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Alcohol Use And Abuse

Alcoholism: How to help an alcoholic

Last modified: 
04/01/2013 - 12:55

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

First and foremost, keep in mind that an alcohol problem is a medical condition that needs and deserves treatment just like any other medical problem. It is not a personal or moral weakness and does not mean the drinker is trying to cause problems for you.

  1. Learn as much as you can. Once you have recognized that the person has an alcohol problem, learn as much as you can about alcohol abuse and dependence, how it can affect families and friends of a drinker, and what treatment options and support groups are available.
  2. If necessary, deal with your own denial of the problem. You may need to deal with any denial you have about the drinker’s alcohol problem. Family members and friends often make excuses for the drinker’s behavior and cover up problems caused by the drinker’s alcohol use. This is called "enabling." (hyperlink glossary). It protects the drinker from the consequences of his or her alcohol use and allows the person to keep drinking.

    People enable a drinker in order to protect themselves, the drinker, and others. They may be trying to hide the feelings—such as shame, guilt, inadequacy, and resentment—caused by the person’s drinking. If you stop your enabling behavior, the drinker has to face the consequences of his or her behavior. This may make him or her more motivated to get help.

  3. Talk with the person about his or her alcohol use. You do not need to wait until the drinker brings up his or her alcohol problem or hits bottom. Since people with an alcohol problem often deny there is something wrong, they may need someone else to bring up the topic. Family and friends can do specific things to motivate an alcoholic person to seek help.

    The earlier an alcohol problem is identified, the easier it is to treat. Do not wait to take action. Your involvement could keep the drinker from experiencing serious consequences in his or her health and daily life.

  4. Provide support while the person is in treatment. During treatment the person will probably go through significant changes. The most important things you can do are to show you care and provide emotional support. Recovery can be a long process with several relapses. Try to be patient and understanding.

    Here are some suggestions for discussing a person’s alcohol problem:

    • Choose a time when the person is not drunk and the two of you are calm. The best time is soon after an alcohol-related problem has occurred.
    • Express your concern and be supportive. Do not criticize or blame the person.
    • Focus on the behavior and its consequences, not on the person.
    • Give specific examples of when the person’s alcohol use caused problems. Discuss the effects of his or her behavior on you and other people and things he or she cares about, such as children and career.
    • If the person is open to accepting help, provide information about treatment and support groups. Offer to help arrange an appointment and go to it or to take the person to a support group meeting.

Dealing With Denial

If the person denies having a problem or refuses help, do not take the person’s denial personally. Denial is a very common reaction in people with alcohol problems.

Listed below are possible next steps. Consider taking one or more of them.

  • Tell the person you would be glad to help when he or she is ready.
  • Provide the telephone number of a support group nearby, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Ask someone else close to the person, such as a family member or friend, to talk with him or her.
  • Talk with a mental health or substance abuse professional to get advice and support. He or she may suggest that you carry out an "intervention."

What Is An Intervention?

An intervention is a planned action that a group of two or more people take by meeting with the person with an alcohol problem to get him or her to seek treatment. They are concerned about the alcoholic person and want to help him or her stop the destructive effects of drinking and develop new, healthier ways of coping.

In an intervention, the group tells the alcoholic person in a clear but caring way how the drinking is affecting them as well as the group members. This discussion should include specific examples. It is aimed at making the person with an alcohol problem face the effects of his or her drinking and generating motivation to seek treatment.

In some cases the alcoholic person is also given consequences that will occur if he or she does not seek treatment. For example, a spouse or partner may leave the alcoholic if he or she does not seek treatment. Although this may seem harsh, the intention is caring and the goal is to help the alcoholic person get treatment so that he or she can recover.

An intervention can be initiated by anyone who cares about the alcoholic person and is affected by his or her drinking, including a spouse, child, parent, friend, or employer. It should be done with the guidance of a professional who is trained in carrying out interventions. At the end, specific steps for seeking treatment should be suggested.

What Can I Do To Take Care Of Myself?

Be sure to take care of yourself while helping the drinker. Keep these points in mind:

  • The person’s drinking is not your fault, and you are not responsible for his or her recovery. You can only try to help the person deal with the problem.
  • Recovery from an alcohol problem can take a long time and involve several relapses and rounds of treatment. Try to be patient with this process.
  • If the drinker becomes violent toward you, immediately call for help from police and emergency services. Leave the area if possible.
  • Get support from other people.

Whether or not the drinker seeks help, you may want to share experiences, information and support with other people in your situation. Consider attending a support group like Al-Anon for family and friends of people with alcohol problems. To find a group in your area, look in the phone book or contact a hospital or alcohol treatment center near you. If you want professional counseling, talk with your health care provider or a mental health or substance abuse professional.

 
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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.