The question most often asked of me by those who love an active alcoholic, addict or person engaging in otherwise self destructive behavior is, “How do I tell them how concerned I am without alienating them or making them angry?”
In general, this is an impossibility. We who self destruct tend not to be very open to discussing it. We live in a dark convolution of denial and hopelessness. Most of us are trying to hide it – not just from you, but also from ourselves. Calling us out is an act of love. It’s just unlikely to go well at first.
More than anything else: You must not enable us to continue our destruction. Don’t protect us from ourselves. Don’t pretend that you can’t see the elephant in the room. Don’t walk on eggshells around us. The greatest service you can provide us is sharing what you sense to be true. Don’t wait until you can prove what you suspect. We will assuredly suffer while you strive to become completely confident.
You have the opportunity to plant a seed within us. You can be a catalyst for change by reminding us that you care and that you want to be part of the solution. We are so very alone inside ourselves. Knowing that you see what we’ve denied is unsettling to us, but don’t remain discouraged by our defensiveness.
Offer us invitations without expectations. Offer your concern without judgment. Give us reasons to have faith. Ensure healthy support us by giving us boundaries: be clear in what you will and will not do.
There’s a simple recipe I offer to folks to start the conversations they fear having:
1. Ask to talk. Don’t show up unannounced. Don’t call out of the blue. Ask if you can see us and talk.
2. Share your love. Reaffirm it. Keep it short and sweet but drive it home: I. Love. You. Eliminate the word “but” from these discussions. No, “I love you but…” No, “You’re great but…”
3. If you can’t get past the fear of being misunderstood or taken the wrong way, say so. Example: “I’m afraid that you’re going to feel attacked by the concerns I have.” Or “I’m so afraid that I’m going to say this wrong and it will hurt you.”
4. Say directly and succinctly what your concern is. Example: I’m afraid of what alcohol is doing to you.
5. Avoid labels. Don’t call us alcoholics, addicts, mentally ill, or any other term that in truth, only we have the right to apply to ourselves.
6. Don’t debate or argue with us when we try to turn the tables on you or try to prove you wrong. Don’t let us manipulate you by preying upon your doubts and insecurities.
7. Just stick to a very simple message and express how you feel. In response to our anger or whatever we might throw at you, just reaffirm, “I just need for you to know that I care and that I am concerned. If you come to a place where you are concerned too, please just know that I would like to help.”
8. Listen to your intuition. Emotions are going to run high for all of us during this conversation. Notice when you’re tensing up. Don’t escalate with us. Stick to your guns and keep the message clear and simple.
9. Don’t belabor. Don’t stay if we’re treating you badly. Don’t tolerate our childishness. Unless we’re open and wanting to talk, wrap it up. Come back to us in the near future to check in and follow up.
10. Do something really nice for yourself. What you’ve done has great meaning regardless of the outcome When you do the right thing (which is almost always the hard thing) you deserve to feel good. Don’t put your life on hold while you wait to see what we’ll do next. Go live.