How do I talk to my alcoholic brother without pushing him away?
April 13, 2018 12:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm actually not looking for a way to have "the talk" and confront him about the problem--we've crossed that bridge--but rather how to handle ongoing conversations with him about the issue without alienating him. Details and other sad questions within...

I'm looking for some practical advice for how to talk to my brother, who has what appears to be an increasingly serious drinking problem. I'm not looking for a way to have "the talk" and confront him about the problem. Rather, I am really struggling with what to say to him when we talk about the matter...I want to be compassionate and understanding, but I am not sure when that crosses over into "enabling". More information:

My younger brother is 30 and showed up to our family's Easter brunch very drunk--slurring, glassy-eyed, not making any sense, etc. This is part of a pattern but this is definitely the worst I've ever seen him. No one said anything--it didn't seem like the right time or place, but we were all really sad about it. The phrase that kept running through my head was "drinking himself to death". At the end of the day, I just hugged him for a long time and said, "I hope you're doing OK, I love you and I am here for you."

I, and others in my family, have had individual "come to Jesus" talks with him over the past year and he's mostly denied it but has occasionally admitted to a problem and expressed interest in quitting (but just on his own, not in meetings or rehab or anything like that). After Easter, our other brother (his twin, who is actually in recovery himself and doing really well) confronted him and said, "Dude, you are killing yourself. You can lie to everyone else, but you can't lie to me--I just went through all of this, and you have to believe me when I say you've gotta get some help". Drinking Brother told him he was going to stop drinking for two weeks, which I was really glad to hear (later through Sober Brother)

Drinking Brother called me this morning and my heart sank because he really only calls to chat when he's been drinking. It was obvious that he was pretty drunk, but I just made friendly small talk with him, despite wanting to call him out on it immediately. At the end of the conversation, I said, "Hey, I hope this doesn't upset you, but I know you've been struggling with drinking lately and I just want to say that I am here for you, I'm not judging you, I am not angry [I have gotten judgmental and angry in the past], and I love you. If you ever want to talk or want help figuring stuff out, I am here for you. That's it." He said, "Oh well, thanks, I've actually been sober for 10 days now" as he was slurring his words.

So my question: What is the best way to respond to a blatant lie like that? I *know* denial is a huge part of the disease. My reactions ranged from "Please don't insult my intelligence, you are clearly hammered" (our estranged father has been a severe alcoholic our whole lives--I could spot a drunk across the room by the time I was 8 and my brother knows this), to "Yeah you told [our other brother] that but you're slurring your words" to "That's great--good for you!" This last one seems like the best, "most supportive" option, but is it right to just play into an addict's deceit like that? Is that really helping anything? What I did say was a vaguely skeptical but upbeat, "Hm, OK. Well if you decide that's not working out so well, I am here for you. I love you, talk later."

And should I even be talking to him at all and having these friendly little conversations, pretending everything is fine? As I know from Al-Anon meetings and therapy, all I can really do is take care of myself. So part of me just wants to say "You say you're sober but I know you've been drinking, and I don't want to talk to you when you've been drinking", because it is very painful for me, especially given the history with our dad. But I know my brother is in a REALLY bad place right now--he's been single for a long time (despite being an attractive and otherwise charming guy) and he doesn't have many friends anymore (I think a lot of them he's either pushed away or turned off with his behavior). I know he is very unhappy and probably feels very alone, so it feels cruel to turn my back on him. My mom told me she was going to tell him he wasn't welcome at family events "until he cleans up his act", which sounds like handing him a big fat excellent excuse to wallow in a bottle. I was willing to walk away from my dad, but I'm having a harder time with this...this is my little brother, and I feel like there is still some hope for him and he's too young to give up on.

So I guess maybe a better question is what is the best way for me to help in this situation? I know I can't fix him, but how can I not make it worse? Again, I go to meetings and see a therapist but those mostly seem like outlets for venting, whereas I just desperately want someone to tell me what to do.

Any practical advice or perspective is really appreciated.
posted by lovableiago to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"Really? Because you're slurring your words right now, and that's how you sound when you're drunk. Look, I love you, and I want to help, because you're clearly suffering. But I don't want to talk with you anymore when you're drunk. Please call again when you're sober. I'm going to go now. I love you very much."

Do not pretend. Be very clear and honest with him. Having boundaries is not the same as being mean or abandoning him. Other suggestions: Family counseling, go to an Alanon meeting, read Captain Awkward for helpful coaching.

Best wishes to your family. <3
posted by ottereroticist at 1:05 PM on April 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

Don't enable him. Not speaking to him when he's not sober needs to be a hard boundary. You get to say "I have a firm boundary that I will not talk to you when you're drinking. You sound drunk to me and I have to go. Love you; bye." And then hang up and turn off the phone.

Honestly this was easier back in the day. My dad rang drunk relentlessly, and would forget he'd rung and call again. We used to unplug the phone every night.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:28 PM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

You might want to look into researcher and therapist Brene Brown's work on shame for insight and ideas. A lot of what you wrote here seems relevant to her work. Books, TED Talks, her ideas and research are easy to find and understand. I hope it helps.
posted by jbenben at 1:42 PM on April 13, 2018

Yes, this. And you may not be able to be so polite; it may have to devolve into "I'm not talking to you right now." *click* So if he gets mad at you? That's part of the disease, and nothing you can do about it. I'm so sorry.
posted by Melismata at 1:42 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel for you so hard, lovableiago. My sister was an alcoholic and drank herself to death at age 40. Her last 10 years were miserable. I could have written much of your AskMe.

I wish that I had some answers, or even some real advice, to give. But I don't. I second- and third- and fourth- and fifth-guessed myself constantly when she was alive, and in the years since she's died I'm probably up to six thousandth-guessing. Take care of yourself, and know that your love for your brother is a gift to him even if you can't see it.

This might sound dumb, but Dawes' beautiful song "Fire Away" - written about a drug addict friend of the band - really resonates with me when I think of how I wished I could have treated my sister when she was alive. I especially love the line "if that same old fox comes and sweeps you up each time you spread your wings, I could at least love you through each stumble, shift, and sway."

Keep on loving him, however you best can. But know that he's the one who needs to save himself.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:50 PM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Al-Anon can be super helpful for you at this point. The folks in the meetings will share their experiences of what they did and are doing in the same situation that you're going through, as well as offer their support during the messy emotions that go along with watching a loved one drink alcoholically.

One other thing that I have learned from being in recovery myself is that when someone is really ready to stop drinking/recover from alcoholism, it will happen. In other words, when it is the right time for your brother to stop, it won't be because you said just the right thing to him. Conversely, if he decides to drink, it won't be because you said the wrong thing to him. In a nutshell, you can't get someone sober anymore than you can get someone drunk.

Nthing the advice not to talk to him when he's been drinking. Sorry this is so hard. Alcoholism is a ruthless disease.
posted by strelitzia at 1:51 PM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

If he keeps insisting he's sober while he sounds drunk, make sure he sees a doctor. He's likely lying, that's what addicts do, but if he's detoxing on his own, something else might be going on.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 2:01 PM on April 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

The reason nobody can tell you what to do is because there's nothing you can do. Literally nothing. Whether you call him on his non-sobriety or offer to drive him to meetings or tell him you love him endlessly or never tell him you love him -- none of that is actually going to have an effect on his sobriety. The only thing that'll have an effect on his sobriety is his desire to get sober, or not.

So, the only thing you can possibly do is whatever feels right to you. In my own dealings with the addicts/alcoholics I'm connected to, my response is along the lines of, "I love you very much, but I don't want to talk when you're not sober. Please call back any time you like, as long as you're sober." The end. Hang up. That works for me. You have to choose what works for you, but it'll never be "right" or "wrong" or any objective thing you can label. Also, your answer might change from one day to the next.

Forgive yourself for not having the answer or being able to get the answer to facilitating his sobriety via your Al-Anon meetings and therapy (both of which are wonderful things...for you). Forgive yourself, shore up your defenses, and try to move along in your own life.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:10 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

(I should have reworded that - I don't mean "make sure" as in "make it your responsibility," but maybe suggest it strongly)
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 2:16 PM on April 13, 2018

Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Intimacy includes a section on a woman with an alcoholic father, who told him that she would not stay in his home or on the phone when he was drinking/drunk and then followed through. Lerner stresses the importance of using "I" statements and speaking calmly.

The book is marketed towards women but is really relevant for anyone.
posted by bunderful at 2:29 PM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Social pressure may make a small difference. In any case, do not enable or condone unacceptable behavior. I have an alcoholic family member, deep in denial. I have told him several times I love you. Your drinking is creating problems. When you decide to quit, I'm here for you. it's always more complicated, I suspect I enable in ways I don't recognize. You cannot make other people make better choices. You can influence, you can provide the right environment, but it's an addiction with many pleasures. Keep offering help, but don't engage in addict BS.
posted by theora55 at 3:12 PM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

There is nothing you can say or not say, do or not do, that will make him wake up and get sober - he has to decide that for himself. So instead I would aim at saying or doing/not doing whatever allows YOU to cope with the situation. If that's avoiding him when he's drunk, do that. If it's AlAnon or talking to a friend, do that. But right now all you can control is you. So by all means, offer him love and support but know that the hard work needs to come from him. I'm very sorry, this sounds heartbreaking.
posted by Jubey at 3:17 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

There is nothing you can say or not say, do or not do, that will make him wake up and get sober - he has to decide that for himself. So instead I would aim at saying or doing/not doing whatever allows YOU to cope with the situation. If that's avoiding him when he's drunk, do that. If it's AlAnon or talking to a friend, do that. But right now all you can control is you. So by all means, offer him love and support but know that the hard work needs to come from him. I'm very sorry, this sounds heartbreaking.

Came in to say basically this.

Your question doesn't sound like you are asking for advice on how to take care of you but rather how to appropriately engage with him. My take is, if you don't want to draw a hard line at "I won't speak to you if you've been drinking", and if you want to keep the door open, I think a good response is pretty much exactly what you said to him that day (I just want to say that I am here for you, I'm not judging you, I am not angry, ... and I love you.) After his slurry statement to you ("...I've actually been sober for 10 days now") I think you can reiterate "I love you [Brother]". There's really no where else to go, without causing a fight.

In the short term a response like this may create some tension, in that he may think that you are fine with his actions. You may need to push back while you create and he learns your new boundaries with him: "[Brother], I will always love you, but it's hard for me to talk to you when you've been drinking. Let's talk again in the morning." or some such.

There's a lot of talk out there right now about how addiction is less the result of trauma and more the result of a loss of connection, or connection that never existed to begin with. Whatever your brother is trying to cope with (family dynamics as you've mentioned, for a start), it may be a gift to him to know that when he is ready to face the painful stuff that he will have someone he can reach out to. When I was active in therapy I framed my "reach out" people as my foundation, my base, while I learned to climb a steep ladder. There to catch me if I fell, but not there to climb the ladder for me.
posted by vignettist at 3:45 PM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I know it's been said already, but as someone in recovery who also has multiple family members both in recovery and still actively using, I just wanted to sort of reiterate the following:

You didn't cause it; you can't control it. (By extension this means you cannot fix it.)
The best thing you can do for him and the rest of the family is take care of yourself first. (You can't "be there" for anyone if you aren't taking good care of yourself.)
Set kind but firm boundaries and follow them consistently (e.g., "I'm sorry, but I am not willing to talk to you when you have been drinking.")

Basically everything that has been said above. Finding a good al-anon meeting can be a real life saver (for yourself). It may take a few meetings to feel comfortable, but they will almost certainly be very welcoming, and will allow you to open up and talk, or not, at your own pace.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:18 PM on April 13, 2018

Johan Hari's TED talk, based on his book, is one of the sources of information about ideas about addiction and connection that was referenced above. It's more of an aggregate of ideas about non-AA approaches to loving and supporting someone with an addiction than a full-on theory of its own, and personally I think there's a lot to it.

Alcoholics suffer a lot from shame and self-criticism; I don't think freezing them out, so they hit bottom faster, is at all helpful or even especially humane. I do think doing what you did, so there's never any confusion about your feelings about the drinking is important. I also think refusing to talk to your brother when he's deep into drink (typically later in the day) is the right idea. But I also nth making sure his health is okay if he was slurring. Too much drinking for too long can make alcoholics susceptible to all sorts of ailments. This is hard, and harder still if you grew up with alcoholism. I think you're on the right track. Good luck.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 4:51 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

My only sibling, my sister, is an alcoholic. She is currently sober. My family and I have been through hell and back and most of our suffering was our own creation.

Good for you for attending al-Anon. I would have saved myself loads of grief and stress if I went earlier.

I think you and your sober sibling are handling things well. While not perfect, I think your mother is too. Boundaries are a good thing. My sister showed up to a Thanksgiving dinner drunk and we never said anything. Like your situation, it wasn't the time or place, and it wouldn't have been productive. There is nothing wrong with setting boundaries for the future. Once my sister showed drunk to a favorite yoga class I invited her too. Perhaps nobody else knew she was intoxicated. I did and I let her know that I was mad and that she should not/would not do that in the future.

When talking to intoxicated loved ones: Keep it brief or don't answer the phone. It's emotionally exhausting and they won't remember the conversation.

So my question: What is the best way to respond to a blatant lie like that?

Let it go if you want to. Addicts lie and we don't have to be personally offended or phased by it. We don't have to call them out on it. We're not their parents and the less we act like their keepers or parents, the better. Your mother is done with parenting too. If you don't want to pretend, respond with truth and love.

"Oh well, thanks, I've actually been sober for 10 days now" as he was slurring his words.

"Brother, I think I hear you slurring your words. I love you and hope you will get the help you need."

And/or: Brother, I can't talk when you're drunk. I love you and I know you'll find a way to get the help you need.

Then kindly end the conversation.

If your mother can adopt these responses too it might help.
Son, I love you and you need help.
Son, you're smart and capable, I know you'll find the help you need.
Son, I love you. You are very important to me. I am worried for you an hope you will get help.

When I wan't yelling ,or searching for, or endlessly worrying, or lecturing my sister, those are the kinds of words that helped the most. My lecturing, talking for hours, acting as therapist, worrying, questioning only made things worse in my opinion. When nobody is around to chastise, search, or plead with him, maybe he will look inward and begin to help himself.

Never give up and don't cut him off. Show him respect and live your lives. Keep a compassionate distance when he's drinking. No judgment only love. Even though addicts can piss you off and make you crazy, they have often suffered horrible trauma and have PTSD. My sister did and we didn't find out about that trauma until recently.

My sister is the dying kind of alcoholic. The kind of alcoholic that can't stop once she starts and can fill a 32 gallon trash can with empty booze bottles in a week, or less. There is always hope.

Small talk and conversation is great if he is sober. Keep loving him and if he calls intoxicated or wants something, remind him you are there if he needs a ride to detox/rehab/AA meeting.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:27 PM on April 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

First make sure you understand how alcohol detox works: the likelihood he can do it without medical intervention is super super low. So any expectation he is going to just stop on is own is not a good idea. Concrete assistance "I'll help you find a detox center" when you are ready" or "I'll pick you up and take you no questions asked" is good and provides realistic expectations on how recovery is going to start for him.

I know you're not therapist, and that really in the end taking care of yourself is the best. But if you want to talk to him, and you want to work on getting him to think, motivational interviewing techniques are all about helping others think and about change while being supportive.

So, when he says "I've been sober for ten days" lying off his ass

It's OK to say "I hear you slurring your words. I love you, but I don't want you to lie. Why is it important that I think your sober?"

If he insists, which he might, just say OK. He knows you know at that point. But the point is that the question gets him to reflect on his behavior without judgement of what happens next.
To be clear, that doesn't mean you don't tell him that your disapointed or worried. It means you are honest, open and you listen and allow him to reflect on his own behavior and actions by asking questions to help him think. He's got to do the work to figure out he wants to get sober. Your honesty about how you care and what you see can bei a part of that .
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:09 PM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

The CRAFT approach hasn't been mentioned yet. People in my family have addiction, so I tried Al-anon but it wasn't for me (I'm an atheist and allergic to the whole 12-step movement). Although I like the foundations and approach of CRAFT, I didn't end up finding it that helpful because my family members with addiction live far away and my interaction is minimal. It might be more relevant/useful for you (or others reading this.
posted by Frenchy67 at 4:15 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Drinking Brother called me this morning and my heart sank because he really only calls to chat when he's been drinking

My father was like this too and I wouldn't take his calls. I let him know this (at a sober moment) because that was a boundary that worked for me. Me talking to him when he was drunk--which he wouldn't remember and which were sometimes super inappropriate conversations--wasn't helping me AND wasn't helping him so I stopped doing it because he wouldn't.

So to your question: I don't think it's right to play into someone's deceit but I also know how drunks can become argumentative assholes so it might be worth heading stuff off at the pass and just not having drunken convos with him. Or, just being like "no you haven't [been sober for ten days]" in a flat tone and moving on.

which sounds like handing him a big fat excellent excuse to wallow in a bottle.

This is a negative thought pattern that you very much need to excise. Your brother drinks because he has a problem, not because people in the family are mean to him. While he might hurl that back at you as an excuse (my father was exceptional at this, I have heard them all) you and your mom should work on mutual support, you shouldn't be giving her the side eye for putting up boundaries.

I just desperately want someone to tell me what to do

This is a classic thing for family members of alcoholics, in case that is helpful. To my read the most useful thing is compartmentalizing the effect he is having on your life and finding ways to live your life without feeling like supporting someone who is not, right now, handling their shit is somehow your job. It's super painful but it can be so easy to make living-for-others into a classic thing or a situation where the entire family revolves around the behavior of the lowest functioning one. ACOA specifically can help you see these patterns for what they are.
posted by jessamyn at 3:04 PM on April 15, 2018

Also just an aside, people can get barky when someone in the family is in crisis. A lot of people who have not personally faced addiction themselves may have a hard time really understanding the lack of agency it can bring with it. So working on compassion towards not only yourself but otherwise who are having a hard time can be a good strategic thing to do.
posted by jessamyn at 3:07 PM on April 15, 2018

Many thanks to everyone that took the time to respond. I marked as best several that especially resonated with me, but every single comment was helpful in some way.
posted by lovableiago at 12:44 PM on April 16, 2018

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