By Karen James, LCSW-C
Have you ever found yourself feeling concerned that someone you care about is drinking too much? Within the Jewish community there is a long-standing assumption that Jews don’t develop drinking problems. If you find that erroneous belief challenged in your own life, how will you respond? Are you prepared to help a friend or loved one who you think may have a drinking problem?
Start by educating yourself. How common is problem-drinking? Is there a difference between healthy drinking, risky drinking and alcoholism? When should we be concerned? One family in every four in the USA is affected by alcohol related problems, and three out of every ten adults engage in risky use of alcohol. Some adults are at greater risk because of possible genetic and familial pre-disposition; addictions run in families.
If you’re not sure whether the pattern you are seeing could constitute a problem, here are some simple guidelines from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
- For men under age 65: Does the person ever drink more than 4 drinks in one day? Does he have more than 14 drinks in any week?
- For women under 65: Does she ever drink more than 3 drinks in one day? Does she have more than 7 drinks in any week?
These questions look at two risky behaviors: drinking too much in one sitting (the new definition of ‘binge-drinking”), and drinking too much as a general habit. They are designed to identify at-risk behavior, not alcoholism. Of course, for some people, even these guidelines would constitute too much alcohol!
Speak up! Talk to the person whose drinking is concerning you.
Physicians are being encouraged to ask their adult patients these questions, and to explain clearly what behavior is sensible and what is risky. Contrary to some popular beliefs:
- Not all drinkers need to “hit bottom” to change their habits. For some drinkers, education and concern work to prevent risky behaviors that might lead to serious problems.
- It’s worthwhile to share your concerns. Messages from multiple sources can add up and have an impact—even when they initially don’t seem to.
- Expressing concerns and providing information can save lives. Most alcohol-related traffic accidents are not caused by alcoholics, but rather, by those in the range of “at-risk drinkers.”
Find words that will open the door.
Educating someone about the facts avoids an accusatory or judgmental tone, and assumes that many people will look at the impact of their habits on their health. You could approach someone you are worried about indirectly: “I just read about some new guidelines for healthy drinking. Have you seen them?” Or you might clearly express concern: “There’s something I hope we can talk about. I read some new guidelines on both healthy and risky drinking. I want you to know about this because I’m worried about you.”
Approach your loved ones with love. This will help you with your own nervousness about bringing up the subject, and help you communicate your caring, rather than a critical attitude. When we want people to hear us, we need to remove the obstacles that make them close their ears.
- Choose a relaxed time, and a place that is removed from problems and distractions, for any difficult discussion.
- Leave enough time; don’t rush.
Watch your expectations…you won’t always be thanked for your insights! But remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about helping the other person help himself or herself — perhaps before there is a serious problem. In initiating this conversation, you may be taking a risk, but isn’t that worth doing for someone you love?
For more information on adult risky drinking, click here to visit www.alcoholscreening.org
By Karen James, LCSW-C, Manager, Adult Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services