My friend is 50 and has always had problems with drink. She managed to stay dry for about 15 years while she was bringing up her children, but then relapsed and has been drinking on and off ever since. Recently, I persuaded her to go into rehab (for the third time) and everything seemed to be going well until the day she came out, when she went on a huge binge. I now get daily phone calls from her, begging for help. She doesn’t want to go back to rehab or back to AA. What can I advise?
While it is clear that your friend wants help, I wonder if she’s asking for the kind of help you imagine she’s begging for? It is quite obvious from what she says that she doesn’t want the suggestion of anything that involves outside agencies. And I suspect that even if you were able to say, “Well, it so happens I have a magic pill that you can take, which will cure you of your alcoholism for ever,” she would refuse to take it.
I have a feeling that in her heart she’s actually asking for you to give her a completely fresh piece of advice – the advice that is on the tip of most people’s tongues. “For God’s sake, stop whining. You clearly don’t want to stop drinking, so why don’t you carry on?”
In a particularly low moment, when I had threatened suicide for weeks, a realistic, if brutal, friend said to me quite seriously and not unkindly: “Well, why don’t you kill yourself, then?” It was a remark that’s stayed with me for ever and brought me up short. Why didn’t I kill myself? I was forced to look at the reasons. It proved a turning point and though I continued to feel depressed, I certainly never threatened suicide again.
Your friend is surrounded by people who are advising her to give up drinking. Her AA cronies are doing it a day at a time; everyone in rehab has been encouraging her to stop and, no doubt, pointing out all the benefits of abstinence. None of these methods has worked. So why don’t you be the maverick and say to her, very honestly: “Look, you clearly love drinking and you’re completely dependent on it. Life is short and your children have grown up. Why don’t you just carry on?”
This remark will force all the responsibility for her drinking back on to her. And this is exactly what your friend needs. Alcoholics often feel terribly powerless. First, they’re dependent on alcohol and then they can become dependent on AA meetings and 12 Step programmes. Your friend’s reaching out to you is yet another example of her dependence. “Help me!” she’s saying. “I can’t help myself! I want to stop drinking, but I can’t help it! You fix it for me!”
By refusing to offer a crutch and bolstering her own ability to make real choices – “decide to carry on drinking” – you’ll be forcing her to stand on her own two feet. And if she rings you up, drunk and wailing, simply say: “Jolly good! Live for the moment! If I were you, I’d just have another drink!”
By doing this, you’ll confuse her and shake her up, rather than getting sucked into the game of “help me”, a game in which she feels, somehow, pleased with herself for reaching out and you feel dreadful for being unable to deliver any kind of answer.
A game that, clearly, is never going to help her one jot.
Be prepared to walk away
In our experience, the addict has to have that desire to get well and some have several goes at getting there. Once addiction gets hold, it does not want to let you go and does not want to share you with anyone. What may need to happen is for your friend to fall further into addiction and face the consequences. All the time addicts are being rescued, we are enabling them, keeping them stuck in their addiction. Be prepared to walk away. Let them know how much you value their friendship when they are sober and what you love about them, but also how their addiction affects you, and that if they are willing to change and get into sobriety, you will support them – but that if they continue in addiction, it is too painful for you and you need to walk away. I know it is difficult, but only the addict can take responsibility. As they have AA, you have Al-Anon, which is a support group for those whose lives have been affected by alcohol.
Carole Willis, Therapy services manager, Priory Healthcare
Consider an intervention
Your alcoholic friend is manipulating you, unfortunately. Alcoholics are like that. She knows she has a drink problem – that’s a big step forward – but she doesn’t, as yet, want to stop. Heaven alone knows, she has had the opportunity to give up! Rehab, AA... tried them all, chucked them all. Until she is determined to stop drinking, she is wasting your time and you are propping her up.
Using intervention treatment, you may be able to persuade her to go through that open door of sobriety. Intervention as a technique hails from America. Family and friends work together and “ambush” the alcoholic – the threat is that she will never see them again unless she gives up drink, but it is done in a loving way by people who love her. She understands that they mean it. It can be a game-changer. You can get advice and counselling about intervention through Al-Anon, an organisation like AA, which offers meetings for friends and relations of alcoholics.
I know of two people whose family and friends intervened in this way. One accepted the intervention and seemed relieved that her drinking had been pulled to a stop.
The other got wind of the intervention, hid behind a bush when friends turned up and angrily cut off contact. The first is happily still alive and flourishing; the second died two years later of a brain haemorrhage brought on by excessive alcohol.
Rosemary Pettit by email
Next week's dilemma
Some old friends of mine have asked if they can come and stay the weekend with us in Kent on their way to the Continent. They have stayed before, with their son, and it’s been good fun, but that was four years ago, when our daughters were small and their son was only 14. What has changed is that their son has just got out of prison for watching child porn – though there’s no history of him having committed any offence in person – and our daughters are now 9, 13 and 14. I feel extremely nervous about letting this boy into the house. What can I say to them?
What would you advise Nell to do? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from funkyhampers.com