beers to drink... "

This is fine for someone who doesn't have a drinking problem. But for someone who does, it's a rationalization. Imagine if the OP's brither had a heroin problem instead, and the OP's city was known for its high quality heroin. "Oh, it's part of the culture. He should be able to sample it."
posted by kevinbelt at 10:57 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

OP was describing the whole day being about "where's the next drink", not about wanting to go sample the local brews.
posted by thelonius at 11:17 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I also agree that he sounds like a problem drinker - I'm sorry. While I do think it would be worth having a talk with him, I agree that you'll have to be prepared for the possibility that it won't go well. It's so easy to send yourself into overdrive trying to figure out "just the right way" to talk to someone about their drinking when in truth there may be nothing you can do that will sway him. Nobody else has mentioned this yet so I'll be the one to suggest you hit up an Al-Anon meeting - you've got to take care of yourself, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:13 PM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

You sound very caring and loving and from reading your description, I think your concern is well-placed.

In addition your description of your brother's relationship with alcohol, the biggest red flags to me were the facts that:
1. your grandfather was a violent alcoholic
2. your mom may have some anxiety/trauma related to that and
3. your description of some potential social anxiety growing up

Alcoholism and possibly anxiety runs in your family.

If I were you, here is how I would approach it:
- At least at first, remove alcohol from the discussion entirely
- Focus it more on a discussion of anxiety, social anxiety, feelings, stress, etc
- Can you say something like, "Oh man, remember growing up, I had such a hard time making friends, I felt so awkward. Remember that time with XYZ. Y'know, I still feel that way sometimes..."
- I dunno, you'll find your own words, but I just feel like CONNECT with him on these feelings, not just about the alcohol
- See if he still has feelings of anxiety or social anxiety, and maybe encourage him to see a therapist if he does
- Maybe those discussions of feelings will lead to openly talking about alcohol. Do you have negative coping mechanisms you could discuss and lead the way? Like, "Yeah, sometimes the anxiety's been overwhelming and I turn to [smoking pot/overeating/anger] but I've been finding [exercise/meditation/therapy] waaaay more effective."
- And I wonder if you too could benefit from therapy, if you haven't gone already. A violent alcoholic in a family can reverberate throughout generations.
- And sometimes therapy has a snowball effect within a family or social group - one person goes, they talk about the benefits, and the people close to them start going as well.

Best of luck. Glad your brother has you.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 12:25 PM on January 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

I wish I had more specific advice than this, but having been your brother at one point in my life, I'd suggest that it's not going to get better if he stays in his current industry. And that the industry itself -- because industries that drink like this are almost uniformly shitty and abusive IME -- might be a partial cause of the drinking.

There might be some structural obstacles to sobriety, is what I'm saying, and if you don't approach the convo with that in mind, he will be right when he says you just don't understand.

Your brother sounds really unhappy, is the thing. Happy people don't need to drink through out the day, they don't blow up at their boss, they don't get drunk every night.

Tell him you've become concerned about the drinking, but make sure you also tell him that what you're really concerned about is HIM. You're not worried about alcoholism as a disease; you're worried about your brother, because he doesn't seem happy.

You love him and you want him to be happy, and you're worried this will hurt him more.

Still be prepared for angry denial. But don't make it about his fault or tragedy as an alcoholic, like that's his new identity -- literally no one wants to see themselves that way, even if it's true. (And if it's true, it's still easier to get to that point of perception slowly.)

Make it about your awesome brother who you love and who is going through something right now.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:09 PM on January 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think it's worth saying something if only to add a tick to the 'are you an alcoholic' checklist he'll probably fill out at some point in the future. Just make it about how you feel and keep it short and simple.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:23 PM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Al-Anon: just go once and check it out. I don't think you'll be sorry you did.
posted by soakimbo at 3:12 PM on January 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I totally agree with schadenfrau. I've never been an alcoholic, but I've been unhappy enough before that I've coped with somewhat maladaptive coping behaviours (e.g., eating too much, not exercising enough) and I have been most motivated to try to change my situation when a close friend or family member talked to me about my unhappiness, not the behaviours. A simple, quiet, "Are you okay? I've been concerned about you" and then actually listening will do far more than any overt discussion of alcoholism.

If he's like I was, he's aware that his relationship to alcohol is not-so-great, but he feels powerless to get a handle on it because it's a coping mechanism for other problems. Listen to him non-judgmentally to him about his situation, and if he feels heard and supported I'd be willing to bet that he'll eventually bring up the alcohol himself (or respond well to very gentle observations like "Is that why you've been having beer more often?"). If he feels attacked, you'll probably do more harm than good.

Good luck, this is hard. Your brother is lucky to have you.
posted by forza at 4:29 PM on January 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

Nthing Al-Anon. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 6:05 PM on January 29, 2017

Oh, God. The entire day out thing with him, and no one has commented on it. It hit home for me, hard. If you can see how eager he seems to drink at brunch, then at lunch, and then later, trust me, he wants to drink more and sooner than he does with you there, and he wants it about 100x more than you even suspect. I have been there. He probably has a problem.

Talk to him about it. I would take @Uncle Glendinning's advice above. Your brother won't be happy. He'll do a tap-dance of denying it, or explode, or who knows what. You won't know till he does it, but will you regret not having said anything is the real question. Leave your parents out of it -- you and your brother are both grown adults, and they don't really need to know about it, at least at this point.

Also? You can't fix him. Ever.
posted by old_growler at 8:31 PM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think given your family history, he may have an emerging alcohol problem. I also know how the restaurant industry can be and micro beers are a huge cultural trend right now, so I can see how he's unfortunately found ways to make alcohol a part of his hobbies and daily life. A lot of people go through this in their twenties, but he might have a genetic background that makes it worse. It's interesting to me that you don't drink at all, and I think that's something for you to explore yourself. I've seen that dynamic play out in families before - mine included - and I wonder if you've undertaken the "hero" role in the family where you are the problem solver, the clear-headed one, the one who helps protect your mom and now your brother too. Your brother may be enacting more of a rebel role where's bucking the family norms and he's also genetically predisposed to addiction. But I don't want to catastrophize this problem to you. Addiction is terrible and can destroy lives, but it's also something that can be faced head on and overcome. I think the most helpful thing you can do is learn about alcoholism and addiction. Please really consider Al-Anon and/or Adult Children of Alcoholics (I know you're not a child of an alcoholic, but your mom is and she could have learned the co-dependency traits and passed them to your family dynamic).
Then after you've learned about yourself and your own relationship to addiction, you could broach a topic with your brother about THAT. Something like, "Boy I've been thinking it's interesting that I've realized I never drink and I've thought about why. I wonder if we grew up with some anxiety about alcohol in your family and I've dealt with it by..." If you can keep it focused on yourself, maybe it would be an issue he could eventually feel like he could talk about with you. The most you can be is a soft place for him to land if/when he does decide to think about not drinking. And the other thing I wanted to say is that in my own personal life, I've witnessed a few friends who stopped drinking before they hit that proverbial "rock bottom." The thing that seemed to help them was, they realized they were drinking a lot, and independently decided to stop drinking X times a week or stop drinking for X amount of time. Then, when they realized that was not easy for them, they decided to stop drinking altogether. But this was a decision and process they came to on their own.
posted by areaperson at 5:23 AM on January 30, 2017

Forgive my typos please! And I re-read your post and realized you didn't say he works in the restaurant industry. That was my own projection. Sorry!
posted by areaperson at 6:51 AM on January 30, 2017

Maybe it's just that my family is closer than most, but I would have no problem talking to our parents if I were concerned about my brother's health, and I have done so in the past. "Hey, have you noticed Brother doing [XYZ]? He said [ABC] last week, and it made me a little worried."

That said, given your Mom's issues with alcohol, perhaps it is best if you don't talk to her about this, but I don't think you are out of line for thinking about it.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:53 AM on January 30, 2017

Someone on vacation starting the day with brunch and a mimosa, having a beer or two with lunch, and finishing with wine and dinner wouldn't raise any red flags to me, by itself. I have friends who do this when visiting, and I wouldn't bat an eyelash if I suggested coffee and those friends told me they strongly preferred to go to a bar or a restaurant that served alcohol. If it were just that, I wouldn't really be worried.

On the other hand, I do also have some acquaintances and relations whose drinking really bothers me. One type of problematic behavior is when it's a very regular habit with what I guess I can only describe as a sort of grim purposefulness about it -- like suddenly the point has shifted from "we're all going to hang out and socialize and have a good time and enjoy a few drinks" to "you are accompanying me while I get drunk." Another is when it's something that gets trotted out irregularly but in destructive ways, like people who drink when brooding and then get explosively angry or inconsolably, unreasonably maudlin when something sets them off. If what you're describing is shading more into these categories, then I'd have some concerns.

My bias is that I'm not a huge fan of the standard American sobriety narrative. I think it describes some people pretty accurately, but also doesn't apply to everyone who has ever abused a substance. I think some people just go through a rough patch in which they're not taking care of themselves, or engaging in somewhat more problematic behavior than usual, but they eventually right the ship without needing to hit bottom or have their ego broken down or submit to a higher power or whatever. Regardless of my feelings about that, though, I think you've gotten good advice in the thread (forza, schadenfrau, and Uncle Glendinning especially) about how to engage him non-judgmentally without burning yourself out or making your own happiness dependent on whether he actually does change his behavior.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:41 AM on January 31, 2017

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. Some of you have articulated things that have been worrying me deep in my heart, and so I've needed a couple of days to walk around with that.

I am most worried about the fact that a big part of his problem seems to be the industry he's in. He's worked so hard to get there that it seems very unlikely that he will leave it any time soon. I have also been worrying for the last couple of years about his increasing issues with anger and his inability to hold his temper (which I think is also partially connected to the stresses of his work situation) but I hadn't considered that the alcohol and anger could be intertwined.

Anyway, you've given me a lot to think about. I'm not feeling better exactly, but you've helped me get a lot clearer on a lot of things, so thank you.
posted by colfax at 4:24 AM on February 2, 2017

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