Difficult topic: How do you address a drinking problem?

No matter how well hidden: If reaching for a glass or even a bottle determines everyday life, colleagues, friends and family will eventually notice.

Difficult topic: How do you address a drinking problem?

No matter how well hidden: If reaching for a glass or even a bottle determines everyday life, colleagues, friends and family will eventually notice. How do you address an alcohol addiction as sensitively as possible? When are you dependent? And how do you motivate those affected to get help?

The occasional after-work beer has become a habit. There are hidden wine bottles in the cupboard. Agreements are no longer kept. At the latest when the loved one can no longer fall asleep without alcohol, those close to them ask themselves: "That must be an alcohol problem, right?"

And now? Addiction is a taboo subject and it is therefore difficult for many to seek dialogue. The worries about the reaction are too great. Answers to questions that often concern those close to you in such a situation:

When is a person dependent on alcohol?

It is difficult to say exactly where an alcohol addiction begins. "It's all creeping up," says Christina Rummel, managing director of the German Center for Addiction Issues (DHS). If someone can no longer deny everyday life without alcohol, this speaks strongly for a dependency. According to Rummel, the alcohol then takes on important functions, such as creating relaxation. Or it is used to switch off stressful thoughts.

"Alcohol abuse begins where the alcohol causes damage: physical, mental or social," says psychologist Jürgen Güttel, who works in addiction counseling at the Caritas Association Dortmund. It often goes like this: The regular after-work beer, for example, means that you get used to drinking it. If a big problem then arises in life - a breakup, a job loss - the road to addiction is often short because the body is used to beer, wine and high-proof spirits. There is more alcohol, more and more often. Addicts can then no longer give up drinking without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

How do I interpret the signs?

"The closer you are to each other, the more sensitive you are to other people. It's easier to see in close quarters, because you also organize everyday life together," says Christina Rummel. In the wider circle of friends or at work, however, this is not always clear. "Co-workers often have trouble naming the changes," says Jürgen Güttel.

The signs do not always have to do with a slurred speech or beer breath. "It can be social withdrawal or tiredness and excessive irritability. But also neglect of duties, depressive moods, sleep disorders or concentration difficulties," says psychologist Güttel.

Even if certain incidents accumulate in everyday life, this can indicate an addiction. Conflicts at work, for example - or the driver's license, which is suddenly in danger. "It's a lot of little things that can add up, and then you realize: Maybe it's all because of the alcohol consumption," says Güttel. So those close to you do well to keep an eye on different pieces of the puzzle and to put them together to form an overall picture.

How do I address the topic?

Relatives often have inhibitions about seeking a conversation. Understandable, because alcoholism is a sensitive topic. Also, there never seems to be a right moment. The only exception: It is best not to have such a conversation between door and hinge, but rather with enough time and calm. "Of course it remains uncomfortable," says Christina Rummel. "You have to be prepared for the reaction."

But there are communication strategies that are good for such a conversation. For example, the attitude in the conversation: "Above all, you have to talk to each other instead of about each other," says Jürgen Güttel. And: "You should be able to specifically name what bothers you," says Christina Rummel. Good preparation is the be-all and end-all. It can help, for example, to take notes before the interview. This organizes your own thoughts and observations.

Another tip: formulations from the first person perspective so that the other person does not feel attacked. It is important to have an honest interest in what is behind the addiction. "You should try to ask about the background without making direct accusations," advises Jürgen Güttel. "The closer you are to a person, the more you have a duty to offer support." Relatives should keep in mind: They are also affected by the addiction, but are not the ones making the diagnosis. Only a doctor can do that.

What happens after a conversation like this?

It is not uncommon for alcoholics to feel relieved when they are spoken to by relatives. They often have the impression that no one notices the problems piling up in front of them, and with them the addiction.

"Ultimately the person who is drinking has to act, but a conversation can be a good first step," says Christina Rummel. Relatives can obtain external advice from an advice center even before the interview. Also to show those affected ways where they can get professional help.

How do I stay strong as a loved one?

The worries, the support, the circles of thought: Alcohol addiction can get to the substance of relatives. "First of all, you want to protect those affected, relieve them of their tasks and excuse omissions," observes Güttel. However, this support may only be provided on the condition that the person concerned seeks professional help.

If the person affected is resting on their laurels, but doing nothing to combat the addiction, relatives should distance themselves - and distance themselves from the whole topic. Christina Rummel advises you to always protect yourself first: "You have to make sure that you get an oxygen mask yourself - like on an airplane."

That means: take good care of yourself and your strength, treat yourself to some downtime, don't just let life revolve around the alcohol addiction of your loved one. Then you can best help the person concerned.

(This article was first published on Sunday, October 23, 2022.)

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