How to Support an Alcoholic in Recovery
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are as much a family disease as an individual struggle and coping with alcoholism in the family can be extremely difficult for everyone involved. Those who suffer from a drinking problem are often mothers, fathers, children, siblings or spouses, and the consequences of their addiction inevitably affect other immediate family members. This demographic of the United States is also very large, according to the statistics
- One in four Americans has been exposed to family alcohol abuse by the age of 18.
- More than 10 percent of U.S. children currently live with a parent with a drinking problem.
- As recently as the year 2014, as many as 679,000 teens (children between the ages of 12 and 17) required treatment for an alcohol use disorder. This also suggests that another significant proportion of America’s teens suffered from alcohol abuse that went untreated. The great majority of these teens with an alcohol use disorder have parents and siblings who inevitably are also affected.
Naturally, the closest bystanders to an alcohol addiction are also the most vulnerable to its fallout. They, too, have developed unhealthy coping patterns and ways of relating that do not immediately leave the scene once alcohol has. On the contrary, living with and knowing how to help a recovering alcoholic comes with its own unique challenges, the mastery of which can be a lifelong process. And if 10 percent of Americans say they’re in recovery from drugs and alcohol, that suggests that an even greater number currently live with someone in recovery and are facing these very issues. The fact of the matter is that it can be difficult to know how to support an alcoholic in recovery.
Thankfully, the following tips for how to live with an alcoholic in recovery can help:
1. Be prepared to face the painful emotions that alcohol once dulled (and that you and your loved one aren’t equipped to handle quite yet).
Recovering alcoholics often have much to be angry about. For example, early childhood trauma, which occurs at significantly higher rates among alcoholics, is a commonly occurring root of their addiction. And if the bottle once offered a quick, easy escape from the feelings attached to painful memories, chances are that in the absence of the bottle these same emotions will now rush to the fore with greater intensity.
You don’t have to enable these flare-ups or apologize or take responsibility for them. Do your best to listen to your loved one and to acknowledge their feelings. At the very least, brace yourself for the probability your loved one will be riding an emotional roller coaster. Remind yourself that fits of anger ultimately aren’t about you and are not your fault.
2. Hone your listening and communication skills.
An intensive family therapy workshop can help you improve your family’s listening and communication skills. Learning how to listen to a recovering alcoholic without trying to fix or lecture them will help you acclimate to your new family life post-rehab. So will knowing how to express your own needs and feelings, which gives your loved one permission to do the same. Often family members feel afraid to express their feelings for various reasons. They also may find it hard to listen to one another for some of the same reasons. (The overriding fear is that a loved one will return to the bottle and to the same toxic cycle of addiction that affects everyone.) Better communication helps to bridge the distance created by an active addiction. That stronger intimacy and connection is a proven buffer against relapse.
3. Focus on your own recovery by connecting to resources that can help.
When you’re living with a recovering alcoholic, your own recovery is equally critical. It may be tempting to get wrapped up in the post-rehab needs of your loved one, but your best path in recovery is the one that only you can take. Often that means coming to terms with codependency and other dysfunctional forms of relating to an alcoholic, by participating in a support group that challenges you to choose healthier forms of relating to your loved one.
Below are some of the many recovery group options available to families of alcoholics:
- Al-Anon: A 12-Step program for family and friends of alcoholics.
- Adult Children of Alcoholics: A 12-Step group for adults who grew up in an alcoholic household and experienced related trauma and abuse.
- Families Anonymous: A 12-step program for family and friends of those afflicted by substance abuse and/or behavioral addictions.
- SMART Recovery Family and Friends: A support program for family and friends of alcoholics, drug addicts and other related addictions.
4. Cut down on stress by living a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
As it is, adjusting to life with a recovering alcoholic can be stressful, so eliminating any unnecessary stressors is critical. Extra duties or responsibilities that interfere with the recovery process can go for now. Healthy sleep hygiene, a nutritious diet, and regular cardiovascular exercise can help to reduce stress levels. So can a daily practice of “mindful meditation,” according to multiple studies cited by researchers at Harvard Medical School. The practice involves focusing on one’s breath and bringing to one’s attention the present moment, while letting other distracting thoughts about the past or future simply float by.
5. Pay attention to potential warning signs of relapse—and don’t hesitate to get help as soon as you suspect a return to alcohol abuse.
Alcohol relapse can happen—and while you cannot blame yourself for a recovering alcoholic’s return to the bottle, you can be mindful of potential warning signs. In these cases, the sooner you ask for help, the better your loved one’s chances of rebounding from relapse.
The following signs may be indications of relapse:
- Sudden changes in mood and behavior
- A loss of interest in hobbies or passions
- Romanticized recollections of alcohol use
- Hanging out again with old drinking buddies
With these five tools under your belt, you’ll be better prepared for living with a recovering alcoholic.