31 January 2023

I think I have a drinking problem – how do I ask for help?

31 January 2023

A drinking problem does not always look like vodka for breakfast, total blackouts and an inability to hold down a job.

Lots of people might be struggling with alcohol in less obvious ways – and according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), thousands could be missing out on getting help and support.

NICE – which says “large number of people who are dependent on alcohol are not receiving treatment” – has called on health bodies to ensure people’s drinking habits are correctly recorded and that those who need support are offered it.

But, what if you’re already concerned about your own drinking habits?

If you can’t socialise without alcohol, find it hard to sleep or relax without a drink, or perhaps even find your memory is suffering or relationships are strained as a result, it may be worth seeking support.

Drinking problems look different for everyone

First and foremost, a drinking problem can look different for different people.

“An alcoholic isn’t the person sitting on a park bench drinking out of a brown paper bag,” says Nick Conn, founder and CEO of help4addiction.co.uk. “An alcoholic is someone who has a drink and finds it hard to stop.

“The line is consequences,” he adds. “If there are starting to be health, emotional, financial or professional consequences, you may start feeling there is an issue.”

Understanding why you drink

Dr David McLaughlan, a consultant psychiatrist for Priory and cofounder of Jitai (jitaihealth.com), an app that provides early intervention tools, suggests looking for patterns around when, why and how you’re consuming alcohol.

“It is important to understand your drinking motivations. Alcohol serves a purpose for people – be it because it helps you cope with difficult emotions, maybe because it helps you socially conform, or because it enhances experiences or social cohesion. Whatever the reason, it is important to know,” says McLaughlan.

“If you put the kids to bed and immediately open and drink a bottle of wine as a relaxant or a reward, there will be other ways to reward and relax you instead of drinking. What will serve the purpose that alcohol served?” he says.

“Look at what drinking is costing you in every sense, and what it will cost you to stop and make that decision.”

Seeking help

As problematic drinking or alcoholism can be different for different people, the type of help you need may also sometimes vary. “If you are a heavy daily drinker, you should speak to a doctor first and foremost before stopping drinking. You may need a medically assisted detox,” says McLaughlan.

Tackling an alcohol problem isn’t just about avoiding or getting rid of booze, either. Having the right support in place to help you explore the roots of the issue and develop healthier coping strategies can be really important.

“Drink is not the problem – it is a solution to what may be going on inside you, like mental illness or trauma,” says Conn. “Intensive therapy is often the best way to treat this, but you have to work within the resources you have. Be it group therapy, one-to-one therapy or both, there are a few ways to get that support, residentially or as an outpatient.”

There may be a lot of focus on long NHS waiting lists, but anybody needing help with mental health and addiction of any form should speak to their doctor if they are able to – they may be able to make helpful suggestions about services in your area or refer you for specialist help.

There are also charities people can look at. Conn suggests Change, Grow, Live (changegrowlive.org/advice-info/alcohol-drugs) and Turning Point (turning-point.co.uk), for example. Another well-known option is AA (alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk).

“It is not a one-size-fits-all fix and everyone has different needs and beliefs, but as far as free support, it is a good place to start,” says Conn, who adds that anyone can access these services (you don’t need to meet a certain ‘level’ of alcoholism to qualify).

Telling people

“Speaking to family and friends and looking into mental health and addiction charities may be helpful. However, a lot of people struggle to talk about their alcohol issues because it is so stigmatised,” McLaughlan acknowledges.

But telling people might be an important part of the picture.

“Getting support may start with being open and honest with those you love – secrets keep you sick,” says Conn. “Alcoholism wants to be hidden, so the best thing to do is be open and honest with those around you.”

Apps and social media 

For some people, online and self-help services and support groups, apps and even social media might prove helpful.

“Follow sober influencers, because they may be offering helpful tips,” Conn suggests. “Follow accounts and friends who are willing to support you. Perhaps don’t follow non-alcoholic drinks accounts, as they may trigger you.

“Connecting with like-minded people is very important,” he adds. “Sober Grid and I Am Sober are apps that can be quite helpful. Help4Addiction has an online rehab, for people who can’t go to rehab, but still want to get help.”

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