Help for Families of Addicts: How to Help an Alcoholic
Approximately 16 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder, meaning there is a strong likelihood that someone you love may be struggling with this problem. Signs of alcoholism can become even more apparent over the holidays, when your loved one may exhibit strange behavior or unhealthy habits like mixing alcohol with caffeine, allowing them to heavily binge drink without passing out. You’ll want to know how to help an alcoholic seek treatment. Help for families of addicts who are already in treatment is also necessary, so you can understand how best to support your loved one’s recovery. This article can provide you with the information and advice you need.
How to Be Supportive of Someone Battling Addiction
There is no single secret for how to help an alcoholic stop or cut back on their drinking, but there is solid advice that can offer help for families of addicts. Problem drinking is a family disease that everyone takes part in some way or another. It’s important to make sure that the role you play is a positive one.
1. Educate yourself about alcoholism.
The more you understand about what it means to have an alcohol use disorder, the better equipped you’ll be to support your loved one in overcoming their addiction.
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To officially diagnose someone with an alcohol use disorder, they need to meet at least two of the eleven DSM-5 criteria during the same 12-month span. The more criteria they meet, the greater the severity of the disorder. Ask yourself if your loved one, in the past year, has:
- Wound up drinking more or longer than they meant to?
- Wanted to stop or reduce drinking more than once, or tried to quit and failed?
- Spent a great deal of time drinking or getting over the aftereffects of drinking?
- Experienced a strong urge or compulsion to drink?
- Had difficulty meeting responsibilities such as taking care of family or performing at work or school due to drinking or getting sick after drinking?
- Continued drinking despite knowing it has caused trouble with loved ones?
- Reduced or gave up activities they once valued or enjoyed to drink?
- More than once took part in risky activities while drunk, such as driving, having unsafe sex, breaking the law, using machinery, swimming, or otherwise putting themselves in danger?
- Continued to drink despite experiencing blackouts, or despite experiencing anxiety, depression, or any other mental or physical health problem that was caused or exacerbated by alcohol?
- Developed an alcohol tolerance—i.e., being able to drink a lot without feeling intoxicated, or having to drink more than before to get drunk?
- Suffered withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, sweating, depression, anxiety, shakiness, trouble sleeping, irritability, or sensing things that aren’t there when the effects or alcohol were wearing off?
Remember, just two of these symptoms in the past year indicated a mild alcohol use disorder. The more symptoms that are present, the more imperative it is that your loved one seek professional treatment. Don’t wait for things to reach a crisis point to speak up. It’s a myth that an alcoholic must “hit bottom” before they can recover from addiction.
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2. Speak up boldly, but with love and concern.
Do your best to speak with conviction when you try to help an alcoholic, but make it clear that you are speaking out of worry and affection. Also express your willingness to go with them to get help. Bring up specific examples of concerning behaviors or negative consequences—presenting evidence will make it harder for the alcoholic to deny they have a problem, while speaking in general terms makes you much easier to dismiss. Show them that you are motivated out of love.
3. Don’t believe that your loved one can conquer addiction on their own.
You or your loved one might want to believe that their drinking problem can be fixed without professional help, but this almost never works. They’ve probably already made and broken promises when it comes to their drinking before. An addiction treatment program will provide the structure, education, counseling, and professional support necessary to achieve a real recovery. In addition, it can be dangerous for heavy or long-term drinkers to quit alcohol without help; a professional alcohol detox will protect them from potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and health complications.
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4. Understand that recovery, and therefore supporting a loved one’s recovery, is an ongoing process.
Recovery isn’t a quick fix cure that can be taken care of, then forgotten. Getting over addiction requires ongoing counseling sessions, support group meetings, medical care and other forms of addiction treatment, many of which the person in recovery will need to continue for years to come to ensure their sobriety. Recovery support groups are useful tools for long-term success, and attending these meeting with your loved one can be a great way to encourage their efforts. You may want to do this as a way of initially pushing them towards treatment, and/or later on in their recovery, to show your continued support. You should also consider taking part in family therapy, couples therapy, or other forms of joint counseling. This kind of therapy can work on healing damaged relationships and improving communication skills, while also teaching you ways you can make your home and your own behavior more conducive to a successful recovery.
5. Recognize that you can’t “save” someone from their alcoholism.
You can try to help your loved one seek treatment, and you can support and encourage them during treatment, but you cannot save them from their problem. Ultimately, getting well is their own responsibility.
What Not to Do When You’re Trying to Help an Alcoholic
Sometimes the best help for families of addicts comes in the form of advice about things you shouldn’t do.
1. Don’t try to talk about addiction treatment while your loved one is drunk.
Not only will intoxication make your loved one’s thinking less logical, it will also make them more likely to react with anger or defensiveness. You also run the risk of them not retaining the information. Talking to them when they are sober but hungover, or facing consequences related to their drinking problem can sometimes be helpful because they may be more receptive due to the remorse they feel.
2. Don’t be judgmental, preachy, or hostile.
You don’t want to make your loved one feel persecuted, criticized, or attacked. Make sure to express yourself without blaming or accusing, and without playing the victim. Just calmly present your feelings and the facts. If you’re worried about getting overemotional, write down your thoughts beforehand, and practice them out loud in private if this will give you more confidence—just don’t recite a long speech without giving your loved one a chance to talk. This should be a conversation, not a lecture.
3. Don’t enable them.
This one is probably the most important don’t on the list. Enabling an addict means behaving in ways that, unintentionally or not, support your loved one’s continued drinking. Stop making excuses for their behavior, covering it up, or lying on their behalf. If they’ve said or done something they shouldn’t have while drunk, let them deal with the fallout. Don’t encourage their drinking or tacitly approve by drinking with them. Don’t financially contribute to the addiction by giving them money, paying their bills, or bailing them out. And don’t absolve them of responsibility by blaming yourself for their problem. While you may play a role in the continued addiction (by enabling, for example), you did not create the problem, and it is not your job to “fix” it.
Although it can feel right to care for your loved one by taking over their neglected responsibilities or cleaning up the messes they made while drunk, the best way to help is to allow them to face the consequences of their alcoholism. While you should always step in during a situation with imminent danger, such as your loved one attempting to drive while intoxicated, take a step back at other times, by doing things such as letting them wake up passed out on the front porch, instead of helping them inside and tucking them in.
Allowing your loved one to experience the impact drinking has on their life allows them to learn and recognize the need for change. It also helps them shift from a dependent state of being, to a state where they can take charge of their mental and physical health.
How to Help Someone Who is in Denial
Denial is very common among alcoholics—after all, there’s no reason to stop drinking if you don’t have a problem. Denial also protects your addicted loved one from having to recognize the mistakes they’ve made and face up to their weaknesses.
This is why you must approach them carefully, with thoughtfulness, calm, and affection, using the above advice on how to help an alcoholic. You should also understand that you may not get through to your loved one the first time you try, but every time you make an attempt, you are planting an idea that may grow inside them until they are ready to accept it.
If you’re loved one’s problem is severe and their need urgent, or if you have tried multiple times to break through without success, you may want to hold a formal intervention. Gather together a group of friends and family who love the alcoholic, and who can be trusted to stay calm and speak out of love instead of hostility. Plan the time, place, and how it will proceed carefully, meeting with the others to make sure you are all on the same page. You may want to have a therapist, counselor, or doctor who specializes in interventions advise you on how to proceed, or even guide you through the process from beginning to end.
Whether you speak to you the alcoholic one on one, or in a group through a formal intervention, it is important to be prepared to present practical solutions in case you have a breakthrough and your loved one admits they have a problem and that they want to get help. Research treatment options by contacting your loved one’s insurance company for a list of preferred providers, by calling an addiction treatment hotline, or by utilizing government resources that can connect you to low or no cost alcohol detox and treatment options. Make sure there is a practical next step for your loved one to take as soon as they are ready.
Alcohol detox is the crucial first step for anyone’s recovery journey.
You want to know that your loved one has professional medical and psychological assistance they need to get them safely through alcohol detox and onto the path towards a better life.
Remember That You Deserve Help Too
It can be easy to get so wrapped up in your loved one’s alcoholism that you start neglecting your own needs. You need to be strong to effectively support your loved one’s addiction recovery, and to be strong, you must take care of yourself. Sometimes this will mean showing your love and concern from a distance instead of always feeling like this is a battle you have to fight alongside them. Understand that while you can help, this is their war to win.
Speaking one on one with your own counselor may be useful. It can help you identify and avoid enabling behaviors, and you can work through your own issues and trauma that may or may not be related to your loved one’s excessive alcohol problem.
Support groups for the families of addicts, such as Al-Anon, are a wonderful resource. They can connect you to other families coping with similar issues so that you remember you aren’t alone, while also offering insight and advice from people who’ve been where you are now. It can also help replenish your drained mental and emotional reserves, and provide you with much needed encouragement.
We can help you find the right alcohol detox program for your loved one; call 800-483-2193 today!