The Most Important Things You Can Do To Help an Alcoholic
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The Most Important Things You Can Do To Help an Alcoholic

What Is Alcoholism?

It can be hard to watch a family member, friend, or coworker struggle with alcoholism. You might wonder what you can do to change the situation, and whether the person even wants your help.

Before you do anything, it’s important to know whether your friend or loved one truly has an alcohol problem. Alcoholism is more than just drinking too much from time to time. It is a debilitating, physical dependence on alcohol. Alcoholics may deny that a problem even exists. They may continue to drink when all aspects of professional and social relationships are affected. Yet therapy and other treatments can be very effective at helping people develop coping skills and strategies to maintain sobriety.

If you’re ready and committed to helping your friend or family member, here are some steps you can take.

Step 1: Be Honest

If the person does have an alcohol problem, the best thing you can do is be open and honest with them about it. Alcoholism can lead to a lot of shame and embarrassment. It can be easier to deny or ignore the problem than to deal with it. The alcoholic prefers the feeling obtained from drinking to the negative consequences that follow it.  Hoping the person will get better on their own won’t change anything.

Tell your loved one that you’re worried they’re drinking too much, and let them know you want to be supportive. Be prepared to face a negative reaction. Try to “roll” with any resistance to your suggestions. The person may be in denial, and they may even react angrily to your attempts. Do not take it personally.

Realize that you can’t force someone into treatment who doesn’t want to go. All you can do is offer your help, and it’s up to them to decide whether they’ll take it. Be non-judgmental, empathetic, and sincere. Imagine yourself in the same situation, and how your reaction might be.

Step 2: Enlist Others

There is power in numbers. See if you can get other family members and friends involved in the intervention plan. Ask people whom you know the person trusts, such as a best friend, brother or sister, or a parent. Encourage all participants to avoid personal judgments, and to focus on situations where they were affected by the person’s intoxication.

Also call in help from a professional, like a doctor, therapist, or other specialist from an addiction treatment facility. Ask for advice on how to get the person into treatment. Learn about your options. Ask which programs in your area offer alcohol treatment and whether insurance will cover the cost. Often there are agencies and organizations that offer treatments at no cost to the alcoholic; a popular misconception is that “rehab” is only available to those who can afford it.

Step 3: Rehearse

Practice what you’re going to say to the person. Try to formulate statements that are positive and supportive, not negative, hurtful, or judgmental. For example, rather than saying, “You’re an alcoholic and I can’t stand it anymore — you need to get help now,” you can say, “I love you and you’re very important to me. It upsets me very much when you drink. I worry that you may be harming your health. I’ll be happy to go with you to get help, and I will support you through the whole process.” Using “I” statements reduces the accusative phrasing and lets the person be an active participant in the discussion.

Prepare yourself for the response, which may not be positive. The person might get angry. Stay calm and assure them that they have your respect, and have the time and space to make an honest decision.

Step 4: Pick a Time and Place to Talk

Choose the right time to have this important conversation. It should be a time when you know you have the person’s full attention. Make sure they’re not upset or preoccupied with other issues. Most importantly, the person should be sober at the time. Have the conversation in a place where you know you’ll have quiet and privacy. You’ll want to avoid any interruptions or embarrassment.

Step 5: Commit to Change

Don’t be swayed by false promises. Your friend or loved one may vow to cut back on their own. Urge the person to get into a formal treatment program, which is the best way to overcome alcoholism. The key is not to let your emotions ruin the intent of the discussion. Ask for concrete commitments and follow up on them. The alcoholic often will relapse; realize the process is long term and that nothing “cures” alcoholism.

If the person is very resistant to getting help, plan an intervention. During this process, friends, family members, and co-workers — often with the help of a professional counselor — get together to confront the person and urge them into treatment.

Step 6: Stay the Course

Don’t think you’re finished and walk away once you’ve gotten the person into therapy. Treatment for alcoholism is an ongoing process. If possible, attend meetings and treatment sessions with them. Offer to help out with work, childcare, and household tasks so they can stay focused on getting well.

Treating alcoholism isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always work the first time around. Often a person has been contemplating abstinence for some time, yet could not achieve sobriety on their own. Don’t blame yourself if the first intervention isn’t successful. Patience is necessary. You can’t change an alcoholic or force them to stop drinking; that’s a decision they need to make.

Stay on top of the person’s progress until treatment is through, and continue to be supportive afterward. For example, don’t order alcohol when you’re together if you know the person is struggling to stay sober. Ask about new strategies that they have acquired from treatment or meetings. Stay invested in their long-term recovery.

Step 7: Don’t Become Codependent

When the alcoholic is a spouse or partner, it’s possible to become overly wrapped up in your concern for their well-being. This is called codependency. Make sure that you are being supportive, but not trying to be their councilor or addiction coach. These professionals are trained to be objective from the start of treatment, and often family members and friends have deep emotional ties that prevent them from having the needed objective viewpoint that is necessary for treatment. You may get to the point where you feel compelled to help them get well. If you don’t control codependency, it can lead you into your own destructive behaviors, including drinking and drug use.

Be understanding, but avoid getting too caught up in your loved one’s problem. Be aware that exaggerations, half-truths, and deeper emotional problems will distort the information you receive from those suffering from addiction. Seek help from a therapist or support group to prevent or resolve your codependency issues.

Step 8: Get Help for Yourself

Remember that dealing with the emotional strain of trying to get a loved one sober can be hard on you, too. If you’re feeling stressed or depressed, seek help from a therapist or counselor. You can also participate in a 12-step program that’s designed for the friends and family members of alcoholics, such as Al-Anon.

Step 9: Stay Informed

Learning everything you can about alcoholism will ensure that you take the right actions to help your friend or loved one.

You can use these government and program websites for further resources and information on helping someone with an alcohol addiction:

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