The media is full of reports on how alcohol harms health and wrecks lives and potential. You read such stories every day. Unfortunately, these articles are “hitting too close to home,” because 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 witnessing 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. At AddictionResource, we understand this dilemma, which is why we’re publishing this article full of tips on how to help an alcoholic, especially one who doesn’t accept that he or she needs help.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction alcoholism statistics, more than 16 million American adults have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). But this particular article is not about them, or for them. This article is about and for YOU – the parent, the partner, the sibling, the adult child, or the friend of one of these millions of people who have an alcohol use disorder or are alcoholics. It contains some time-tested strategies for how to help someone with a drinking problem.
The 20 tips we pass along in this short How To Help Someone Stop Drinking Guide are not aimed at professional counselors or therapists, although these people can learn from them, too. Instead, these tips are aimed at YOU, an everyday person who is trying to help an alcoholic friend, or figure out how to help an alcoholic spouse, and thus provide help for alcoholics who don’t want help.
Discourage Drinking Behavior
This first set of tips should a “no-brainer,” but often isn’t. One of the biggest challenges of how to get someone to stop drinking is curtailing your OWN activities that subtly encourage that person to keep drinking.
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 unwittingly creates opportunities so that a loved one can indulge in their addiction. Of course, their intention is not to fuel the addictive tendencies, but many people don’t realize that their seemingly harmless actions can backfire.
So to start, here’s a guide on what NOT to do to help an alcoholic:
DON’T cover up for them
When you cover up or make excuses for an alcoholic’s behavior, you unknowingly give them the idea that you approve of what they’re doing, or “have their back” when it comes to their unacceptable habits and actions. Besides, covering up is often an indication that you are probably in denial yourself about your loved one’s alcoholism.
DON’T bail them out from jail
There are countless examples of an addict deciding to seek help in quitting 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 out. Let them realize how alcohol has taken over their lives and the hazards of the slippery slope they are hurtling down. This can be one of the hardest parts of how to help alcoholic friends or family, but it’s an essential one.
DON’T take over their responsibilities
When you take over an alcoholic’s responsibilities, you give them permission to pursue their addiction. They get the idea that you approve of their habits and that it is okay to carry on as they currently are. Don’t shield an alcoholic from the consequences of not carrying out his or her work, school, or family duties. Let them face the music, so they realize how alcohol is damaging their lives and relationships.
DON’T 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 will stoop to lying to obtain funds from you. They will invent lies like having to pay the rent (while probably spending their nights in bars and their days sleeping on park benches) or to buy groceries (when in reality they couldn’t care less 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 or recovery facility and needs funds to undergo some treatment.
DON’T take part in drinking sessions with an alcoholic friend or family member
Probably the number one tip on how to get an alcoholic to stop drinking is DON’T GO OUT DRINKING WITH THEM. When you take part in these drinking sessions, you encourage his or her habit. It doesn’t matter if you drink just a tiny bit of alcohol or even a Coca-Cola. An alcoholic will interpret your very participation in the drinking session as an endorsement of his or her addiction, a message that it’s OK.
Start With Your Own Mindset
Someone who has an alcohol use disorder is most likely to be in a denial mode. You won’t easily 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 doesn’t really care about how he or she “should be” living and functioning. He or she just live from one drink to another.
This leaves just YOU to save a life.
How to make someone stop drinking? YOU are the only person who can make your child, partner, friend, parent, or sibling realize how they are destroying their lives.
How to support an alcoholic? 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. So 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 who abuses alcohol, the more you can empathize with your loved one and understand what he or she is going through.
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 contrary, displaying compassion and understanding can encourage an alcoholic to 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 can 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 want to 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 she realizes 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 system 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. If you are trying to help an alcoholic husband, don’t accuse him or her of being selfish. Same if you are trying to help an alcoholic wife, sibling, or adult child. 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. 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. If you are trying to help an alcoholic family member, 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 those effects 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 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 instead leave them to their own devices. A good rule of thumb is “Listen to what they say, but watch what they DO.” Make sure that you follow up and are prepared to confront them once more if they don’t stick to their promises.
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 will have constructed rational-sounding reasons why they think you are over-reacting.
Also, remember that an alcoholic is someone who is physically dependent on alcohol; he or she has to drink to relax, to steady the nerves, and to feel that life is under control. For alcoholics, quitting alcohol means losing a companion or a refuge, not to mention having to go through a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that can make their lives feel like they are living in hell. It is no wonder that most alcoholics react aggressively at the mere suggestion that they stop drinking.
Be calm. Remember what you are doing – trying to help someone with an alcohol problem. 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. If that happens, you may never be able to broach the subject with them again. Besides, if you are calm, the person in front of you may eventually calm down himself or herself, and then you will 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 factors that can be as diverse and incomprehensible to you as how their day went or when he or she had their 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.
Take Care Of Yourself
As astounding as it sounds, this is something that most people don’t pay attention to, and it can end up ruining their lives. How can you help someone else if you are yourself broken and your life is in shambles?
The following 4 tips are even more important if you are trying to help an alcoholic family member. 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 the 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 helping a loved one overcome alcohol addiction; you HAVE to quit if the situation turns violent. Alcohol depresses inhibitions and clouds the senses, so 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 harmed) 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. This is NOT one of the ways to help an alcoholic.
Counseling an alcoholic is an emotional rollercoaster ride where you too have to confront the loved one’s 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 in which 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. If you sense this happening, back off and 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 the stress
Living with an alcoholic can be immensely stressful for you. Again, it may seem like a “no-brainer,” but one of the ways NOT to stop someone from drinking is to succumb to pressure and start drinking yourself.
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 own 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.
The stress can get to anyone, but DON’T drink to escape your woes. Find a healthy way to cope. Remember, you have to be strong yourself to help the person you love heal.
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.
Often one of the best answers to the question of “How do you help an alcoholic? Is to get some help yourself. If there is no one you know personally to help, join a 12-step program such as Al-Anon, one that is designed specifically to help 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 a load off your mind and lift some of 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 professional counselor or therapist to an alcoholic yourself, 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!