Alcoholism: How to Help

People who care about alcoholics are often desperate to help their loved ones conquer their drinking problems, but are uncertain about the best way to proceed. A smart, informed approach can make all the difference, since family members and friends are in a unique position to help alcoholics break through the walls of denial that prevent them from getting treatment. Alcoholics need the support of their loved ones to find and maintain sobriety, and when they get it their odds of recovery are significantly enhanced.

Every year, more than 15 million American adults suffer the effects of an alcohol use disorder. But they are not alcoholism’s only victims. Family members and friends feel the effects of alcohol abuse just as surely as the abusers, and their stress and pain are accompanied by feelings of helplessness and desperation.

But as difficult as things may seem during the bleakest hours, people with drinking problems can be reached, no matter how long they’ve been abusing alcohol. With the right attitude, right approach, and right information, people who care about alcoholics can play a constructive role in their recovery.

Dispelling the Myths about Alcoholism

People think they understand the symptoms and effects of alcoholism. But alcohol dependency is still surrounded by misinformation and mythology, and anyone hoping to help an alcoholic must learn the truth if they expect their intervention to make a difference.

Here are some of the common myths about alcoholism, and the realities that contradict them:

Myth: Alcoholism is a choice and a sign of weakness.

Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that requires significant time and effort to overcome. Alcoholics aren’t weak or simply derailed by bad decision-making, but they do need to be strong to win the battle against this insidious condition.

Myth: A person can’t be an alcoholic if they only drink beer or wine.

The neurological, physiological, and psychological factors that coexist with alcohol dependency can develop regardless of the type of alcoholic drink that is consumed. Alcohol is an inherently addictive substance, and any kind of abuse can lead to chemical dependency.

Myth: Alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they can get help.

The problem with alcoholics is their habit of denial. But when loved ones or addiction counselors are able to break through the walls they erect to protect their self-esteem and self-image, people suffering from an alcohol use disorder can be helped—and this can happen at any time, not just after they’ve hit rock bottom (however that is defined).

Myth: Alcoholism is easy to identify because true alcoholics can’t manage their daily affairs.

On the scale of severity, alcohol addiction can range from mild to moderate to severe, and many alcoholics can hide the truth about their chemical dependency for a long time. In fact, people who suffer from high-functioning alcoholism (a real condition) may show few if any outward signs of their addiction. Eventually their conditions will deteriorate, but that can often take months or years.

Myth: Formal treatment for alcoholism doesn’t really work (and AA isn’t much better).

This cynical attitude is unjustified and contradicted by the facts. When alcoholics are truly dedicated to recovery, and completely honest with themselves and others about the nature of their problems, they have an excellent chance at finding and maintaining their sobriety. AA and other 12-step groups have a good overall record as well, if participants are diligent about attending meetings and take the long-term recovery process seriously.

Myth: When an alcoholic in recovery relapses, it puts them right back to square one.

Relapse is a constant risk for recovering alcoholics, but it is not the end of the world if it happens. Recovering alcoholics learn to understand the depth and nature of their disease in treatment, and they carry that hard-earned wisdom with them wherever they go. Consequently, alcoholics who accept responsibility for their failures and work with their counselors and peer groups to get back on track following a relapse still have a bright long-term prognosis.

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Constructive and Destructive Approaches to Alcoholism

Friends and family members who educate themselves about alcoholism will be armed with vitally important facts. They will know more about why alcohol dependency develops, learn to recognize its signs and symptoms, discover how the disease evolves over time, gain insight as to why it can be so difficult for problem drinkers to quit, and come to know why some people who love alcoholics are able to help them stop drinking while others only make the situation worse.

Despite their good intentions, there is no guarantee that family members or friends who attempt to get through to the alcoholic will be successful. How loved ones react to alcoholism—and the alcoholic—matters. The quality of the approach can make the decisive difference, for good or ill.

Here are a few things people who care about alcoholics should never do:

  1. Blame themselves for the drinking problem. No one can drive an alcoholic to drink. Their behavior is their responsibility, 100 percent, as is their recovery.
  2. Cover up for the alcoholic. If an alcoholic misses an appointment, hurts someone physically or emotionally, neglects to finish a task, or gets in trouble with the law, they should be left to face the consequences, whatever they might be.
  3. Live in the past. What’s done is done, and trying to make the alcoholic feel guilty or ashamed all the time for their previous mistakes will only undermine their self-esteem and sabotage their attempts to change.
  4. Put up with denial. While the alcoholic shouldn’t have their past misdeeds constantly thrown in their face, they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with denying the truth, passing the buck, or minimizing the depth of their irresponsible behavior, either. Denial is never a good thing and should be called out.
  5. Try to control the alcoholic’s behavior. The decision to stop drinking, and to commit to long-term sobriety must be theirs, and the route they take to recovery must be one of their own choosing. They need help, support, and maybe even a little tough love, but they don’t need someone to take on the role of savior.

Alcoholics must take charge of restoring their good health, but loved ones can still offer guidance, encouragement, and positive practical and moral support. To play a constructive role in the healing process, they should:

  1. Be loving and respectful. Rather than treating the alcoholic like a child, or a patient in need of rescuing, loved ones should be honest about their feelings and their thoughts about the drinking but always in a way that is kind, compassionate, considerate, and respectful of the other person’s agency and dignity.
  2. Focus on actions, not personality. The actions of the alcoholic are the source of the trouble. The alcoholic is not worthy of personal condemnation or dismissal simply because they’ve made mistakes. It should be remembered that alcoholism is a disease and those who suffer its effects are in need of help, not judgment or rejection.
  3. End any and all enabling behavior. Friends and family members should never do anything that makes it easier for the alcoholic to drink, or escape the consequences of their drinking. Just so there is no confusion, they should explain to their loved one with a drinking problem why they will be glad to help them stop drinking, but refuse to do anything to help them continue.
  4. Involve others. People looking to help an alcoholic should present a united front of caring concern and a never-say-quit attitude. Conflicting or contradictory messages should be avoided, and if the alcoholic won’t listen to reason it may be necessary to stage a group intervention to convince them of the seriousness of the situation.
  5. Be prepared to answer questions and offer support. Before agreeing to seek help, the alcoholic may have questions about rehab and what it entails. Loved ones should investigate the process first and be prepared to answer those questions or direct the alcoholic to someone connected with a rehab center who can. If and when the alcoholic is ready to seek treatment, friends and family members should offer their full practical and moral support.

In every interaction, loved ones should emphasize their belief in the ability of the alcoholic to change. Staying positive and hopeful will make an impact.

The Importance of Treatment for Alcoholism

No matter how sincere their determination to help the alcoholic overcome their drinking problem, friends and family members can only do so much. The alcoholic must have the courage to accept the truth and the resolve to do something about it.

Treatment is an essential step in the recovery process. With the trained guidance of addiction counselors and staff, those who enter inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment programs will receive the expert attention they need as they confront their chemical dependency openly, honestly, and proactively. While loved ones can make a decisive impact on alcoholics who aren’t quite ready to admit the depth and nature of their problem, it is in treatment where the truth can be confronted in all its aspects and dimensions, as the alcoholic learns to understand their illness and its causes and consequences in their entirety.

Medical detox is often the first step in addiction treatment, as withdrawal symptoms must be managed. After the patient is stabilized, they can transition into therapy that will help restore their freedom and capacity to control their drinking. Medication, life skills training, and continuing care programs after the alcoholic leaves treatment can all contribute to the healing process, which will require focus and dedication and push the recovering alcoholic to fully embrace wellness.

Helping an alcoholic see the truth and convincing them to do something about it is not easy, but it is always worth the effort to try. Those who take up this challenge fully informed about alcoholism can make a positive difference, and the combination of good support at home and expert services in treatment can restore hope for those who’ve been trapped in despair for far too long.