The Secrets to Helping An Alcoholic Family Member or Friend
The internet provides a variety of resources for those seeking help for a loved one with drinking problems. As I was researching this article, it became apparent that a lot of people, though well-intentioned, offered poor advice. Some even said, "You can't help an alcoholic." This is simply not true. The 13 tips below represent advice culled from top authorities on alcoholism and effective strategies I've employed in my own experience in working with alcohol abusers.
1. You cannot save the alcoholic.
This is the predominant characteristic I see that drives most family and friends of an alcoholic. The disease of active alcoholism isn’t rational. You can’t reason with it. You can’t change it.
As painful as it is, you must recognize that an alcoholic will use the love you have against you. Problem drinkers are master manipulators, often seizing on the benevolence of others for their own gain.
When it comes to dealing with alcoholism, the appropriate actions to take are often counterintuitive. For example, when a loved one phones you from jail, asking for bail money, your love for him/her encourages you to provide the funds. Perhaps you’ve seen TV shows on jail, and the idea of a loved one exposed to that environment horrifies you.
Truth is, by bailing the alcoholic out of these problem scenarios, you pad the consequences of their drinking. “Padded consequences” prevents alcoholics from experiencing the genuine effects of problem drinking.
It isn’t easy to admit an inability to help a troubled loved one. It’s even harder to confess to yourself that in the face of alcoholism’s debilitating presence, your best efforts to battle it are inadequate.
2. Empower yourself. Get equipped with the tools you need to safeguard against the fallout of alcoholism. Attend open meetings of Al-Anon Family Groups.
Without question, the most peculiar aspect of alcoholism is its contagious nature. The disease actually spreads to those close to the drinker. It causes anger, frustration, disappointment, doubt, denial, codependency and dishonesty. The list could go on ad infinitum.
In some cases, family and friends begin to interact with the alcoholic in the same way the alcoholic interacts with booze. They use their beloved problem drinker to feel different.
It is vital to seek support and arm yourself with tools, especially if someone close to you suffers from the disease. Al-Anon Family Groups are a great place to start.
The organization, founded by Lois Wilson, wife of Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson, offers a refuge for those who have been impacted by chronic drinkers. Lisa Komisar, Family Director at Discovery Place, recommends going to six Al-Anon meetings (in different locations/times) before you decide whether it is for you.
There are other resources online, but misinformation exists. Make sure the articles you read are from reputable sources and bear consistent themes.
3. Do not, under any circumstance short of life-threatening scenarios (primarily hospital stay for serious illness) give or lend money to an alcoholic. This is commonly referred to as “enabling.”
This rule comes back to padded consequences. In virtually every case of active alcoholism, at least one family member or friend continues to provide financial support.
Money for rent so they aren’t evicted? Money for a car payment so they don’t face repossession? Alcoholics conjure all sorts of situations that require immediate cash and play on your affection for them.
Truth be told, most of the money will be spent on booze or drugs. Sometimes the circumstances are genuine. But even in these cases, the events that led to dire financial straits arose from alcohol abuse. The majority of alcoholics will not sober up, or consider getting sober, unless faced with serious life consequences.
By providing money or other financial assistance, even bail money or child support, you prevent alcohol abusers from hitting a genuine bottom.
In my opinion, there are only two situations when you should lend money to an alcoholic – a hospital stay for serious illness or their rehabilitation at a reputable treatment center.
4. Talk with your loved one or friend about your concerns in a private, quiet setting. Let them know how you feel.
Many boozehounds revert to denial in an atmosphere that addresses their drinking. It is almost guaranteed that they will offer a variety of excuses or reasons why alcohol isn’t a problem.
On one hand, they’re right. Chronic drinking manifests as a result of internal, emotional issues. Alcoholics drink to soothe their tumultuous internal temperament.
But excessive intake of beer, wine or liquor ends up amplifying the problem. Depression swells (alcohol is a depressant) and life problems multiply exponentially (DUIs, broken relationships, job losses, incarceration and financial difficulty).
The best advice I can offer for approaching an active alcoholic is to be as genuine as possible, remain calm even if he/she “pushes your buttons” and share some of your own issues. Let them know how you address your own problems in healthy ways and the problem drinker you care.
5. Talk to other family members or friends. Share this article with them. Encourage them to practice the suggestions stated here.
One of the critical components of my job, and often the most difficult, is to gather family and friends of an active alcoholic together under a common ideal – to stop enabling.
Even if you aren’t enabling, there’s an excellent chance other friends or family members are. The most effective tactic employed to bring about sobriety in an alcoholic is to remove the enabling factor. Get all of his/her family and friends together for a discussion. Bring literature you’ve found helpful. Have an open discussion and try to set some strong boundaries.
The uneducated might frown upon this as unnecessary meddling in the affairs of another. It’s not. It is, perhaps, the greatest gift short of providing financial support for treatment that you can give an alcoholic.
If this method fails, or to try an indirect approach, leave recovery/sober related materials and/or literature where you know he/she will see it.
Some people are hesitant to confront a loved one about a drinking problem. This is understandable, as the nature of active alcoholism is irrational. Try leaving pamphlets or printed articles in an area you know they’ll see it, like a bedroom or bathroom.
Alcoholics Anonymous generously prints a wealth of brochures on topics that might hit home with an alcohol abuser. Doctor’s offices usually keep some available too. This literature can also assist in your education on the disease.
6. If drinking escalates to a point of authentic concern for his/her life, and the problem drinker remains resistant to treatment, engage the services of a qualified interventionist.
A predominant misconception, even among the sober, is that someone has to want to get help (treatment/rehab) for the help to work. Not true.
I used to drink and drug heavily with a guy named Adam. One day, Adam simply vanished. Word on the street was that he went to rehab. Sick as I was at the time, I felt sorry for him. Little did I know, I’d be the next to go amongst my merry band of alcoholic/drug addicted “friends.”
It wasn’t until I got sober that Adam told me his family employed an interventionist to confront him about his alcohol and drug problems. Adam has been sober for going on 4 years now.
I didn’t make the decision to commit myself to a program of recovery until 2 months into treatment. A siege on the wall of denial takes time to successfully collapse it. Some walls are built sturdier and thicker than others. An intervention fires the first shot.
7. Offer to take your loved one to sober meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.
Some people doubt the efficacy of 12 step meetings. But there’s a reason they’ve been around so long. To the doubters, I encourage them to walk into an open 12 step meeting and see all the sober alcoholics stay clean through the 12 steps.
Most studies conducted by highly qualified researchers demonstrate, unequivocally, the effectiveness of 12 step programs. They also provide the opportunity for a newcomer to replace an undoubtedly unhealthy network of drinking buddies with a group of authentic, recovering friends.
If your loved one prefers a scientific approach to sobriety, see if SMART Recovery offers meetings in the area. You are free to assist by proposing to go with him/her. Sometimes this can help ease the fears associated with taking the first step towards sobriety.
8. Don’t blame yourself for the alcoholic’s drinking or problems.
Many family members, particularly parents and siblings, entertain or believe they are, in some form or fashion, responsible for an alcoholic’s condition.
This is one example where a family/friend gathering to address, discuss and educated one another on the alcoholic condition yields fruit. It’s critical for family and friends to understand that they are not to blame for bringing on an alcoholic condition.
A variety of factor’s influence whether an individual becomes an alcoholic. The most important is genetics. Recently, I attended a seminar by a top alcoholism and addiction researcher who stated that it wouldn’t be long until science isolated the specific allele (gene) for alcoholism and drug addiction.
9. Don’t listen to what an alcoholic says. Don’t buy into “promises.” Watch what he or she does.
As stated earlier, alcohol abusers are master manipulators. We carry a poor record of honoring our word. We broke many promises and disregarded society’s moral norms. We talk a good game, but rarely back it up.
Watch what we do, not what we say. Watch our actions, deafen to our words.
If your loved one wants help, make sure he/she doesn’t stop drinking abruptly. Have a consultation with a physician to determine if alcohol detox is necessary.
Alcohol withdrawals, which occur shortly after cessation of drinking (as early as 2 hours), can be fatal. Most of the time, however, grand mal seizures are the worst that can happen. Ask your loved one if they ever shake when they don’t drink. Shaking is a serious sign of alcoholic withdrawal.
10. Love your alcoholic loved one from a distance.
Aside from the suggestions above, it’s best to keep healthy distance from an active alcoholic. Consistent exposure to the disease of alcoholism brings family and friends for a ride on an emotional rollercoaster. Don’t go to that theme park without a willingness to carry tough love to the ticket counter.
11. Don’t get up on a soapbox when talking to an alcoholic.
When working with an alcoholic, one of the worst strategies employed is taking the moral high ground. Do not “preach” to a problem drinker. They know right from wrong. If this knowledge was beneficial, it would have produced results long ago.
It’s best to avoid telling them what they should and shouldn’t do.
12. Make sure to take care of yourself.
Dealing with a loved one in active alcoholism is mentally exhausting. Take time for yourself. This is where Al-Anon meetings and/or therapists offer immeasurable relief.
13. If all else fails, reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous for a “12th step” call.
A 12th step call involves sober members of the recovery community meeting with your loved one to share “experience, strength and hope.” At least two recovering alcoholics (never less than two) talk about their own struggles with the disease and share their own story in the hopes your loved identifies.
12th step calls are always free. To find out more, call your local central office. Simply Google the following term “Alcoholics Anonymous + your city.” Find the number for central office, call and ask for assistance in coordinating a 12th step call. You can also visit the official Alcoholics Anonymous website to find open meetings in your local area. These meetings will have members who can help coordinate a 12th step call.