How to Help an Alcoholic

There’s a lot of information out there on how to help a loved one with a drinking problem. And like with most things, some of it is better than others. We’ve been working with alcoholics and addicts for more than 20 years and know just how difficult it can be to get through to someone stuck in addiction. As recovering addicts and alcoholics ourselves, we’ve been those people who it seemed like it was impossible to reach. And yet here we are. Hope and a solid plan of action are a powerful combination. Read on for 13 tips to help you help an alcoholic. 

1. Stop trying to save the alcoholic.

The disease of alcoholism isn’t rational. 

You can’t reason with alcoholism, and you can’t change it. As painful as it is, alcoholics can use the love you have for them against you. Problem drinkers are master manipulators, often seizing on the goodness and compassion of others for their own gain.

So when it comes to dealing with alcoholism, the actions we have to take feel counterintuitive. For example, when a loved one calls you from jail asking for bail money, your love for them may drive you to give them the money. The idea of your loved one in jail terrifies and disappoints you. You want to help them get out.

Bu the truth is, by bailing the alcoholic out of situations they’ve created for themselves, you pad the consequences of their drinking. Your help prevents them from experiencing the real effects of alcoholism. Preventing consequences isn’t how to help an alcoholic.

It’s not easy to admit that your love, money, you name it can’t help a troubled loved one. It can be even harder to recognize that in the face of alcoholism, your best efforts just might not be enough.

2. Empower yourself.

Get equipped with the tools you need to protect yourself from someone’s alcoholism.

Addiction is contagious. No, we don’t mean you’ll catch alcoholism, but the disease will absorb everything and everyone around it. Resentment, fear, anger, jealousy, denial, dishonesty, codependency—these are just a few of the hallmarks of alcoholism. And they can take you down too.

We’ve seen it more times than we count, and we’ve been there too. Family and friends begin to interact with the alcoholic in the same way the alcoholic interacts with booze. And just like the alcoholic is powerless over alcoholic, the family is powerless over the disease of alcoholism in their loved one. The addiction for the family becomes trying to control or save the alcoholic.

Al-Anon Family Groups. the sister program to Alcoholics Anonymous, is a great resource for those affected by the disease of alcoholism. When you attend open meetings of Al-Anon (they’re free), not only will you see that you’re not alone but you’ll also learn helpful and effective tools for dealing with another person’s addiction.

Check out these other useful and trustworthy resources:

3. Don’t enable an alcoholic.

Avoid giving or lending money to an alcoholic.

In just about every case of active alcoholism we see, there’s at least one family member or friend who continues to provide financial support. Unfortunately, that person can undo all the other efforts everyone else is trying to make. Why? Because as long as someone in active addiction has access to money, the motivation to quit just won’t be there.

The stories are endless but they’re all the same. I need money for rent so I’m not evicted. I need money for my car payment so my car isn’t repossessed. Can I have money to pay my child support so I can still see my kids?

Sure, they all sound legitimate on paper, and they may actually even be true sometimes. But here’s the thing, the alcoholic will pull on your heartstrings to get what they want. They know mom’s soft spot is her grandkids. They know if Aunt Sally is loaded and can’t help herself. And that money for rent? Yeah, that’s probably going straight into the cash register at the local liquor store.

But let’s say the circumstances are genuine. Even in those cases, the events that led to dire financial straits are from alcohol abuse. By providing money or other financial assistance, even bail money or child support, you prevent alcohol abusers from hitting a genuine bottom.

Here’s the bottom line: The majority of alcoholics will not sober up, or consider getting sober, unless faced with serious life consequences.

If someone is asking for help getting sober, then it might be appropriate to help them financially. But even that’s not always a good idea. If you’ve wiped out your savings, taken out a second mortgage on your home, and called in every financial favor you can to send your loved one to their fourth, tenth, twentieth (yes, that’s a real thing) treatment center, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about whether the “help” you’re providing is helping at all.

4. Find support and ban together.

Talk to other family members or friends and encourage everyone to get on the same page.

Even if you’re not enabling the alcoholic in your life, there’s a good chance other friends or family members are. The most effective way to bring about sobriety in an alcoholic is to remove the enabling factor. Get his  closest family and friends together for a talk. Bring literature you’ve found helpful. Have an open discussion and try to set some strong boundaries for how to interact with your loved one.

Learning to say “no” to an alcoholic may be one of the greatest gifts we can ever give them. It isn’t easy, but it’s very effective.

5. Get help from a professional.

If the alcoholic’s life is in danger and they’re still resistant to treatment, consult a qualified interventionist. 

A common myth, even among those in recovery, is that someone has to want to get help (treatment/rehab) for the help to work. Not true.

A trained professional interventionist (sorry, not your niece studying psychology in college), can be a vital resource to you, your family and the alcoholic. For starters, they’re objective. They have no emotional attachment to your loved one, only a sincere desire to be helpful to them. They’re judgement isn’t clouded. It means they’ll also be able to stay calm and focused if the situation turns stressful.

Sometimes an intervention, no matter how resistant your loved one is in the moment, is just what’s needed for them to make a start in recovery. Most of us weren’t exactly thrilled to get sober, but once we made a start the benefits far outweighed our defiance.

6. Offer to take your alcoholic loved one to a 12 Step meeting.

Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can help.

Twelve Step meetings provide the opportunity for a newly sober person to find a substitute for their drinking. In programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholics can replace an unhealthy network of drinking buddies with a group of authentic, recovering friends. They’ll learn what it means to break old habits, how to take new and better action, and to live by spiritual principles (think honesty, responsibility, integrity and humility).

7. Don’t blame yourself.

Many family members, particularly parents and siblings, carry around a sense of responsibility for their loved one’s alcoholism. We’ll hear families say, “Where did I go wrong?” or “It’s all our fault because we got divorced.” But it’s critical to know you aren’t to blame for someone’s disease. Talk to a professional, like a counselor, therapist or social worker, so they can help you understand the genetic and lifestyle components of alcoholism.

8. Look for what an alcoholic is doing, not what they’re saying.

Don’t buy into “promises.” Watch what they do. 

Alcoholics talk a good game, but rarely back it up. Trust us, in active addiction, we made tons of promises we couldn’t make good on. So tune out their words and watch what they do instead. It’s cliche for a reason: actions speak louder than words.

9. Love your alcoholic loved one from a distance.

Keep a healthy distance from an active alcoholic.

Consistent exposure to the disease of alcoholism brings family and friends for a ride on an emotional rollercoaster. The more you engage with an active alcoholic, especially one showing no signs of wanting help, the sicker you can become. Give yourself some space from them so you have a better chance at staying strong, holding your boundaries and providing useful help when the time comes.

10. Avoid the soapbox when talking to an alcoholic.

No alcoholic—no person, period—wants to feel talked down to or shamed. It might seem like an effective strategy for reaching them, but it isn’t. In most cases, the alcoholic will lash out or double down on their behavior just to make a point.

Besides, alcoholism isn’t a morality issue. With few exceptions, alcoholics know right from wrong. You probably even taught them that! But if knowing the difference between right and wrong could solve their problem, then they would have been “cured” ages ago.

Advice like “try harder” or “just drink less” isn’t helpful. Alcoholics are suffering from a progressive, and often fatal, disease. It would be like telling someone with diabetes to just try harder at not having diabetes. It doesn’t make sense and they wouldn’t be able to do it no matter how hard they tried.

Talking to an alcoholic about their problem, especially if you don’t have firsthand experience with addiction yourself, can be complicated. It can often feel like everything you’re saying is falling on deaf ears. Whenever possible, loop in a professional or another person in recovery.

11. Ask for a 12th Step call.

No one can reach an alcoholic like another alcoholic. That’s at the heart of everything we do at Discovery Place. We’re all in recovery and we’ve all been through Discovery Place’s programs. We know exactly what your loved one is thinking and feeling. We’ve thought and felt it too. When we say we’ve sat in your chair, we mean it. We have literally sat in your loved one’s chair and made the sobering discovery that yep, this thing has got me pinned.

A 12th Step call refers to a step in Alcoholics Anonymous where one or more sober members talk to another alcoholic still drinking. They’re able to share what their drinking was like, what eventually drove them to make a change, and most importantly, what their life is like today without the drink. It’s that kind of message that can really get through to another person. I’ve been there, it was terrible, and now I don’t have to live like that anymore.

Twelfth Step calls are free. Your city’s local Alcoholics Anonymous central office can help coordinate it. Google “Alcoholics Anonymous + your city” to find their contact information. That’s where you’ll also find a list of local meetings. But sometimes the best resource to the still-drinking alcoholic is a sober person from their own life. An old drinking buddy who found recovery or a sober aunt or uncle they admire and respect can sometimes accomplish in an hour what you’ve been trying to do for years. Lean on those in your life who understand the disease of alcoholism and seek their guidance.

Additional Resources & Articles For Friends & Family of Alcoholics

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