• Alcohol dependency is a common difficulty, and one that can be hard to spot

  • Acknowledging you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol to yourself is difficult, and then there's the difficulty of telling your loved ones – therapist Ian Stockbridge offers his advice

  • You can find counsellors and therapists trained to work with different addiction issues by using our questionnaire here 

If you have a dependency on alcohol, you are not alone, as over half a million people in England are dependent drinkers. It is the biggest risk factor for death, ill health and disability among 15- to 49-year olds according to a 2018 Public Health England study. Regardless of whether the underlying issue that fed your addiction was born out of stress, struggles to manage previous relationships or peer pressure to name just a few, it is important to be honest and to seek treatment.

In my experience as a counsellor, treating addiction can be a tough journey, so having the support of people who fully understand you can be critical. Having an inner circle that can offer encouragement and support can be immensely helpful.

But, saying the words "I am an addict" or "I have dependency issues" can be amongst the toughest we will ever say. Partly this can be about self-acknowledgement and partly about the judgments that we fear from others. I often help guide individuals on how to have productive, honest conversations with friends, family and loved ones about addiction and the support they need.

There’s no such thing as an ‘ideal’ conversation

How we have the conversation tends to be more important than the exact words we use. There can be a variety of reactions, so finding a location that offers some privacy may be helpful. A safe place can be less challenging than a busy restaurant, for example. The goal of the conversation is to help the other person to understand that recovery is a pathway and that you are already on it.

Expect questions. Whether this is a new partner, a friend, a family member or some form of professional, they will likely want to understand. Being able to answer questions about how this challenges you and potentially may impact them is a reasonable request as are issues surrounding treatment and support that you are getting or are hoping to get. But also acknowledging that you may not know all the answers yourself, it’s ok to say this too.

Some conversations are easier than others

How do you open up to someone who frequents a bar or drinks? Well, this can be tough, and as with any relationship, we have to ask ourselves the question "Is this relationship right for me?” Real friends will respect our reasons and not put us in a position where our sobriety is compromised. If they genuinely can't appreciate your needs or downplay the importance of your recovery, then you are entitled to ask the question: "Does this relationship serve me?"

Establishing consistent and honest boundaries is essential when discussing the type of support you need from others. The specifics of these boundaries are for all involved to discuss and agree. Whilst some people dealing with alcohol dependency may feel the need to avoid situations where alcohol is being consumed altogether, others feel strongly that they don’t want their issues with sobriety to impact on the behaviour of others.

During the discussion of these boundaries, it is vital to be honest about your own needs and expectations whilst trying to remain respectful of the other person’s position. Once these discussions have been had, it is up to the individuals concerned to decide if they can respect those boundaries.

Conversations with your partner

How might sobriety affect life with a partner? Whether we are the person who has stopped drinking or the partner, friend or family member, it is essential to recognise that there will inevitably be changes if someone stops drinking.

These changes can be at their most significant and most challenging over the first few months of sobriety. This could involve the restructuring of their lives to attend alcohol support meetings or counselling for underlying issues. The important thing for all concerned is to take one day at a time and to remember you are never entirely alone.

It is vital that both parties involved in any sort of relationship where alcohol dependency can be an issue, seek to practise self-care. Neither self-flagellation nor self-sacrifice is healthy or helpful. We have a duty of care to ourselves and this can include regularly re-assessing whether or not this relationship is healthy and continues to serve us.

Remember that you don’t have to go through treatment, or support someone seeking treatment, on your own. You can get external support from local therapists and counsellors, national addiction support organisations or even your GP. The important thing is to recognise that you have a problem and to seek help as soon as possible.

Ian Stockbridge is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Oxford and online. He is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Mindfulness Services. 

Further reading

What alcohol withdrawal does to your body

Living with someone who is dependent on alcohol

Changing my relationship to alcohol helped my mental health

Is my drinking a problem?