How To Talk To A Mate About Their Drinking

Australians love a drink. Whether it’s downing a few VBs on Australia Day, toasting our fallen heroes on Anzac Day or sipping champers at the Melbourne Cup, we can find any excuse to have a few. It’s how we celebrate, commiserate and have fun. Only for some of us, it doesn’t seem “fun” anymore, and maybe drinking becomes a drinking problem.

You only have to turn on the news to be confronted by another story about alcohol-fuelled violence. And then there’s the toll on our health – with 2010 figures suggesting drinking costs Australia $36 billion.

Let’s be realistic. The majority of us aren’t going out with the intention of sinking 20 beers and making an arse out of ourselves, or our mates. But too often, there’s one in our group that does.

You know the one. That friend who’s totally unaware of how quickly they’re drinking, how slow their speech is getting and how often they’re dropping the “f” bomb into every sentence. By the end of a quick catch up with your mates, your friend is not only unaware of themselves but also their surroundings.

The hard talk about the hard stuff

The difficulty is, how do we talk to them about it? Just because they can’t keep it together and our tolerance seems to be higher, does that mean they have an issue?

It’s a tricky scenario that I’ve been in many times. How can I tell my mate I’m worried about their drinking habits when I sit there with my chardonnay? Do they really have a drinking problem or is it just me that’s creating one?

Counsellor Adam Szmerling says the warning signs of a real issue are easy to spot.

“They may black out, have memory loss, start verbal or physical fights and significantly change their behaviour to put themselves and others around them at risk” he says. “They’ll also make excuses and downplay their behaviour.”

Looking at a mate’s conduct when they’re sober can give you clues too, according to Paul Wallace, the Chief Medical Advisor to Drinkaware.

“Extreme mood swings and irritability, worrying about where the next drink is coming from and the desire to plan events around alcohol, are all concerning signs of alcohol dependence,” Paul explains.

Establishing a clear distinction in your own mind about what’s acceptable and what isn’t may be the first step in helping a friend come to terms with their drinking problem but then what?

Our experts tell us how we can approach that conversation so you’re helping rather than hindering.

Timing the talk

Both Adam and Paul are adamant that timing is key. Paul advises to “make sure you’re both in the right mood, feeling calm, confident and not too emotional.”

Don’t try and approach it when you’re both out indulging in a few drinks. You may feel more open to discussing it but it could go horribly wrong, explains Adam.

“You may not be intoxicated, but if your friend is, their faculties will be significantly reduced,” he says. “At best they will probably feign agreement and change nothing.”

At worst, it won’t end well.

Don’t use labels

The professionals believe there are certain phrases and words that may trigger or anger a struggling friend. No one wants to be labelled an “alcoholic”, especially if they are in denial. They probably don’t want to be told they “have a drinking problem”, either. Using the wrong words is a sure fire way to start off on the back foot, so be careful with what you say.

Don’t go in demanding outcomes

Sometimes tough love is needed but that doesn’t mean you approach the topic with judgement or a superior attitude. The key is using supportive language that conveys empathy and concern. Adam advises against words like “should” which are demeaning and condescending.

“By all means be assertive,” he says. “But this also entails respecting their choices as well as respecting yourself and your own rights to choose acceptable behaviour and friendships.”

Arm yourself with knowledge

Having as much information to hand is vital for the conversation. You can’t expect to know everything about the situation or what you are up against. Your friend probably doesn’t know the how or why either, so going in with solid facts, takes the pressure off you trying to fix the issue.

“Seeking out professionals for your friend is really important,” says Paul. “An independent person who’s knowledgeable in this field will be the best person to help them change their behaviour. Sometimes it’s hard to hear home truths from those closest to us, so hearing the information from other sources is often what’s needed for a shift or acceptance.”

Remember your boundaries, remember you can’t fix them and above all know that there will be a long road ahead, if they really do have a drinking problem.

“Ultimately, you can help and support them but they must want to change their relationship with alcohol before it can happen. Be prepared to have the same conversation multiple times before they accept there is a problem,” Paul reminds us.

A published freelance writer from print to online, Katy’s passion is honest authentic writing. From the mundane experience to a sensational observation, Katy always finds a way to voice what she sees. Relatable and quirky, she writes with warmth and familiarity. She also loves lists, matching socks and edamame beans. You can find her on Twitter @whatktdidnextfw.