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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.