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Living with an alcoholic in denial can be incredibly draining. The person may disagree that they have a problem, refuse to recognise their unhealthy behaviours or genuinely believe they’re not struggling with alcohol dependence at all. But their drinking is likely to be having a negative impact on you and the rest of the household, as well as the person’s own wellbeing.

It can be difficult to know what to do or where to turn when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial. In this blog, we will provide advice on some of the practical things you can do, and give you information on the expert alcohol addiction treatment that we can provide at Manor Clinic.

How can I help an alcoholic in denial?

There are a number of things that you can do to help an alcoholic in denial, including:

  • Learning as much as you can about the symptoms of alcoholism
  • Having an open and honest conversation with your loved one about their drinking
  • Setting clear boundaries
  • Making sure that you look after yourself as well as the person with the alcoholism
  • Supporting the person to get the professional rehab they need

Learn about alcoholism and its symptoms

If you think you’re living with an alcoholic in denial, a really important first step to take is to learn as much as you can about the symptoms of alcoholism. You may notice that the person:

  • Seems to be irritable and angry when they haven’t had a drink
  • Seems to need to drink more to get ‘drunk’
  • Misses out on important events or special occasions because of their drinking
  • Continues to drink even though it has had a negative impact on their life
  • Drinks heavily when they’re on their own, even to the point of passing out
  • Drinks alcohol at times when it’s clearly unacceptable to do so e.g. when they first wake up in the morning

These are all signs of alcoholism. When someone is in denial about their alcohol use, they may also:

  • Lie about the amount they drink and how frequently they consume alcohol
  • Find excuses to have a drink e.g. as a reward after a stressful day at work or celebrating the start of the weekend
  • Make jokes and be flippant about their drinking habits to try and downplay how much they’re actually drinking
  • Buy expensive brands of alcohol to try and ‘prove’ they don’t have a drinking problem
  • Be secretive about their drinking habits, activities or whereabouts
  • Store alcohol in strange places such as in their car or in the garage, to try and stop you finding it

These secretive, qualifying or flippant behaviours could suggest that your loved one is aware that they may have a problem but is trying to cover it up or justify it, as a way of denying they are struggling with alcoholism. By learning as much as you can about these symptoms, you’ll be able to spot patterns in your loved one’s behaviour and begin to understand why they act the way they do, even if they deny they have a problem or don’t believe they need help.

Having an open and honest conversation with the alcoholic in denial

Once you’ve begun to recognise the symptoms and behaviours that an alcoholic in denial may show, it’s really important for you to have an open and honest conversation with the person. There are a number of things to think about before starting this conversation:

  • Prepare specific examples of their behaviour. If you think that they are in denial about their alcoholism, it’s important that you prepare specific examples of their drinking behaviours before you have the conversation with them. That way, if you’re immediately met with denial, you can gently point out the times that their drinking has been a problem and has had a negative impact on other people. Being able to calmly point out their past actions,and times when you think they have drunk too much, means they’re more likely to accept the fact that there is an issue
  • Choose the right time and place.Try and pick somewhere private to have this conversation and make sure it’s a place where the person feels safe and comfortable. You could suggest having a cup of tea at home when you’re unlikely to be disturbed by anyone else, or ask if they want to go for a walk with you. Starting this conversation at a time and place when the person feels relaxed makes it more likely that they’ll be able to open up to you about their alcoholism in an honest way, instead of denying the problem
  • Don’t be judgemental or accusatory. Even though your loved one’s behaviour may be frustrating to you, especially if you have never experienced an addiction yourself, it’s really important that you stay calm and patient throughout your conversation. If you can respond gently to what they say, they’re less likely to feel ‘attacked’ and are more likely to open up.Remember, an alcoholic in denial may feel defensive and ashamed so you should avoid adding to this, being gentle and understanding instead. To help, use phrases such as “I’m concerned about you” and “I’m worried about the amount you’re drinking lately”. By placing the onus on you instead of them, the conversation is more likely to flow instead of your loved one feeling criticised and simply shutting down
  • Try to avoid negative labels or language.Another way to ensure you’re approaching the conversation in a gentle way is to avoid using negative labels such as ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’. This type of language could be seen as being overly negative and critical which may push the person further into denial. Instead, try to use positive or neutral language such as ‘challenges’ and ‘concerns’; this comes across as being a lot more sympathetic and compassionate and shows that you’re coming from a good place

By having an open and non-confrontational conversation with the alcoholic in denial, not only will this give you the chance to get your concerns across, but it can also help them to snap out of their denial and agree that they need help. It also opens up lines of communication, meaning that the person is likely to come to you again to talk about their feelings whenever they’re going through a tough time.

Set boundaries

Just because your loved one is in denial about their destructive alcohol use, this doesn’t mean that their behaviours aren’t real and aren’t having a damaging impact on both you and other members of the family. That’s why it’s so important that you work with them to agree some clear boundaries, in order to minimise the impact their behaviours have on the household. It’s important that you pick a time when your loved one isn’t intoxicated to have this conversation about boundaries.

For example, you could let them know that you won’t tolerate them being under the influence of alcohol when they’re around your children, and make arrangements for your children to go elsewhere if this ever is the case.

Setting boundaries and sticking to them could be a real eye-opener for your loved one. It can make them realise that their behaviours are far-reaching and that they do need help.

Look after yourself

It’s so important to take the time to look after yourself too when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial. Their behaviours can be draining and difficult to deal with, and only when you’re as well as you can be, both physically and emotionally, will you be able to help someone else.

Make sure that you set time aside every day to do things that relax you or that you find enjoyable. These could be simple things like reading your favourite book, listening to music, going for a walk or having a hot bath. It’s also important that you make sure you exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep at night.

It may also be a good idea for you to share your worries with a trusted friend or relative, so that you can receive some emotional support. You could also reach out to dedicated support groups such as Al Anon and Families Anonymous, in order to link up with other people who may be going through similar issues to you.

Help the person to seek professional support

While the above steps can help when you’re living with an alcoholic in denial, ultimately, alcohol addiction is an illness that will likely need specialist help within a dedicated addiction rehab centre.

You could offer to contact an addiction rehab centre, such as Manor Clinic, on their behalf to find out about the expert alcohol addiction support that we can offer, and the journey that they could be taking towards recovery and wellbeing.

Our evidence-based alcohol Addiction Treatment Programme at Manor Clinic consists of:

  • A free, no obligation addiction assessment
  • Medically assisted withdrawal detoxification for your loved one’s alcohol addiction, if this is required
  • Structured group therapy
  • A high quality family programme
  • Access to 12-Step support groups
  • Free aftercare for life
  • Free family support for life

When someone is in treatment for alcohol addiction

At Manor Clinic, you can continue to help someone when they are in treatment for their alcohol addiction. You can:

  • Attend family sessions and learn as much as you can about the treatment and recovery process
  • Keep in touch with them when you can, whilst ensuring you give them the time and space to focus on their wellbeing

When someone first enters addiction treatment at Manor Clinic, visiting times are initially limited in order to give them the time and space they need to detox and focus on their recovery. It also allows the family time for respite and reflection. However, following this initial time in treatment and with agreement from the patient and our multidisciplinary team, family members are allowed to visit; this is another way that you can help your loved one while they are in treatment.

With your help, as well as specialist alcohol rehab within a dedicated centre, an alcoholic in denial can take steps towards the healthy, fulfilling and addiction-free life they deserve.

This blog was reviewed by Jacqui Newbold, (FDAP Accredited, NVQ 2,3 & 4 in Care/Mental health, Level 3 counselling, Advance level 4 in counselling), Addictions and Aftercare Manager at Manor Clinic.

Finding the right rehab clinic for you is imperative. For more information on our alcohol rehab and alcohol detox services click here. Our specialist, Hampshire-based team of clinicians and counsellors, will help you to get your life back on track. 

Coronavirus information

While the current coronavirus restrictions and social distancing measures are in place, we are offering online support to both new and current patients. We continue to offer access to inpatient services where this is required. For more information on our online therapy service, please visit our Priory Connect page or read our latest online therapy blog. For the latest information on how Priory are responding to coronavirus, and keeping our patients and staff safe, please visit our COVID-19 preparedness blog.

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