How to Get an Alcoholic HelpAnna Ciulla
An “alcoholic” is a colloquial name for someone suffering from alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD), a medical and psychiatric condition defined by the compulsion to drink. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), approximately one in 12 adults suffer from alcohol addiction or abuse, a statistic that equates to 17 million Americans. Alcohol abuse is rampant primarily because of the intoxicating effect alcohol produces—especially short-term euphoria and numbness. In fact, the numbing, sedative effect alcohol creates in many drinkers is highly desired for its ability to anesthetize emotional pain, alleviate stress, and temporarily repress unhealed trauma.
ALCOHOL ABUSE VS ALCOHOLISM
Effectively helping an alcoholic requires knowledge of the condition and evidence-based interventions. Although sometimes erroneously considered the same condition, alcohol abuse is different than alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is defined as drinking behaviors that are problematic, but not physically addictive. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is defined as a physical addiction combined with the inability to stop drinking despite escalating social, personal, professional, and legal consequences. Alcoholism is not merely a troubling condition; it is a chronic, relapsing disease that requires professional intervention.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Observing a friend or family member with an AUD can be excruciating and trigger feelings of helplessness and despair. Like other drug-related disorders, AUD exists on a broad spectrum ranging from mild to severe; however, relatively mild, uncomplicated variations of the disorder can still quickly develop into more severe, complicated forms. Early intervention and aggressive treatment are critical in managing the disease and preventing potentially life-altering consequences. People struggling vicariously with the alcoholism of a friend, family member or partner must first determine whether or not their loved one is open to receiving help. In cases where someone is not receptive to the idea of receiving professional help, no amount of persuasion or pressure can instill that desire.
Alcoholism may elude detection in its early stages, or be visible only to those closest to the individual suffering from the disease. Alcoholism often flourishes in secrecy and is well concealed behind a variety of manipulative, avoidant or co-dependent behaviors. Objective indicators of an AUD may include:
- Socially inappropriate or irresponsible behavior
- Strained or broken relationships
- Mounting legal problems (DWIs, DUIs, reckless driving, assault etc.)
- Personal and professional difficulties
- Reckless behavior, dangerous impulsivity, and impaired judgment
- Obvious alcohol-induced mood disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.)
Another factor that must be considered when assessing a friend or family member’s level of alcohol abuse is the pervasive myth of functional alcoholism. This myth is driven by a false belief that there are people who, by virtue of their genetic predisposition or overall health, are able to consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis and not suffer the consequences. Not only is this narrative entirely false, but recent empirical research has shattered the outdated belief that mild to moderate alcohol assumption is actually good for one’s health. In reality, no amount of alcohol consumption is either healthy or safe. Functional alcoholics may appear normal, and some may even be legitimately successful in their professions. For example, many functional alcoholics may display outward signs of success such as long-lasting marriages, healthy children, and financial affluence, but still, suffer from a crippling lack of self-control.
THE DANGERS OF CODEPENDENCE
Regardless of what stage of alcoholism a person may be experiencing, it is frequently difficult for an alcoholic to admit that they have a problem. In many alcoholics, this reality is made worse by the codependent behaviors unconsciously displayed in their intimate relationships and social circle. Not surprisingly, the financial, emotional, or physical codependence of a family member, partner or friend toward an alcoholic is destructive and frequently a contributing factor in the development of the disease.
People struggling with codependent behaviors or tendencies are more likely to justify or excuse the dysfunction associated with alcoholism. This may include loaning them money, bailing them out of jail, intervening in personal or professional consequences or, worst of all, providing them with access to more alcohol. In many co-dependents, their single greatest fear in in seeing the relationship end. If you are in a codependent relationship with an alcoholic, one of the first steps required in order to get them the help they need is seeing a therapist who can address the toxic behaviors that are contributing to their downfall.
STAGES OF INTERVENTION
Approaching the subject of alcoholism with a friend or family member can be exceptionally difficult. Two widely accepted rules have been shown to help significantly when broaching the subject:
- Always keep the conversation simple and direct
- Always tell the truth
Keeping it simple might mean focusing on the latest problem (or problems) that occurred as a result of your friend, family member or partner’s excessive drinking. For example, you may choose to mention a person’s loud, obnoxious and disruptive behavior during a recent wedding or birthday celebration and how this behavior negatively impacted the event and/or affected general public opinion. Telling the truth in a kind but direct manner is not merely intended to recap the event— but to underscore the emotional impact of their behavior and identify the increasing problems associated with their alcoholism. Unlike codependent behaviors such as sidestepping the issue, candy-coating the underlying concerns, or downplaying the significance of the problem, telling the truth in a simple yet direct manner is a far more effective approach.
When implementing a plan to help an alcoholic, the following steps should be considered:
- Step one – The first step involves learning as much as possible about the disease of alcoholism. A wealth of publicly available resources currently exist that make self-education easier than ever, including online resources, local support groups, and government-funded agencies. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon, and the NIAAA are all prime examples of popular educational support systems.
- Step two – Always monitor your language and tone when delivering observations and advice related to the subject of a loved one’s alcoholism. Use non-violent communication, positive and supportive statements, and avoid harsh or aggressive language or even non-verbal cues. For example, instead of using the defense-provoking and accusatory “you” statements— use “I” statements. Instead of bluntly saying, “You have a serious problem,” you might say, “I love you very much and am very concerned about your drinking.”
- Step three – Always choose an appropriate time and setting, one in which you will be guaranteed privacy and no interruptions. During this time, it crucial that the person you are addressing be sober and not preoccupied with additional stressors or concerns.
- Step four – Always offer your unconditional, undivided support. Although no one is capable of making another take action against their will, the reassurance of unconditional support when they decide to seek help is a major advantage and may be a critical factor in their decision to seek professional treatment.
In cases where an initial, casual intervention proves unsuccessful, additional steps including hiring a professional interventionist may offer a viable solution. Such professionals are trained in a variety of clinical and linguistic techniques designed to help smoothly and effectively reach even the most stubborn of clients and offer hope in even the most challenging situations. Many interventionists are reasonably priced, and some offer specialization in various subtypes of alcoholism or with certain vulnerable populations. Another effective option when staging an initial intervention involves having a trusted third party present during the discussion. A mutual friend or family member may help provide a necessary buffer to the otherwise intense occasion and reduce the likelihood of volatile or hostile reactions.
SUPPORT DURING TREATMENT
Alcoholism requires professional detox and treatment in order for optimal treatment outcomes to be achieved. In cases of moderate to severe alcoholism, inpatient detox and subsequent residential treatment are considered important stages in long-term recovery. Although detox is usually a short-term process that lasts approximately one week, inpatient treatment usually lasts between 30 and 90 days and includes a combination of round-the-clock clinical supervision and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) designed to help stabilize individuals adjusting to newfound sobriety.
In many cases, the decision to attend detox and residential treatment is a cumulative process that unfolds in multiples stages. After staging an initial intervention, family members and friends can help support their loved one who is battling alcoholism in the following ways, even if they are not yet ready to enroll in detox and inpatient treatment:
- Work with a therapist or trained addiction professional
- Attend alcoholic support groups or family therapy sessions together
- Offer transportation to and from support services
- Help implement a healthy diet and exercise plan
- Rid the house or living situation of access to alcohol
A LIFELONG JOURNEY
The road to recovery from alcoholism is ongoing and fraught with difficulty. Even after successful completion of detox and a residential treatment program, environmental triggers, life stressors, unresolved trauma, and co-occurring mental health disorders or medical conditions can easily trigger a relapse. For this reason, alcoholism is best treated using a multi-pronged approach that includes the vigorous support of family and friends as well as the following:
- Continual AA involvement and support
- An ongoing relationship with a sponsor
- Modified dietary and lifestyle choices
- Positive, self-esteem building hobbies and interests
- Community involvement and spiritual purpose
- Strategic avoidance of social and environmental triggers
If you or someone you love is suffering from alcoholism or showing warning signs, contact a substance abuse professional today. No matter how hopeless the situation may appear to be, there is always hope for a better tomorrow based upon the actions taken today.
For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “How Untreated Drug or Alcohol Addiction Affects Other Health Issues”
- “How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?”
- “Prenatal Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse”
- “5 Signs Your Loved One Is Masking a Drinking Problem”
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