My alcoholic brother is drinking again but says it's 'under control'. What should I do?

A reader is worried about her younger brother who started drinking again during lockdown after 20 years. She turns to The Midults for advice


Dear A&E,

My younger brother gave up drinking 20 years ago after a few very wild years. He took his recovery really seriously for the first 10 and then after that milestone we all sort of stopped thinking of him ever drinking. But in lockdown he started having the odd beer here and there, saying he was fine now and could handle it. We are all incredibly worried, though, that he will fall back into the bad old ways. We don’t want to infantilise him, or behave like the sobriety police; he’s a grown man. But when it was bad, it was very bad. Please help. — Uneasy

Dear Uneasy,

Oof. We have to tell you we felt uneasy about this question when it landed in our inboxes and have felt uneasy ever since. Lockdown has created such a huge warp; a mental-health gap that so many have slipped down. Anxiety is through the roof: panic about the future and work and how we should live. The nation is in macro-trauma and, on a micro level, a million personal traumas are playing out as people grieve, worry and lose sight of the indexes they used to measure themselves against. Not only that but the strangeness of the situation appears to have given a tacit permission for a shift in behaviour – like we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole so we can eat this (biscuits in Emilie’s case), drink that (vodka, in Annabel’s) with abandon.

So it’s no surprise that in this pressure cooker, people are struggling to find solid ground – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are all reported to have risen during isolation. That is the big painful picture.

Now to your own personal pain. It may very well be that your brother is able to ‘handle it’ and won’t suddenly turn into a ravening booze fiend. Maybe. It just might be that 20 years of not drinking has meant he has worked so hard on the reason why he drank destructively in the first place that he is able to pick up and enjoy a beer. Or, as one recovering alcoholic we spoke to put it, he has just ‘unlocked the beast in lockdown’. Either way, this is pretty scary stuff so it’s not surprising that you are concerned.

We talked to Mandy Saligari, an addictions expert who founded the clinic Charter, and she was very clear: ‘Drinking is a relapse for someone in recovery.’

So, you are allowed to call it a relapse. She also considered the idea that he dismissed your concern with the old ‘I can handle it’ response. ‘Reacting by saying he can handle it seems selfish as it doesn’t acknowledge addiction as a family condition,’ she says. ‘Usually if someone wants to drink again, they should speak to those around them and talk through fears and feelings, and also establish contingencies if it goes wrong. An alcoholic in relapse won’t listen to warnings, so having something preagreed makes denial more difficult.’

So, of course, you are panicking. You know because you will have watched over him through the bad years, tentatively through the initial recovery, and then maybe with an increasing sense of security during more recent years. However, you will also know that he will not clean up until he is ready. With some relapse cases the acceleration and descent happens terrifyingly fast and they bottom-out quickly. Others? Well, you just don’t know. They look OK. They seem OK and you choose to believe that they are managing.

But this is not your first time at the rodeo – you know that you can beg and plead and threaten and cry but nothing will happen until he wants it to happen. Mandy counsels, ‘Being the sibling of an addict makes you at risk of co-dependency, hypervigilant and neglectful of self. Stand back from your brother’s possible relapse – once you’ve said your piece – and focus on your own well-being.’

So that’s it: say your piece. Tell him that you love him and that you are always there for him, and then step back. Deep breath, Uneasy, but you’ve got to let go. Good luck.

Tell us what you think our reader should do in the comments section below.

Do you have a dilemma that you’re grappling with? Email Annabel and Emilie on [email protected] All questions are kept anonymous. They are unable to reply to emails personally.

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