When someone close drinks too much

Former alcoholics themselves, a couple offer coping tips—and AA alternatives
Julia McKinnell
When someone close drinks too much
Robert Clare/Getty Images

Sometimes a person’s drinking problem gets so out of hand the spouse of the drinker starts to secretly wish the drinker would die. Helen and Edmund Tirbutt, the husband-and-wife authors of Help Them Beat The Booze: How to Survive Life with a Problem Drinker, recognize the sentiment: “There’s no need to feel guilty if you’ve experienced such thoughts because they are extremely common amongst people in your situation. It isn’t easy. We know. We’ve been there.”

Edmund Tirbutt gave up drinking 24 years ago. Helen stopped five years ago. “We prefer to talk about people having ‘drink problems’ rather than being alcoholics because we feel there is less scope for ambiguity,” they write. “The term alcoholic can provide those who are in denial about their drinking a convenient get-out clause, because they can always think of a reason why they are not an alcoholic, unless they are actually sleeping on a park bench.”

In a phone interview with Maclean’s from her home in Kent, England, Helen Tirbutt explained why she and her husband wrote the book. “Ironically, even though Edmund had had a drinking problem, we really didn’t know how to help our friend,” she said, referring to the death of a young alcoholic they knew. “We didn’t understand the AA program. We didn’t understand withdrawal. We didn’t know where to go for help. GPs often can’t help you.”

“Become very, very knowledgeable” is Helen’s first piece of advice. In the book, they write, “There are, in fact, a number of significant new potential treatments that have recently become available, but which you are unlikely to hear about from the average GP. Similarly, your drinker is unlikely to hear about them from attending AA.”

For instance, two new medications are being prescribed to treat problem drinking. “One hugely exciting recent development has been the realization that [a drug called] baclofen can enable drinkers with physical addictions to be cured both from cravings and from the addiction itself. The discovery of baclofen as a cure for alcoholism was made by professor Olivier Ameisen, a French-American cardiologist, who had a serious drink problem.”

Helen’s advice is, “If AA and rehab haven’t worked, approach the person with the problem and say, ‘We know you’re a beautiful person, and you’ve been really ill over the last few years. There are new methods available, and we want you to go to your doctor and get a prescription for baclofen. We will continue to support you if you commit to trying this new treatment.”

Another prescription drug, a type of “opiate antagonist” that purportedly helps heavy drinkers moderate their drinking, is naltrexone. The book cites the example of Patricia Hodgson, 43, who “now drinks in moderation without having to exercise any self-control. She simply takes a 50 mg pill of naltrexone an hour before drinking and tends to never want more than a couple of glasses of wine.” (A spokesperson for Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says they use both baclofen and naltrexone “quite extensively.” Canadian family doctors may be less likely to prescribe baclofen, as its use for alcoholism is still off-label.)

Hodgson told the Tirbutts, “I wish people wouldn’t be so prejudiced against something just because it involves carrying on drinking.” Naltrexone, she says, “literally saved my life. I so much wanted to feel normal, to socialize and have the odd glass of wine with a meal.”

When someone is in denial about a “drink problem,” tell them how their bad behaviour affected you personally, as opposed to criticizing them, write the Tirbutts. “You could ask them if they were aware they woke you up at two o’clock in the morning and had an argument with you. So long as you concentrate on behaviour and how it affects you personally, they can’t argue with you.”

Finally, if the drinker is physically addicted to alcohol, “an absolute must is to wean this person off alcohol slowly,” they write. “Once someone has reached the stage of physical addiction they should not consider stopping drinking suddenly, as to do so could result in memory loss or brain damage.”