What to do about that family member who ALWAYS drinks too much

By YOU
25 December 2016

Everybody's got that one relative... is it time for an intervention?

If a family member tends to drink too much over the festive season it might be time to intervene so the holiday isn’t spoilt. 

For some the festive season is not so much “Ho, ho, ho!” and a feeling of excited anticipation. It’s more like “Oh no, no, no!” and a feeling of dread as they contemplate having to deal with family members who always knock back more than a few too many.

The holiday period can be a tough time for families who’ve had previous gatherings marred by a father, uncle, aunt or cousin who always drinks too much and makes things unpleasant for everyone. So can you prevent it happening again? And if so, how?

If you have a family member who has a serious alcohol problem – whether it’s habitual drinking or binge-drinking – perhaps it’s time for an intervention.

Shortly put, a group of relatives confront the person about their drinking and ask them to seek treatment. “It should be done out of love, care and concern – it should not be to punish the person,” says Dana Tadmor, a Cape Town counsellor who specialises in addiction.

“Otherwise they’ll simply feel cornered, judged, embarrassed and humiliated.” Everyone who’ll be part of the intervention should agree the person’s alcohol abuse is harmful and ruins the enjoyment of the holidays for the rest of the family, Tadmor adds.

The intervention gives all those involved a chance to say how they feel. “You should say how you felt the past few Christmases when the family was together and the person’s drinking soured everything,” Tadmor says.

For example: “We want to tell you how we feel about getting together for Christmas – we’ve started to dread it because your behaviour is so unpredictable.” Or you could mention specific incidents, for example, “You’ve made us worry about what our kids might be exposed to because of that time you got drunk and started swearing at X.

An intervention may be what’s needed even if the person is a binge-drinker who goes overboard only during the festive season or when stressed. Binge-drinking isn’t any easier to treat – but it does mean there are more frequent and longer lucid periods to reach out to the person.

“An intervention is designed to be a motivational conversation in which people who know, love and trust the person come together to persuade them to get help,” says Dr Michael Niss, a Johannesburg psychologist who works with addicts.

Read more: Worried you might be drinking too much? Take this alcohol test

The aim is to present the person with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get worse and to motivate them to accept help. An intervention should be carefully planned under the guidance of a professional as a poorly planned one can worsen the situation. Your loved one might feel attacked and become isolated or more resistant to treatment, warns Cindy le Grange, editor of quarterly magazine Addict!

People at risk of relapsing during the festive season really need to work on safety first,” says Le Grange, who has helped loved ones battling addiction. “Whether it’s a place, person or situation, those doing the intervention need to be aware of what the drinker’s triggers are so you can establish a plan of action in advance. Forewarned is forearmed.”

Even if the intervention doesn’t work the first time, just the fact family came together to try to do something is likely to have an effect on the person. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found 75 percent of families who have interventions for alcohol abuse eventually persuade the person to get help.

How to plan an intervention

  • One person should coordinate the intervention. “It’s usually the head of the family or someone the problematic person respects and listens to,” counsellor Dana Tadmor says.
  • Consult a professional such as a psychologist, counsellor or social worker for guidance on how to put together your intervention.
  • Gather information so you can gauge the severity of the person’s problem. Perhaps all they need is to go to a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. But if their drinking is out of control they might need to be admitted to a rehabilitation centre. Phone around to find out about treatment facilities in your area.
  • The intervention team should meet to discuss what everyone will say and decide on a time and venue. Don’t tell the person about it until the day of the intervention – if they know about it they’re likely to make excuses not to be there.
  • Everyone should write down what they intend to say. “It’s a highly emotional situation and you may forget what you wanted to say,” Tadmor points out. “Keep to the facts and refrain from mudslinging.”
  • Every member should raise particular incidents, how it made people feel and the damage it caused.
  • Practise the intervention in advance so you’re more likely to be calm when it’s time for the real thing.
  • Choose a neutral location such as a friend’s house or someone’s office where the person won’t be able to go hide in their bedroom, for example.
  • Decide what the consequences will be if the person refuses to get help. For example, it could be that they won’t be welcome at family gatherings any more or have to find another place to spend the holiday.
  • The person might get up and walk out, so have a plan for dealing with this. S Prepare counter-arguments for when they refuse to accept responsibility for their behaviour. They may say, “But without a drink or two I won’t enjoy myself” or “Isn’t it nicer if everyone enjoys themselves?” Have a response ready that’s reasonable and not argumentative.
  • Make sure the person is sober when you talk to them. It also works well to have an intervention when the person has just had some trouble linked to their drinking, for example they’ve just been arrested for drink-driving, been involved in a fight or ejected from a restaurant because of their behaviour. They’re likely to be more receptive to change.

Conducting the gathering 

  • Invite the person to the venue of the intervention without any explanation. When they arrive reassure them everyone is there because they love, respect and care for them.
  • The leader of the intervention should maintain control of the meeting throughout and ensure everyone stays focused.
  • Everyone then gets a turn to read out what they’ve prepared which will explain how they’re feeling and what change they’d like to see in the person.
  •  “Repeat that you love them and have their best interests at heart, but that you don’t love their behaviour,” counsellor Dana Tadmor says.
  • Ensure your body language is open and warm. For example, don’t sit with arms crossed or fists clenched. Look at the person every now and then as you’re reading your contribution.
  • “They should know you’re struggling with their behaviour, that you’re not going to tolerate it any more and that you’re offering help,” Tadmor says. Ask them what you can do to help them.
  • Before the meeting ends they should commit themselves to getting help or to accepting the consequences if they don’t follow through.

*If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol abuse, call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) substance abuse helpline on 0800-12-13-14 or SMS 32312.

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