How to Support an Alcoholic
Over millennia, alcohol has played a role in every group of our society. In America, that still holds true with more than 60% of American adults drinking at least four alcoholic drinks on a weekly basis. Despite the widely known ramifications of binge drinking and alcoholism, the consumption of alcohol remains an important facet of human society and interaction. This societal acceptance causes the lines between casual drinking and unsafe drinking to blur, making it all too easy for a social drinker to turn into an alcoholic.
Seeing a loved one, a coworker, or a friend with an alcohol use disorder can be extremely disheartening. You feel helpless watching their lives spiral as their jobs, relationships, and dreams crumble in the wake of their addiction. You might see them drowning in their habit and be left wondering what it is you can do to support them, to get them back on the right path, and whether that person will even want or accept the life buoy you throw their way.
If you find yourself at this tenuous crossroad, unsure how to act but terrified of the ramifications of inaction, it is essential that you know that you are not alone; most every adult has seen alcohol wreck the life of someone they care about. The alcoholic in your life needs to get help, they need to get clean, and in all likelihood, they will require your support to reach a place where these chains can be thrown off. While it has to be their decision to free themselves from their addiction, you can support them in their journey to sobriety. Below, we will discuss how to support an alcoholic friend or loved one during this difficult time.
Understand Alcohol Use Disorder
As mentioned, it may be hard to distinguish a social drinker who binge drinks and a person who is an alcoholic. From an outside perspective, it can be difficult noticing the signs a loved one is an alcoholic unless they are showing obvious behaviors right in front of you. Medically diagnosed as AUD (alcohol use disorder), alcoholics who satisfy the DSM-5 criteria will have a pattern of alcohol consumption that leads to mental health or physical issues.
Alcohol use disorder can be categorized as mild, moderate, and severe. These diagnoses are determined by the presence of the various symptoms we will discuss below.
- Mild: A person satisfies 2 to 3 symptoms.
- Moderate: A person satisfies 4 to 5 symptoms.
- Severe: A person satisfies 6 or more symptoms.
If you wish to know whether or not your loved one has AUD, ask yourself whether they satisfy any of the following questions:
- Do they regularly consume alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer period than originally intended or what they said they would?
- Do they say they want to cut down or stop drinking, but seem unable to curtail their alcohol use successfully?
- Do they spend a lot of time drinking? Or spend a lot of time doing activities to get their hands on alcohol? Are they often hungover?
- Do they crave alcohol, or do their cravings for alcohol take precedence over other things?
- Does drinking or being hungover from drinking often lead to a failure to uphold obligations, causing problems at school, work, or home?
- Do they keep drinking even though it causes issues in their love life or problems with friends and family?
- Have they stopped or cut back on attending social, work-related, or recreational activities that they once prioritized? Have they given up on hobbies that once mattered deeply in favor of alcohol consumption?
- Have they repeatedly gone drinking and then put themselves in situations that were dangerous such as driving, operating machinery, or engaging in unsafe sex?
- Do they keep drinking even though they have recurrent psychological or physical problems as a result? Do they keep drinking even if it makes them anxious, depressed, or causes them to blackout?
- Have they built a tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need far more drinks to achieve the same intoxication or are they unaffected by their heavy alcohol consumption?
- Do they experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they wake up from drinking, or if they haven’t had any alcohol for six-twelve hours?
Say No to Codependent Relationships
Most people who suffer from alcoholism do not relish the fact, even those that deny it. Some are high-functioning, while others have issues that are far more apparent. Regardless, it is difficult for any person dealing with AUD to admit that they have a problem, especially to the people close to them. Because you are an outside observer and can more objectively witness the destruction it’s causing to the person you care about, if you wish to support them, it is essential that you do not enable their alcohol addiction with a codependent relationship.
Someone within a codependent relationship requires their loved one’s approval and sacrifices their own emotional needs to attain that approval. If you are in a codependent relationship with an alcoholic, you may be more scared of rocking the boat and upsetting them instead of forcing them to confront their issues. Signs of a codependent amorous relationship include:
- Having trouble finding joy or fulfillment in life outside of making your partner happy.
- Seeing unhealthy habits in your partner, but not saying anything or doing anything regardless of the harm these behaviors cause.
- Providing emotional, physical or monetary support, bolstering their ability to continue making reckless decisions regardless of the toll on your emotional, physical, or mental health.
- Inability to be independent of your partner.
- Anxiety when you are unable to please your partner or give them what they want.
- Making excuses for their actions or addiction.
- Sacrificing other relationships or events in favor of your partner.
- Experiencing a seemingly nameless or faceless anxiety or feeling of exhaustion.
If you are in a codependent relationship with an alcoholic, they can drag you down with them, rather than you buoying them up, causing both of you to sink mentally and physically. By making excuses or refusing to confront your partner, you allow the wound to fester and the problem to worsen. Although many such people fear that confrontation means ending the relationship, in truth, it involves finding outside help to understand your own issues and inadequacies, and learning ways to support and encourage your alcoholic partner to get help.
Supporting an Alcoholic Through Intervention
Supporting a person does not simply mean approving and encouraging all their actions. In fact, one of the best ways you can support them is by confronting them and helping them see just how unhealthy their drinking habits are.
Most alcoholics will require an intervention in order to spur them down the road to recovery. While some people realize on their own that they need help, most are too focused on their habit to clearly see the damage their disorder is causing them and their loved ones. If done correctly, an intervention can help change their lives for the better.
Preparing to Support an Alcoholic Through Intervention
Because of the fundamental sensitivity underlying such a confrontation, interventions can be touchy issues that require a delicate hand. Often, the person being confronted can initially feel as if they are being attacked and will become defensive or angry. Because of this, it is critical that you thoroughly prepare and plan your intervention and stage it at a time when your loved one is not currently under the influence so that they can receive your message loud and clear.
It would be wise to consult with medical professionals or friends who have previously dealt with such issues. Research alcohol detox and treatment clinics such as Beach House Recovery, so if the intervention does go well, you have a plan for what to do next. After that, it is important to assemble your team of people who will be present at the intervention. Although it is not a requirement, it might be a good idea to hire an interventionist (a pastor or a trained medical professional) who can help guide the conversation and the intervention.
When choosing your group, keep it small and only with people who will help rather than exacerbate the problem. Your goal is not to start a fight, or dredge up old issues, rather, it is to support and encourage them to seek help. It is essential to keep the conversation as simple as possible and to focus on clear and recent negative events that arose from your loved one’s drinking. You want to avoid making them feel as if they are being attacked and instead focus on illustrating how their actions have negatively impacted you.
The “I” Message
One of the most effective methods of conveying these problems is by confronting the alcoholic’s actions by stating “I” messages. These messages keep the focus on the feelings or thoughts of the speaker instead of blaming the person being confronted. They manage to keep the gist of the conversation positive while still highlighting the issues at hand.
Examples of “I” message would be something like:
- “I feel as if your drinking habit has become more important than our relationship and has hurt your ability to excel at work.”
- “I feel like you treat me terribly when you drink and that you call me names or say things that are hurtful.”
- “I feel like you care more about alcohol than you do about the people who love you.”
- “I feel like if you continue down this road, I am going to lose you, or something bad is going to happen.”
Such methods are not meant to guilt trip the drinker, but to help them understand the destruction their drinking has caused and the path it could lead to. The goal is to guide them towards acknowledging they have a problem and need to get help.
If you want your intervention to be successful, keep in mind the following things:
- Stick to the script – It is crucial that you make a plan and stick to it. Plan a date and time for the intervention. Recruit a group and appoint a leader. Make notes of what everyone wants to say and do not go off script, but follow your outline and stick to your planned message.
- Remain calm – This can be a stressful and emotional conversation, it is critical that you avoid playing the blame game, or letting your emotions get away from you. Even if you feel angry or upset by something said or done, the greatest chance of success lies in remaining even-keeled and on message.
- Body language matters – Your delivery is just as critical as your message. If you are sending a message of love and encouragement, your body should mirror this. We naturally understand non-verbal communication, so make sure to do the following:
o Maintain eye contact
o Lean in and lean forward
o Keep your arms and legs at your sides and do not cross them
o Keep your hands relaxed
- Follow up – Sometimes it may take multiple interventions or a bit longer for the message of the first intervention to really set in. Even if it feels as if the intervention failed, keep showing them how much you love and care for them. Remain steady and continue to encourage them to confront their drinking issues.
For more tips on how to help an alcoholic friend, try asking for help from the professionals. Dealing with a friend who is addicted to alcohol is challenging and you don’t have to work on it alone. If you do convince your loved one to seek help, they will need your support more than ever. This process can be extremely uncomfortable and unsettling; they have to know that you will stand by them through alcohol detox and recovery. If they accept your help, do not wait, instead get the ball rolling as soon as possible. Help them prepare for this process and encourage them, even if they relapse.
Once rehab is over, the journey towards recovery can truly begin. You can support them by helping with the following things:
- Find a therapist
- Go to family addiction therapy together
- Offer to drive them to treatment or groups
- Get rid of alcohol in the house
- Plan with your loved one ways to help them avoid turning to alcohol
- Encourage them to pick up a hobby
- Make healthy meals
- Exercise together
- Create activities that help distract from cravings
- If you are in a relationship, go on date nights that do not require drinking
Because this battle can last a lifetime, it is crucial that you never give up on a person, especially when they are still in their early recovery process or going through their drug detox. While this may be taxing and emotionally draining, your support can make all the difference in the world. So, if someone you love is an alcoholic, do not wait around for something bad to happen; instead, chart a course of action and step in boldly in order to save them from themselves. To learn more about our inpatient alcohol rehab program, please call our addiction treatment center today.
- NIAAA, DSM-5 “A.U.D.”
- NIAAA, “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- NIAAA, “Alcohol Use Disorder.” https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders