According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, more than 16 million American adults have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). But this is not about them. This is about YOU—a parent, the partner, a sibling, an adult child, or the friend of one of those millions of people who have an alcohol use disorder or are alcoholics.
The media is full of reports on how alcohol harms health and wrecks lives and potential. Unfortunately, you are now seeing a loved one spiraling downward with his or her alcohol use issues. You are worried about his or her health. You are upset because you are seeing precious talent being wasted. You are sad because your loved one is burning bridges with friends and family members and gradually retreating into a dark, murky, and lonely world.
How can I help a recovering alcoholic?
You can help a recovering alcoholic by not supporting their behavior, including:
1. Do not cover up for them or make excuses for their behavior.
2. Don’t bail them out from jail if they are charged with DUI.
3. Take over their responsibilities.
4. Don’t loan them money unless it’s for medical needs.
5. Don’t take part in drinking sessions.
Discourage Drinking Behavior
This is a no brainer. Often a family member or a close friend unknowingly becomes an enabler to an addict or someone who abuses alcohol. An enabler is a person who creates opportunities, so a loved one can indulge in addiction. Of course, the intention is not to fuel the addictive tendencies, but not many people realize that their seemingly harmless actions can backfire.
Here’s a guide on what NOT to do to help an alcoholic:
- Cover up for them.
When you cover up or make excuses for their behavior, you unknowingly give them the idea that you approve of or have their back when it comes to their habits and actions. Besides, covering up is also an indication that you are probably yourself in denial of your loved one’s alcoholism.
- Bail them out from jail.
There are countless instances when an addict eventually decides to seek help to quit alcohol after hitting rock bottom and realizing what a mess his or her life is in. So if he or she lands up in jail on DUI charges or for indulging in alcohol-related crimes, don’t bail them. Let them realize how alcohol has taken over their lives and the hazards of the trail they are hurtling along.
- Take over their responsibilities.
When you take over their responsibilities, you actually give them the permission to pursue their addiction. They get the idea that you approve of their habits and that it is okay to carry on. Don’t shield an alcoholic from the consequences of not carrying out his or her duties. Let them face the music, so they realize how alcohol is damaging their lives and relationships.
- Loan them money unless they have landed in a hospital.
Alcoholism is an expensive habit to sustain. So the need for funds to sustain the addiction is always present. As sad as it may sound, an alcoholic can stoop to lying to obtain funds from you. They invent lies like having to pay the rent (They probably spend the nights in bars and the days, sleeping on the park bench.) or buy groceries (They don’t care about preparing and eating nutritious meals.) to obtain money from you. If you are certain that a loved one is an alcoholic, don’t loan him or her money unless he or she has landed in a hospital and needs funds to undergo some treatment.
- Take part in drinking sessions with an alcoholic friend or family member.
When you take part in these drinking sessions, you encourage his or her habit. It doesn’t matter if you drink just a wee bit alcohol. An alcoholic will interpret your participation as an endorsement of his or her addiction.
Start With Your Mindset
Someone who has an alcohol use disorder is most likely to be in a denial mode. You won’t get him or her to accept that there is a problem, let alone work on solving it. On the other hand, someone who is an alcoholic hardly cares about how he or she should be living and functioning. He or she just lives from one drink to another.
This leaves just YOU to save a life.
YOU are the only person who can make your child, partner, friend, parent, or sibling realize how they are destroying their lives.
YOU are the only person who can persuade your friend or a family member to accept the help that is just a call away.
These won’t be easy tasks to pull off. Make sure you approach the job with the right mindset.
- Educate yourself on the nature of substance abuse or addiction.
Knowledge is power. The more you learn about the nature of alcohol abuse and addiction, their neurological roots, and how alcohol works on the mind and psyche of a person, the more you can empathize with your loved one and understand what he or she is going through.
- Be compassionate.
Addiction is not a moral flaw. It is the result of a complex interplay between genes, hormones, and the environment. When you get the facts straight, you can be compassionate when you confront a loved one who is an alcoholic. Don’t take the moral high ground and make him or her feel like a loser. On the other hand, your compassion and understanding can make an alcoholic confide in you about the stresses that may have made him or her seek refuge in drinking.
- Don’t blame yourself for somebody else’s drinking habits.
You can’t work on his or her genes. You can’t alter the way he or she reacts to the addiction triggers present in the environment. You are not responsible for a person choosing to carry on drinking or not seeking help. In fact, the more you blame yourself, the more stressed you become. What is more, your loved one can manipulate you and work on your feelings of guilt to extract money out of you.
- Decide beforehand what you would say during the confrontation.
Here’s when knowledge again comes into play. You may want to tell a loved one how alcohol is harming his or her physical and mental health. Or you may want to make him or her realize that addiction is just another disorder like diabetes or cancer that needs medical treatment.
Whatever you want to say during the confrontation, it helps if you plan in advance. This ensures you can come up with the most persuasive statement. Preparation lets you go over what you want to say during the confrontation and ensure that you speak only from a place of compassion.
- Adjust your expectations.
Do not stress by expecting results right after the first meeting. Do not expect an alcoholic to call in on an addiction counselor or visit a rehab clinic right after talking with you.
Instead believe that by confronting your alcoholic loved one, you are opening the channels of communication. You are giving him or her the chance to mull over the problem and feel motivated to quit alcohol. By showing that you care, you are assuring the person that you have only his or her best interests in mind. So in a later meeting, he or she will be more receptive to your suggestions.
How to Handle a Confrontation with an Alcoholic
Confronting an alcoholic is challenging. One thoughtless comment can send the person back to his or her world of demons and darkness. One misplaced remark can close the doors of communication forever. It is up to you to steer the confrontation, so you can persuade him or her to seek professional help to give up alcohol.
Is confronting an alcoholic risky?
Confronting an alcoholic can be very risky if the confrontation is not properly planned and prepared. One thoughtless comment can make the situation more difficult to handle. It will be harder to persuade the person to give up alcohol and seek professional help.
Here’s what you should keep in mind when you confront an alcoholic to ensure the interaction is healthy and the outcome is favorable:
- Choose a time when he or she is sober.
The presence of alcohol in the body clouds thoughts and makes a person unable to think straight. So confronting an alcoholic when he or she is drunk is not a good idea. He or she will not be able to appreciate your motivations. Nor will the person be able to figure out what is good for him or her.
- Don’t blame him or her.
Do not turn the meeting into a blame game. Don’t accuse him or her of being selfish. Think for a moment. Would you blame someone for catching an infection or having cancer?
Hark back to what you learned about addiction and how quickly abuse turns into addiction and be compassionate. Besides, blaming an alcoholic will make him or her feel bitter and distraught. He or she might even drink more to quell the surge of negative emotions.
- Let an alcoholic know how his or her actions are affecting you and the relationship you both share.
Don’t use the accusatory “you” tone when you converse with an alcoholic. Instead, steer the conversation towards yourself. This will make the other person more comfortable and more willing to hear you out.
Explain to the person how his or her habits have affected you—the mental and emotional stress you are going through and the additional physical and economic burden that you have had to take on. Explain how his or her drinking habits have strained the relationship you share. Gently point out how often he is not home or how she hardly cares about spending time with you or the kids.
Often alcoholics are swayed more by the effects of their addiction on their loved ones than on their health or jobs.
- Don’t fall for his or her promises to turn over a new leaf.
A conversation about one’s drinking habits is uncomfortable, especially if the person is in a denial mode. An addict might want to wiggle out of the conversation by (falsely) promising that he or she will give up alcohol. High-functioning alcoholics, especially, are known to be master manipulators.
Don’t fall for such promises and leave them to their own devices. Make sure that you follow up and be prepared to confront once more if they have not stuck to their promise.
- Keep calm.
A confrontation with an alcoholic can turn into a stressful situation for you too. An alcoholic might blame you for his or her addiction or suggest that you are blowing the situation out of proportion.
If an alcoholic is in a denial mode, he or she has reasons to think you are over-reacting.
Also, an alcoholic is someone who is physically dependent on alcohol; he or she has to drink to relax, steady the nerves, and feel that life is under control. For an alcoholic, quitting alcohol means losing a companion or a refuge, and not to mention having to go through the gamut of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that makes life feel like living in hell. It is no wonder that most alcoholics react aggressively at the mere suggestion.
Be calm. Don’t make an alcoholic more aloof or hostile by spewing angry words yourself. You risk making him or her angry enough to walk away, and then, you will never be able to broach the subject again. Besides, if you are calm, the person in front of you will eventually calm down himself or herself, and then you have succeeded in creating another window of opportunity to make your point.
- Be prepared to seek the help of a professional interventionist.
You can only try. After all, you are dealing with a human being. There is no formula to how his or her mind works. He or she may react to the same situation in different ways depending on sundry factors that are as diverse and incomprehensible as how the day went or when he or she had the last drink.
As someone you love and care for, it can be difficult for you to be firm or objective with him or her. As a result, you may not succeed in persuading your alcoholic friend or family member to seek professional help. Worse, you may even put him or her off from having another meaningful conversation on the subject, forever. If things come to such a passé, don’t hesitate to call a professional interventionist.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, an intervention is an educational session moderated by a professional and attended by the alcoholic and his or her family members and/or friends. During the session, the interventionist tries to make the alcoholic see the reality of his or her situation and make the person comprehend the consequences of carrying on drinking. An interventionist can make an alcoholic agree to embrace change and accept help.
How can a professional interventionist help an alcoholic?
The interventionist will try to make an alcoholic see the consequences of his drinking habits and make him agree to undergo treatment. An intervention session with a professional must be attended by the alcoholic and his friends or family members.
Take Care of Yourself
As astounding as it sounds, this is something that most people don’t do and end up ruining their lives. How can you help someone else if you are yourself broken and your life is in shambles?
Yes, having an alcoholic in your life is stressful. It is imperative that you remain sane, safe, and healthy yourself to help your loved one tide through his or her problems. Here’s how you must take care of yourself:
- Put boundaries on your relationship, or escape, if need be.
If all means of persuasion fail, you have to put boundaries on your relationship. It may sound harsh. You may wonder if you are doing the right thing by cutting ties. But sometimes people need a shake-up to change status quo. Putting boundaries on your relationship might just be the reality check that your alcoholic loved one needs to come to his or her senses and realize how alcohol has taken a toll on multiple lives.
Now here’s a reality check for you as well. No matter how much committed you are to help a loved one overcome alcohol addiction, you HAVE to quit if the situation turns violent. Alcohol depresses inhibitions and clouds the senses. Alcoholics can become aggressive and turn violent if they sense a threat from you.
ESCAPE if you feel you are in danger of being physically harmed (or have actually been) by your alcoholic family member. It is imperative that you are safe before you attempt to help a loved one.
- Don’t become co-dependent.
Don’t get so immersed in the process of supporting an alcoholic loved one that you find yourself being dragged along the dark path that he or she is traveling on.
Counseling an alcoholic is an emotional rollercoaster ride where you too have to confront his or her inner demons and come face-to-face with hidden waves of emotions—rage, jealousy, or hatred—that you never knew existed. It is difficult to stay sane if you are not objective.
Avoid being dragged into a co-dependent relationship where you can no longer remain logical and can’t see the half-truths and distorted versions of reality coming from your loved one, for what they are. Let a professional counsel your loved one. You should also seek professional help to resolve any co-dependency issue that you might have developed.
- Don’t drink yourself as a means to escape stress.
Living with an alcoholic can be immensely stressful for you.
An alcoholic spends money and upsets the domestic budget, and you have to worry about making ends meet. An alcoholic neglects his or her duties, and you feel compelled to forego your leisure to step in and take over. An alcoholic chooses alcohol over you and the relationship you share, and you wonder if it is the end of the road for both of you.
- Seek emotional support to help you get through the stress.
You have taken on the challenge of helping a loved one become sober. It was always going to be a stiff task. Don’t get bogged down by the stress and strain; seek emotional support from people who had been in the same place as you are now. If there is no one you know of, join a 12-step program, like Al-Anon, that is designed specifically for the friends and family members of alcoholics.
Having someone to confide in about what you are going through, a shoulder to cry on, and a sounding board to run your decisions by will take the load off your mind and lift the heaviness from your heart.
Caring enough to go through the anguish, anxiety, doubts, and turmoil of helping an alcoholic heal is the greatest help you can offer someone who is broken. The journey always starts with you. You have to be enlightened, empathetic, compassionate, and strong. You have to be a master strategist, astute planner, and thorough executioner. Of course, you cannot be a counselor or therapist to an alcoholic, but you have to pull off something equally challenging—getting him or her to seek professional help in the first place.
Kudos to you for choosing to care!