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October 27, 2018

How to Help an Alcoholic Friend

: two women with their arms around each other “Alcoholic” is a term used to describe someone suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD)— a medical and psychiatric condition defined by a compulsion and inability to control excessive drinking. In 2015, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that approximately 17 million adults over the age of 18 met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Excessive alcohol use in society virtually guarantees disruption of the family unit, dysfunction within friendships and other significant relationships, astronomical costs associated with the criminal justice system and health care industry, and crippling loss of productivity in the workplace. Approximately 10 percent of children live with a parent suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). Millions more struggle vicariously with the debilitating effects of the disease in marriages, friendships, business associations and other intimate relationships.  

Alcoholism is sometimes erroneously believed to be a “manageable” or even “pleasurable” exercise of free will for the alcoholic. In reality, millions of alcoholics despise their condition and secretly desire freedom from the imprisoning, brain-altering effects of the disease. Although high-functioning alcoholics may succeed socially and professionally despite their compulsion to drink, many deeply resent the toll it takes on their health, reputation and sanity. Many alcoholics fight a private war daily, secretly wishing they were free from their addiction, but afraid to reach out due to fear and shame. Aware that they are stigmatized by society and unjustly marginalized, they sweep reality under the rug and unrealistically hope for the best.   

In this article, you’ll learn how to help an alcoholic friend in their time of need.

CO-DEPENDENCE AND ALCOHOLISM

There is an undeniable link between co-dependence and alcoholism. Co-dependence describes an unhealthy dependence on another that does not respect proper relationship boundaries and encourages unhealthy behaviors. Many alcoholics are not only involved in codependent relationships—they unconsciously encourage them. In fact, financially and/or emotionally enabling a loved one or friend is one of the primary reasons why alcoholism thrives. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs are adamantly against co-dependence because it feeds addiction and inadvertently leads to relapse in early recovery.

Although every life has its own unique challenges and difficulties, those arising from alcohol abuse tend to be chronic in nature and only worsen with further physical and psychological deterioration. The chemically altered, impulse-driven brain of a full-blown alcoholic leads to impaired judgment and may include the following consequences:

  • Legal problems (DUI arrests, restraining orders, etc.)
  • Socially inappropriate behavior
  • Professional difficulties (firing, decreased productivity, etc.)
  • Strained relationships (friends, family, marital)
  • Dangerous impulsivity and lack of judgment
  • Chronic depression or other drink-induced mood disorders
  • Increasing isolation and physical deterioration
  • Suicidal ideation and other verbal warning signs

STAGING AN INTERVENTION

Especially in friendships, where relationship boundaries are more casual and less committal than in marital or family bonds, questions about when to speak up and voice concern can be confusing. As a general rule, once alcoholism has noticeably taken over a friend’s life—to the point where negative consequences are escalating—something must be done.

Frequently, failure to make progress by casually discussing a friend’s alcoholism requires a stronger, more direct approach. Denial is a known characteristic associated with alcoholism, as is avoidance, self-imposed isolation and a confrontational attitude when the topic is approached— even with the most helpful of intentions.

Many alcoholics are deeply ashamed of their problem and aware of the “alcoholic” stigma surrounding the otherwise socially popular and accepted drug. They may also experience mounting internal pressure to self-medicate and self-manage, reacting with hostility, aggression and disdain whenever confronted about their addiction. Timing becomes critical when bringing out the proverbial elephant in the room, with evidence-based studies showing greater results associated with a low-key, non-invasive approach involving an objective third party such as a doctor, counselor, or substance abuse therapist.

When broaching the delicate topic of alcoholism to a friend, remember the following points:

  • Communicate directly but kindly.
  • Make good eye contact and use non-violent language.
  • Choose an appropriate setting and timing.
  • Be compassionate and willing to listen.
  • Never act superior, temperamental or condescending.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

Once you have successfully approached the topic of a friend’s alcoholism, willingness to take action and show support is recommended. Fortunately, an abundance of help is available in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon, faith-based support groups, private therapists, doctors, and a wide range of substance abuse treatment facilities.

Even the most stubborn, well-defended alcoholic is capable of recognizing the positive intentions of a loyal friend as demonstrated through actions. Not only is an alcoholic friend more likely to respond favorably to an action-based, non-confrontational approach, but also more likely to love and respect you in the process. Sometimes simply offering physical and emotional support is far more effective than words could ever be.      

SEEKING HELP

Remember, there are a wide range of options available for the treatment of alcoholism. If you have a friend who is struggling with alcohol addiction, call an addiction professional today and begin the process of getting your friend the help they need in order to live a happy, functional life. Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disease and early intervention is absolutely critical to achieving optimal treatment outcomes.  

Now that you know more about what alcoholism is and how to help an alcoholic friend, you can feel confident as a support system in your friend’s life. Helping an alcoholic friend is never easy, but taking the time to educate yourself on their disease is the first step to helping them on their road to recovery.

For more information about alcohol addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:

Sources:

Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism. Adolescent Alcohol Use: Risks and Consequences. March, 2014.

BMC Public Health. Alcohol consumption in tertiary education students. July, 2011.

Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC). Alcohol Abuse and Cardiac Disease. Jan, 2017.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Contribution of Excessive Alcohol Consumption to Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost in the United States. June, 2014.

Alcohol Research Current Reviews (ARCR). The Risks Associated with Alcohol Use and Alcoholism. Vol 34, 2011.

Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences. Codependency of the Members of a Family of an Alcohol Addict. May, 2014.

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