How do I talk to my alcoholic sister?
November 25, 2006 9:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I talk to my alcoholic sister about her problem?

I am home for the holidays staying with my 44-year-old sister and her husband and am shocked at her condition. Her husband had a stroke five years ago and is physically healthy but somewhat childlike (no short term memory) and very dependent on her. They don't have kids.

Anyway, I live on the other side of the country and get home ever other year. Two summers ago I noticed that she was drinking a lot but chalked it up to the party atmosphere around the reunion of our families.

This time it is achingly clear that she is an alcoholic and that it is coming to a crisis stage. She gets drunk to passing out every night, slurring her speech for several hours near the end. She seems to polish off about a bottle-and-a-half of wine each night. She is on some kind of probation at work for screwing up and not being then when she should. (She has a very important job at a legal firm.) In the morning she has that sour body odor that one associates with alcoholics. Her face is puffy and worn-looking. She has wrestled with depression her whole life and takes some kind of anti-depressant. She is in a bad place and going in the wrong direction.

I can't say nothing, but I have to be careful that it doesn’t backfire. She has always acted like we are in some kind of life competition and tends to resent my modest success. I don't want to just piss her off. How do I tell her that I am concerned and that she should seek help?
posted by LambChop to Human Relations (13 answers total)
If you go to an Al Anon meeting, I suspect you will get some good advice.
posted by milarepa at 10:05 AM on November 25, 2006

I second Al-Anon, having attended meetings for a while.
posted by The Deej at 10:10 AM on November 25, 2006

I third Al-Anon, mostly for the realization you will get that her behavior is causing you a problem - but it may not be a problem for her, yet. She doesn't have a problem until she decides she does. For some people it takes wrecking a car, a family and a life before that realization. For others it's just waking up one morning and finding an empty wine bottle and realizing that nobody else helped polish off that vino.

Good luck, it's hard. My family is riddled with addiction and I still don't always quite believe that I can't fix them.
posted by bilabial at 12:14 PM on November 25, 2006

As someone who's currently wrestling with a father who has alcoholism, I'm not as big a fan of Al Anon. Everyone in my family tries to make me go, but as I keep pointing out to them unless me going to Al Anon is going to make him stop drinking, it's really wasting my time. I suppose it matters a lot how much this is emotionally impacting you.

Dealing with an alcoholic (or any kind of addict, we've got the whole list in my family) is a really touchy thing, and even when people *know* they have a problem, it can be REALLY hard to get them to face it. In the past three months my father has been into detox twice, once I flew down to Fl to put him in, the second time he went in himself. He knows, without a doubt, that he needs to not drink, but he called me today and told me he drank yesterday.

It's HARD for an alcoholic to stop, and frankly, there is only so much you can do for her. The old cliche that they have to hit the bottom of the barrel first is sadly true. You can try talking to her, how you handle that is going to depend entirely upon her personality.

You say she always feels like she's in competition with you, then you might not be the best person to bring it up. If she's defensive about her shortcomings in general with you, she's going to be doubly so about this one. Are your parents still in the picture? Could they talk to her? And if they are, be careful that she doesn't feel like you were "tattling."

I'm not sure how religious you are, but do you have a family priest/pastor that could speak with her?

If you're the only one, the best way to do it is just to sit down and talk with her, and just accept that the odds are good she's not going to be receptive to what you say.

What bilabial says is true though, *you* can't fix her, she has to do that herself. You can try and help her see that she has a problem, but until she fully accepts that, there is very little you can do to help her.

All that being said, I offer my condolences that you are in this situation, I know how frustrating it can be, do your best, but don't beat yourself up over this. No matter what happens, it's not you who failed.
posted by KirTakat at 12:52 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Is the husband in any actual danger from your sister's drinking? I don't have any practical advise on how to break it to her (I can't imagine any way to do it other than perhaps a statement of fact--"you're drinking too much"-- and letting her know when she's ready you're waiting to help) but if her husband is possibly in danger from this then I would think something more urgent might be required. I don't know what that is.
posted by maxwelton at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2006

Having been in this spot with a sister in much the same circumstances, I also offer my condolences and concur with all the advice in previous answers. If you do think you're the one to bring it up, and you won't be home again soon, and you want to have this conversation in person rather than long distance, here's what I'd suggest:

Shortly before you leave to go back where you live, simply and directly tell her you're concerned. As you did in your post, note concretely the specific changes and behaviors that worry you. Encourage her to seek help. Listen to her responses. And leave it at that, without getting drawn into a debate or baggage-exchange.

She will probably be angry and unreceptive, but that has little to do with the relationship between you two and everything to do with her relationship with the bottle. Your calling her on it won't make her face it or get help, but it may (or may not) be one more little piece in the mounting pile of life-wreckage that eventually allows her to see the problem.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:22 PM on November 25, 2006

I second what FelliniBlank suggested. Tell her you're concerned and tell her why. Let her know you're there for her if she wants help and leave it at that. Don't allow her to draw you into and emotional battle. If she's anything like the addicts I've known she'll probably try to shift blame on to you or pick a fight or make excuses, anything to take the focus off of her own self-destructive behavior. You can't control that. You can't make her stop and if she's not ready, you can't make her discuss it. Be honest, offer your support and then leave it up to her to make the next move, if that's what she's ready to do.

Like maxwelton, I am wondering about her husband. If he is any danger at all of being neglected or losing critical support that he needs then someone needs to notify the authorities and make sure he is properly cared for. I'd also worry about her drinking heavily while on anti-depressants. That can be dangerous.

Does she have any sort of support network in place to help her deal with the emotional burden of caring for a disabled loved one? That is incredibly stressful situtation and she might be drinking to alleviate some of that stress.

If she lashes out at you try not to take what she says personally and don't engage her. Outline your concerns, tell her you care for her and go. I'm sorry you have to go through this. I have an alcoholic parent and know it can be a ngihtmare to deal with a loved one when they are in the midst of an addiction. I'd also suggest Al-Anon. Doesn't help everyone but it can give you some tools for dealing. Are there any other family members aware of the problem and concerned about it? Maybe you can talk to them as well. Good luck with everything.
posted by LeeJay at 4:03 PM on November 25, 2006

I'm not as big a fan of Al Anon. Everyone in my family tries to make me go, but as I keep pointing out to them unless me going to Al Anon is going to make him stop drinking, it's really wasting my time.

Ironically, that's exactly what Al-Anon is about: understanding that NOTHING YOU DO can make the other person stop. Al-Anon helps you set your own boundaries and change your own behavior so the other person's addiction has less impact on you.

In the process of setting your own boundaries, you become less less likely to enable the bad behavior, and you allow the addicted person to suffer the consequences of his/her own actions.

Before Al-Anon, I thought I had already done this. But in just a few meetings, I realized how much I was still carrying of the addicted person's load. Once I realized what had to be done, and I took appropriate action, that was enough for me.

To continue attending would have kept me wallowing in the problem. For others, it becomes a lifelong, almost religious, system.

But from my experience, I do recommend Al-Anon to anyone who has to deal with an addicted or abusive loved one. It's not a lifetime commitment. Give is a few weeks and see what happens. It won't hurt, and you will be surprised to meet so many people with the same story. You might think they have been peeking into your house, because the stories are SO similar to your own.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 4:09 PM on November 25, 2006

Thanks guys. I guess I will take her aside in the morning, tell her I love her, and express my concern. I will also talk with my other sister and my brother who do live here about my concerns. My brother-in-law is perfectly safe in a day-to-day manner, it is the long term, when sis loses her job, that scares me.

She is not that far gone yet, I hope she doesn't have to hit bottom to change her course.
posted by LambChop at 4:53 PM on November 25, 2006

my brother called my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents and told them i had a drinking problem about 9 years ago. I still haven't fully forgiven him for that. be careful with how many people you whisper about this with, it will only end in her being more defensive.
posted by nadawi at 10:26 PM on November 25, 2006

Important tip Nadawi, thank you.
posted by LambChop at 10:35 PM on November 25, 2006

The Deej: Ironically, that's exactly what Al-Anon is about: understanding that NOTHING YOU DO can make the other person stop. Al-Anon helps you set your own boundaries and change your own behavior so the other person's addiction has less impact on you.

That's what Al-Anon was about for you. Everyone deals with things differently.

If KirTakat feels that it would be a waste of his/her time, it probably would be. Not everyone wants or needs the whole group validation thing. (I find the cult-like atmosphere that surrounds AA and Al-Anon rather creepy. "You can't do it without AA." "You won't be able to cope unless you go to Al-Anon." It's like it's the One True Way, and everyone should come drink the kool-aid.)
posted by Meep! Eek! at 1:16 AM on November 26, 2006

Meep I totally agree that it's not for everybody. I also agree that there can indeed be a cultish feeling to it, depending on your local group. That's why I mentioned that for some people it can be a religion. I also agree that they do put too much emphasis on "we are the only way.

However, the idea that you can't change the adddict is one of the basic principals of Al-Anon, not just "what it was for me." Any good therapist would have the same advice.

Also, "for me," it had nothing to do with "group validation." I already had validation from more people than I can count.

For me, it was about learning some very practical things that helped me on a daily basis. Once I made the decisions I had to make, I was done with Al-Anon. I think I went to 6 meetings or so.

But this isn't about me, or KirTakat. This is about LambChop. So...

LambChop it sounds like you are taking some positive steps. I stand by my advice to give Al-Anon a shot if you think it can be helpful. It can be particularly useful if you find your own life is more and more affected by the addict. A therapist who specialize in this area can be helpful as well.

One word of caution: it may get worse before it gets better. Not many addicts just say "Oh, OK, I'll stop then," and really mean it. For many, it takes hitting rock bottom before they are sufficiently motivated to make a change. And for some people, even rock bottom is not enough.

Good luck again. You sound like a loving and concerned individual. Feel free to email me at the address in my profile. I'd like to know how things turn out.
posted by The Deej at 3:06 PM on November 27, 2006

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