How to Best Support an Alcoholic

An alcohol use disorder is colloquially referred to as “alcoholism,” and people who struggle with this condition are commonly called “alcoholics.” Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder do not simply drink too much or drink routinely; they have a compulsion to consume alcohol, and they are unable to control how much they drink. Their brain chemistry changes, and alcohol is needed to produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, and to reduce negative psychological experiences associated with stress. According to the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there are about 17 million adults, ages 18 and older, in the United States with alcohol use disorder, and one in 10 children live in a home with a parent who has alcohol use disorder.

Many people who struggle with alcoholism do not enjoy the experience. Some people are high-functioning alcoholics, meaning they perform well at work and maintain relationships, and some people more obviously struggle with alcoholism. Regardless of the severity of alcoholism, it is often hard for anyone suffering from this condition to admit they have a problem. Close friends and family may notice the person struggling, even if they only exhibit subtle problems, such as mood swings or continual stomach upset.

When a person notices that someone they care about may be struggling with alcoholism, it is important to proactively support the person. This means getting them help in the form of medically supervised detox, a comprehensive rehabilitation program, and ongoing therapy to maintain sobriety. Getting started on this road can be difficult for friends or family. This is because alcohol use disorder impacts relationships, and sometimes, loved ones may not know exactly what is happening.

Codependent Relationships and Alcoholism

Codependency is linked to enabling a loved one who is an alcoholic. While a person can be codependent in relationships without their loved one being an alcoholic, the correlation is higher among those who are in relationships with people suffering from alcohol use disorder or another addiction.

Signs of being in a codependent relationship include:

  • Inability to find satisfaction in life outside of satisfying the other person in the relationship
  • Recognizing unhealthy behaviors in one’s partner but remaining in the relationship despite the harm they cause
  • Providing emotional support, and potentially other kinds of support like money, to one’s partner despite the mental, emotional, and physical health consequences to oneself
  • Attempting to find independence or some separation between one’s personal life and one’s partner but meeting with resistance or conflict
  • Anxiety when unable to conform to the partner’s wishes
  • Making excuses for the person’s behavior while also trying to change the person
  • Neglecting other important relationships or activities in favor of one’s partner
  • Feeling anxious, burnt out, exhausted, or guilty with no specific cause

People who are in codependent relationships need their love one’s approval to feel a sense of self-worth. Even in a healthy relationship, using an external source for a sense of wellbeing or self-esteem is emotionally harmful; other people may not always express the level of affection and approval that a codependent person needs. A person who struggles with codependency will perform activities at the expensive of their own emotional needs or even physical health just to get approval from a loved one.

When a codependent relationship involves alcoholism, both people can spiral down into poor mental and physical health rapidly. The person struggling with codependency is more likely to make excuses or cover for the alcoholic’s behavior. They are more likely to provide support in terms of driving, money, food, and even acquiring alcohol. They are not likely to confront their partner’s alcoholism or destructive behaviors. They may feel responsible for cleaning up after the alcoholic and ensuring they maintain good hygiene, physical health, or even happiness. Families who have one alcoholic parent or guardian may become enablers or develop codependent relationships within the family unit because physical security – rent or mortgage, utility bills, phone bill, etc. – may depend on the income of the person with the alcohol use disorder.

Oftentimes, those in codependent relationships with an alcoholic do not need to end the relationship, which is their greatest fear. Instead, seeking help from a therapist can help the person begin to understand their problematic, enabling behaviors. A therapist can help the person learn to support positive changes in their alcoholic partner, especially getting help to end the addiction.

Talking to an Alcoholic about the Disorder

Whether a person is in a codependent relationship with an alcoholic or just discovering the negative psychological consequences of being in this position, they may know how important it is for their loved one to stop drinking. However, approaching this subject can be very difficult. An article on Psych Central recommends two basic rules for those whose loved ones are alcoholics: When choosing to face the alcohol use disorder, keep the conversation simple and tell the truth.

Keeping the conversation simple means focusing on the latest negative event that occurred due to problem drinking. For example, if the loved one picks a fight while they are drunk, and their words are very hurtful, then the conversation should start with that. The person should then explain, in simple terms, that this isn’t the first time, and their loved one’s emotional outbursts seem to correlate with being drunk.

Staying truthful is not just about faithfully recounting events as they happened. It is about clearly stating one’s emotional truth. For example, discuss the fear and sorrow that are felt after being yelled at by the intoxicated individual. This is a reason to want this behavior to stop.

Other ways to show support for a person struggling with alcohol use disorder include:

  • Learn about alcoholism.
  • Offer support for the person to make positive changes, such as choosing not to drink.
  • Express love when articulating concern.
  • Offer to help the person find treatment via medically supervised detox and a rehabilitation program.
  • Know that the person cannot quit without help from addiction specialists.
  • Know that recovery is an ongoing process.
  • Set clear boundaries if the person refuses help.
  • Offer support, such as driving the person to treatment, attending family therapy or individual therapy, exercising with them, etc.

Staging an Intervention

Having this discussion alone is likely to be frightening for those who love alcoholics. A solution is to stage an intervention. Gather several of the person’s friends and family members, and perhaps hire a professional interventionist to lead the event. An intervention is about the group showing support for their loved one to get treatment to overcome alcohol use disorder, but it is also a way for everyone who loves the person to support each other in facing their fears about changing the relationship.

The group gathers to express concern, using specific examples, about their loved one’s behavior and health. They offer support for treatment in specific ways. They also set boundaries and clear consequences if the person refuses to get help.

Friends or family members who believe they can focus on positive support can manage the intervention, or it can be more beneficial in many instances to hire a professional interventionist to lead the intervention. Regardless of how the intervention is structured, here are some key points to keep in mind:

  1. Make a plan, and stick to it. This includes a specific date, time, meeting location, leader or guide, and outline for the intervention.
  2. Gather information on alcoholism, associated health consequences, and rehabilitation options.
  3. Form the core intervention team.
  4. Decide on specific consequences if the alcoholic refuses help.
  5. Make notes on what everyone wants to say, so they have a loose script to stick to.
  6. Hold the meeting as planned.
  7. Follow up with the alcoholic, whether they accept help or not.

Support during Treatment and Recovery

The support of friends and family does not end after the intervention or after their loved one enters treatment. The person will need ongoing love and clear support from their friends and family to stay on track.

Here are some ways friends and family can support their loved one who is in treatment for alcoholism:

  • Find a therapist. Supporting a loved one with alcohol use disorder can be mentally and emotionally taxing. It is important to process these emotions with someone who can help to support positive behavioral changes and point out areas for improvement.
  • Attend family therapy together. Substance abuse often puts a strain on relationships, even when partners stay together or family members actively remain involved in the person’s life. Attending family therapy, either as part of a rehabilitation program or outside of a structured program, can help to heal those family relationships and rebuild trust.
  • Help to manage resources. When a person is focused on recovery, they may need help in other areas of life. They may need help finding sources to pay for treatment; they may want to enter a sober living facility; or they may need help managing medications. There are a variety of resources, from crowdfunding and insurance to ridesharing and meal delivery services, that can all greatly benefit a person overcoming alcohol use disorder. Since the person must focus on therapy and remaining sober, having some friends or family members take over the management of some of these things can take a lot of stress off the recovery process.
  • Offer rides to and from treatment. If the recovering alcoholic goes to an outpatient treatment program, they may need help getting there. Driving them to treatment can help them avoid temptations like bars or liquor stores, and it can ensure they make it on time each day. This is especially helpful when treatment facilities are further away or the person does not own a car of their own.
  • Attend visiting hours. Inpatient rehabilitation facilities often have set visiting hours. The people allowed on the list may be limited for some time; for example, parents or spouses may be the only ones allowed to attend for the first week or so. Once the initial time period has passed and visitors are allowed, it can mean a lot to just show up. It illustrates to the person that their friends and family are still invested in their recovery and want to know how they’re doing.
  • Get rid of substances of abuse in the house. Pour out all alcohol, and consider getting rid of other potentially intoxicating substances, such as unused prescription medications and cigarettes. This shows that everyone is committed to a healthy lifestyle and helps avoid temptation in the home.
  • Create a plan for healthy eating and regular exercise. Families of alcoholics may have more fractured experiences with family time and little experience doing enjoyable things together. Going on walks, spending time at the playground, dancing in a sober environment, preparing and eating meals together, shopping for healthy foods together, or getting involved in a mutual hobby can greatly strengthen family bonds. Friends can also develop these habits to support their loved one who is overcoming alcohol use disorder.

Ongoing Support after Treatment

Although a rehabilitation program will come to an end – even a long-term residential program – staying sober is a lifelong process. This requires ongoing, positive support from a person’s friends and family. Friends can find activities that do not involve alcohol consumption or that intentionally steer everyone away from consuming alcohol. Family members can keep potentially addictive substances out of the house.

On a long-term basis, it’s important for loved ones to stay positive about recovery if the person relapses, help them adhere to a relapse prevention plan, and encourage them in maintaining good mental and physical health. All these things can help a person who is overcoming alcoholism to feel supported throughout their journey.

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