How to Help an Alcoholic: A Guide to Support and Recovery
When Does Alcohol Use Become a Problem?
For most people, alcohol use is not a problem. Many people are social drinkers, with around half of all U.S. adults reporting drinking alcohol in the past month.1 Others engage in binge drinking or struggle with an alcohol use disorder—both of which are considered unhealthy forms of alcohol use.
Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder
An alcohol use disorder is a treatable, persistent medical illness characterized by the compulsive use of alcohol despite the negative consequences for your brain, body, and overall life that stem from drinking. The signs of an alcohol use disorder, as set forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) include:2
- Failed attempts to cut back or stop drinking.
- Using alcohol despite knowing it makes an emotional or physical problem worse.
- Using alcohol even under risky circumstances, such as driving or swimming.
- Increased family conflict due to a person’s use of alcohol.
- Using alcohol even when it prevents a person from fulfilling their responsibilities at home or work.
- Using more alcohol than was originally intended.
- Craving alcohol.
- Spending a lot of time looking for alcohol, using alcohol, and recovering from using it.
- Tolerance, which means that a person must keep consuming more and more alcohol to get the same effects it used to give them.
- Withdrawal, which means that the person experiences physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they stop drinking.
Experiencing any of these challenges may be an indication that a person is engaging in at-risk alcohol use and unhealthy drinking. If you believe someone you love may need help with an alcohol use disorder, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. Call our toll-free, confidential alcohol hotline at
Research Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction
Talking to your loved one, who engages in unhealthy or hazardous drinking can be extremely effective and constructive if done tactfully, with compassion, and with the proper tools. After expressing the way you feel in a conversation with your loved one, they may be open to receiving professional treatment for their substance use issues. Before sitting down to talk with them (when they’re sober and have time to talk) about your concerns; however, it is helpful to research possible treatment options. Gather resources from doctors, counselors, inpatient alcohol rehab, and outpatient centers. You may even choose to talk to a treatment provider in advance about how the admissions process works, whether they accept your insurance policy (or will work with you on a payment plan), and how to explain the program to your loved one.
Going to treatment can be scary and intimidating. If you can tell them about the accommodations, visitation, and amenities ahead of time, they may be more willing to go to treatment.3 Learn more about what alcohol rehab has to offer through alcohol recovery stories from real people.
AAC accepts many private insurance policies, as well as some Medicaid policies. You can verify your loved one’s insurance for addiction treatment, which, depending on their provider and specific plan details, may be fully covered by insurance.
What to Do if Your Loved One Doesn’t Want Help
It is difficult when the person you love clearly engages in unhealthy drinking behavior or substance use and refuses to acknowledge it or accept help. When denial happens, it is possible that they don’t see their drinking as problematic. Helping the person understand the consequences of their actions, and what can happen if they don’t get help, can be impactful. Educate yourself on the dangers of problematic alcohol use, as well as treatment and rehab methods, so you can pass this information on to your loved one in a caring and supportive way when the timing is right. Getting clear reasons for why your loved one doesn’t want to get help is important. Some reasons may include:
- The cost of treatment.
- Stigmas associated with addiction and embarrassment.
If you’ve discussed rehab and your loved one doesn’t want to go, you may consider setting limits and boundaries on your relationship with them. Even if you discuss rehab with your loved one and they don’t want to go, you can still research rehabilitation centers for them, just in case they change their mind. You may consider letting the person know you won’t make excuses for them any longer or refraining from calling your loved one’s boss to let them know they are taking a sick day (when they are really hungover or passed out from drinking). Be clear with your boundaries and expectations, but do not set up any consequences if you aren’t prepared to follow through with them.3
Can You Force Someone to Go to Rehab?
In some states, involuntary rehab allows you to force a person into rehab. For example, in Florida, under the Marchman Act, you can have a judge order your loved one into treatment. Families often hesitate to force their loved one into treatment, believing that it works only if the person agrees to go. However, studies indicate that treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective.4
Educating Yourself on the Disease of Addiction
Learn as much as you can about alcohol use disorders; doing so will help you understand the disease of addiction, not take things personally, and help you make good choices when taking care of yourself or your loved one.5,6
Alcohol use disorders are complex medical disorders with many interrelated biological and environmental underpinnings. There is currently no cure for an alcohol use disorder, but it is treatable and can be effectively managed.7
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t implement and enforce healthy personal boundaries.
Focusing on your own needs is of the utmost importance when helping a loved one recover from unhealthy alcohol use. Al-Anon meetings, individual therapy or counseling, and support groups are all resources that can help you cope with your loved one’s addiction and learn more about the disease of addiction.6
How to Support Someone During Rehab and Recovery
Supporting someone you love, who’s being treated for unhealthy alcohol use, is a lifelong process because recovery is a lifelong process. Some days will be hard, and others will be easy. Those who have struggled with alcohol in the past and are now in remission from alcohol use disorder may still spend a considerable amount of time and effort learning how to cope with alcohol use disorder and any other co-occurring mental health condition.
It’s important to understand that relapse may be a part of your loved one’s recovery. In fact, approximately 66% of people, who enter treatment for an alcohol use disorder, experience relapse at some point in their lives. The good news is that some of those who relapse are able to navigate through it effectively and return to remission, and at least 33% of people never relapse at all.8
Identifying Relapse Triggers
A relapse occurs when your loved one regresses from the recovery stage of their alcohol use disorder back into active alcohol use.9
Research indicates that there are several factors that can impact an individual in recovery’s risk of relapse, including:10
- A belief that they can’t maintain their sobriety.
- Negative emotional states, such as experiencing anger, loneliness, boredom, or fatigue.
- Conflict with another person or group of people.
- Social pressures that accompany being around others who are consuming alcohol.
- Celebrations and other positive emotional states.
- Exposure to alcohol-related stimuli, such as alcohol advertisements or passing a bar they frequented before seeking treatment.
- A lack of appropriate coping skills.
The above mentioned scenarios are referred to as triggers—the people, places, situations, and things that can increase an individual’s risk of relapse.
Relapse Prevention Tips
Understanding ways to prevent relapse is a fundamental component of long-term recovery. Some helpful strategies may include:
Avoiding triggers. Once your loved one has identified their potential triggers, learning how to avoid them is an important part of relapse prevention. This includes strategies such as removing alcohol from their home; avoiding events or places where alcohol may be or has been present in the past and removing unsupportive people, who encourage them to drink, from their network.
Practicing self-care. Getting plenty of sleep, eating properly, participating in regular exercise, meditating, even positive self-talk are healthier alternatives to drinking and can help your loved one prevent relapse.
Building a support network. A solid support system is crucial to long-term recovery. Your loved one’s motivation for recovery hinges on the encouragement and support they get from others around them. Encourage them to take up non-drinking activities that allow them to meet others, find a mutual-help group they connect with, and make amends with those who have loved and supported them through their struggle with alcohol misuse.
Participating in aftercare programs. After the formal treatment programs ends, ongoing treatment, or aftercare programs, can help your loved one in recovery. Aftercare programming may include continuing counseling, mutual-help groups, safe and substance-free sober living environments, and alumni events and programs
Alcohol Rehab Aftercare and Ongoing Support
While you are not responsible for another person’s recovery, there are things that you can do to support their efforts to get better. For example, with the permission of your loved one, you can accompany them to the mutual-help groups or refrain from keeping alcohol in your house so they won’t be tempted to start drinking again. You can also suggest engaging in enjoyable hobbies or activities together that do not involve drinking.6
While 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can benefit your loved one, Al-Anon meetings are great resources for you. Like AA, Al-Anon is a mutual-help group for the loved ones of those who struggle with alcohol misuse. Attending meetings, which are held all over the world, allow you to share your experience with others and find strength and hope from them and their experiences. Al-Anon can also help you set healthy boundaries. Additionally, seeking therapy, either as a family, by yourself, or both, can also help you navigate recovery with your loved one.
What to Do If Your Loved One Relapses
Remember that relapse is part of recovery for many individuals, and your loved one may be one of them. Relapse does not mean that treatment failed. Instead, relapse indicates that additional and/or a different form of treatment is necessary.
When relapse happens, it’s important not to blame your loved one or get frustrated and angry with them. Instead, help them find the best treatment option for them so they can get back on track to long-term recovery. You may encourage them to call their sponsor, research other treatment options with them such as long-term treatment, or utilize another professional resource.
Through it all, however, be sure to take care of yourself and your mental health.
Helping someone with an alcohol use problem may be a challenge, but it is possible. More and more resources are becoming available to those struggling with substance use problems. The future of addiction recovery is becoming increasingly brighter.
Alcohol Support Groups and Resources
Resources exist for people struggling with alcohol misuse and addiction, some of which include:
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s nationwide treatment directory.
- Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Al-Anon Family Groups.
- Women for Sobriety.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety.
- SMART Recovery.
There may also be recovery resources available in your community. You may want to inquire with your doctor, any spiritual or religious institutions you belong to, your local Veterans Administrations, your local LGBTQ+ community, or county or regional healthcare authority.
AAC is recognized as a leading provider of alcohol detox and rehab. Some of our AAC facilities offer same-day admissions, depending on various factors, such as the person’s willingness to get help and the capacity of our treatment centers. At each of AAC’s treatment centers, a caring and compassionate addiction treatment team develops an individualized treatment plan for your loved one based on their needs. To learn more about the rehabilitation services we offer, visit our addiction treatment centers page.