How can I best help an alcoholic in need?
Helping an alcoholic is not easy. Here, we review the actionable steps you can take to help an alcoholic when dealing with addiction in the family. Then, we invite your questions or comments at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all legitimate inquiries with a personal and prompt reply.
Help! What can I do for the alcoholic?
The word “help” literally means ‘to make it easier for someone to do something by offering service or resources.’ When you are in any kind of relationship with an alcoholic, you probably end up asking yourself:
- What can I do to help?
- Should I help them avoid alcohol by hiding it?
- Should I force them into a recovery program?
- Should I support them financially so they can get back on their feet?
But when it comes to truly helping an alcoholic, the most effective service you can provide is…. none of the above. Instead, detach from managing the behavior, love them, and let go of the outcome. This may sound impossible, but it is the best way to truly help the alcoholic as they deal with their disease.
STEP 1: Accept the problem of alcoholism
There is no one definition of alcoholism, but we can probably all agree that the condition involves consuming alcohol in a way that interferes with normal life activities and relationships. The ripples of the problem go far and can often include:
- emotional or physical abuse that doesn’t magically get better when someone stops drinking or when they are sober
- job loss
- isolation from friends and family
- medical problems
- …and more….
The first thing to do is to acknowledge the problem. Denying addiction in the family simply prolongs the pain. So, to take action … make a list of the ways in which drinking is getting in the way of your relationship or causing problems. This will help you to identify what you can help with and what you can’t.
STEP 2: Let go of the decision to stop drinking
When we see someone suffering and causing suffering with a particular behavior, we want to do everything we can to help them stop. But just like you can’t physically make another person jump, you can’t make another person stop drinking. At least you can stop the drinking in any lasting way. Accepting this is the first part of truly helping the alcoholic, as counterintuitive as it might seem.
To understand this concept, let’s start by trying to make someone else jump up and down. On the surface, it may seem like you can make this happen. If you say, “Jump!” and they do the motion, did you make them jump or did they respond to your suggestion and used their own body?
So it is with drinking: you can say stop, you can make threats, you can explain the logic, but unless you lock someone up in a room with no alcohol, ultimately they have to be the one to take the action and not to drink. What can you do to help someone you care about who has a drinking problem if you can’t prevent them from drinking? Doing nothing feels helpless. But in fact when we make room for the alcoholic to make their own decisions we are giving them the power to affirmatively help themselves, we are letting them decide when to jump and how to jump.
STEP 3: Identify what you can control
The next big thing you can do is accept what you do have an ability to help with and what you cannot. This may result in sadness, frustration, anger, even feeling totally helpless again. For example, if your spouse always stops at the bar after work, it may feel helpful to pick them up from work and drive them home. What you are really doing is reminding them that they are not responsible for being an adult, or for making their own adult decisions.
Or, if your loved one drunk is drunk when you talk to them after 5pm, help them by avoiding situations that create conflict (you know you will get mad when you try to have a conversation with someone who is drunk), and this makes your life more peaceful also. This may take away an excuse the alcoholic uses for drinking (I drink because we fight) and it gives them an opportunity to see that they drink because they drink – not because of anyone else.
NOTE: When you become personally responsible for something, it is easier to make your own choices about how to deal with it. What you can do is make a choice about whether or not you want to be home when they arrive drunk or if you want to bail them out when they get a DUI. You may have to confront some unpleasant realities about your relationship and what your spouse is capable of providing, but help is not the same thing as control. Additionally, you can seek professional help to stop the enabling behaviors that fuel addiction in a family dynamic.
STEP 4: Make pro-active choices
Finally, you can help the alcoholic by making the choices that are right for you. Anyone who has spent a long time around an alcoholic will tell you that it is absolutely heartbreaking to see someone you care about suffering, it is devastating to be denied the relationship that you should have. But you can’t force, trick, manipulate or demand someone else into doing anything. Further, family addiction support is available.
The best help you can give is providing love with a boundary so that you are taken care of and the alcoholic has the opportunity to experience their own choices and what they want those choices to be.
Fixing a problem is not helping an alcoholic
When we think about our loved ones who have a problem with alcohol it is important to remember that fixing is not the same as helping. We can’t fix another person’s drinking problem, we can’t make someone else jump.
Instead, we can tell them what we see happening, how we feel, what we want, and what we need. But what we do with all of that is about taking care of ourselves. And with the right kind of help, we may very well make it easier for the alcoholic to understand how drinking is impacting their life!
Photo credit: geralt