What can you do for a family member or close friend who is alcoholic in order to help them?
It’s a tough question and nearly everyone on the planet will have to deal with this issue at some point in their lives, if they have not done so already. Addiction is widespread enough that if you know a few dozen people then you probably will encounter someone at some point who is struggling to get clean or sober.
So the question is, how exactly can you help them, and what can you do in order to support them? Can you convince them to quit altogether? Can you urge them (or force them) to seek help for their problem? What are the limits of what a person can do in this situation?
Let’s take a closer look at these questions.
The struggle of helping someone who is slowly self destructing
It is a massive struggle to try to help someone who is stuck in addiction.
Quite honestly, it is messy. It is not a neat and tidy process at all. In fact it is very frustrating, and quite honestly, it is not fair to the person who is clean and sober at all. But this does not absolve the situation at all, it still “is what it is.” So you have to deal with it, even though it is not very fair to you. Addiction is not fair to anyone.
So if you happen to just be getting started with the situation, you should realize up front that it is often a struggle, and that it may not turn out as smoothly as you would expect. Getting another person to see things your way is often a very tiresome exercise. Be prepared for a long battle.
Sometimes alcoholics and drug addicts never choose to get clean and sober. They may go their entire lives and eventually die while they are still self medicating on a daily basis. Are you prepared for that potential outcome? It’s a lot to deal with. And so you may struggle to get someone to change for years or even decades, to no avail. If this is the case then obviously you do not want to put too much time, energy, and emotional energy into this relationship. Doing so will only hurt you more and more in the long run. Of course, you never know exactly when someone will choose to surrender and finally get sober, so how do you know how to protect yourself? More on this below, but it has to do with setting healthy limits and boundaries for yourself. You never want to try harder than the alcoholic in your life is trying when it comes to their sobriety. It has to come from them, it has to be up to them, and you cannot control them. But sometimes it takes a few months or even years or decades before we really learn that for ourselves, that we cannot control another person.
The intense frustration of dealing with someone in steep denial
The alcoholic is, by definition, in denial. (The same is true of a struggling drug addict of course). They are drinking every day and they are using alcohol in order to self medicate. They are trapped in a cycle of addiction and they cannot break free of it on their own.
They are in denial even if they admit that they have a serious problem. They are in denial if they choose to avoid getting help and continuing to drink anyway. They are in denial if they believe that they can never be happy again if they were sober.
This is intensely frustrating for someone on the outside, because it is so easy for you to see what the alcoholic must do in their lives. They need to eliminate alcohol. Denial is the state of mind where the alcoholic is shifting blame to everything in their lives except for the alcohol. So if you try to talk to the alcoholic and convince them to get help for their problem, they may not even acknowledge that alcohol is their biggest problem! Instead they will complain about their job, about their coworkers, about their mean boss, about their bad luck in life, and so on. They will point the fingers at other people in order to reduce the blame they put on alcohol. They will say things like “If you had my problems you would drink too.” They will also try to claim that everyone drinks like they do in order to medicate. They will truly believe that most other people in the world get smashed on a regular basis in order to deal with life.
This is intensely frustrating of course, because you can clearly see the problem (alcohol and excessive drinking) and yet the alcoholic is in denial of this, choosing to blame everything and everyone except for their own behavior.
There is one technique for trying to deal with someone who is in this state of denial, but it is not a very direct technique. Nevertheless it can be effective. The practice is that of “non-reaction.”
When the alcoholic is trying to engage with you or fight with you, you must practice non-reaction. If they do something crazy or absurd due to their drinking, you simply ignore it. You ignore them. You stop reacting to them emotionally. You refuse to be drawn into any emotional battles with them. This is best practiced if the alcoholic in your life is your spouse.
What this will do is to force the person to look at themselves. Instead of getting into a yelling match with someone about why their behavior is so terrible, or why their excessive drinking is so wrong, you simply put it all on “ignore.” Don’t react to them, don’t get drawn into any fights with them, don’t get into a yelling match. This is the normal pattern, and the alcoholic uses the yelling match and the fighting and the emotional battles to shift the focus off of himself. If he can get angry at you in a yelling match then he does not have to consider his own alcoholism. He doesn’t have to look at himself. He can stay comfortably in denial because he is used to shifting the focus on to other people.
In order to get the person closer to breaking through denial you must stop reacting to them. This is difficult to practice. So the next time they try to get you into a yelling match, you don’t react. If you do this consistently then they will be forced to look at themselves. You are not reacting to them, you are not giving them the distraction from themselves that they want, so they will have to look at their own behavior instead of shifting the blame on to you. If they screw up or get into trouble due to their drinking, just ignore it. Don’t react. Don’t feed into the yelling and the madness. Doing this will force them to look at themselves, and when they do that, they are not going to like what they see. This is how they work through their denial. They have to take a long hard look at their own behavior, and stop shifting the blame for their alcoholism on to others. The way that you can support that is by not reacting to them.
Learning to protect yourself by setting limits and boundaries
So in order to practice things like this “non reaction technique” you need to learn how to implement it in the real world. In order to do that you need pinpoint advice and real support from other people.
Where are you going to get that?
My suggestion is that you should get that advice and support from Al-anon meetings.
Find an Al-anon meeting in your area and go to it. Share your story and ask for feedback and advice. Make a habit of going there and learning more about how to set healthy limits and boundaries.
The people who give you support in Al-anon can help to teach you what you need to know about dealing with the alcoholic in your life. They can give you more pinpoint advice than what I can explain here on this website. And they can help you to figure out what your personal limits and boundaries should be in the relationship. What you are willing to accept and what you are not willing to deal with in your life? You need to figure those things out specifically so that you know what to say and what to do in the heat of the moment.
Learning to set the right boundaries in your relationship can also (indirectly) move the alcoholic closer to surrender, and to the point where they might get sober. This is not to say that you can control them or force them to change, because you really can’t. But you can nudge them in the right direction through your decisions and your behavior. If you are not willing to accept certain things in your life then that can have a long term impact on the alcoholic, depending on what your exact boundaries are. Of course, you have to follow through with these limits and boundaries and not just make hollow threats. This is hard to do perfectly and that is why you need help, support, and guidance when you are trying to figure it all out.
If you can get specific advice from people who have done it before in the past then that can be very empowering for you. Don’t try to figure it all out on your own (dealing with an alcoholic) because it has all been done before, and that wisdom and knowledge can obviously help you a lot. Most of that wisdom is locked up in Al-anon meetings. It is your job to go to those meetings so that you can draw from that pool of experience.
Finding support for yourself and living the example of good health
One thing that is often overlooked in the discussion about helping alcoholics is that you want to live as an example of good health. Interestingly, many people who once tried to help another alcoholic will one day find themselves at an AA meeting. Obviously you want to avoid this problem and therefore you want to take good care of yourself as well.
In order to help another person or alcoholic, you want to be coming from a strong base of strength and good health. If you just assume that because you are sober (and they are not) that you will naturally be able to help them then this is quite a large assumption. Instead, you should look at your own life and consider the different areas in which your health could improve:
1) Physical health and well being. Eliminating any addictions you may have.
2) Mental health and stability.
3) Emotional balance.
4) Healthy relationships, good communication.
5) Spiritual foundation.
If you have all of those things in order in your life and you are working on them every day then it will be much easier for you to deal with the alcoholic in your life. Why? Because you will be stronger as a person and you will be healthier and any negative outcomes will not affect you as badly. You need to be strong from a holistic standpoint in order to be in the best possible position to help others.
If you are not living up to this ideal then you can take action immediately and start working on yourself. Don’t think of this as “work that you need to do in order to help someone get sober.” It doesn’t work like that. What you are really doing is work on yourself (personal growth) so that your life will improve anyway, whether they manage to get sober or not. You will simply be in a better position to help them and to deal with any consequences. Personal growth will benefit you regardless of your situation. But if you are dealing with addiction and someone in denial, then it will help for you to be on a positive path of growth and change in your own life. Plus, if you are making positive changes in your life then this will eventually reflect on the alcoholic who is struggling. It may not force them to get sober but they will see the change in you and they will be impressed. It is a small little cue that may help push them out of denial one day, and it does not “cost” you anything (and in fact it benefits you a great deal to make these positive changes yourself!).
Interventions and ultimatums
There are two other ideas that we might consider here: One is planning out an intervention and the other is making ultimatums.
First the ultimatums. You might be tempted to make an ultimatum to the alcoholic in your life, something like:
“Go get sober or I will never talk to you again!”
“Go get help for your problem or you are kicked out of the house!”
“If you don’t get sober then we are finished!”
The idea is that you are threatening to do something drastic if they do not take action and do exactly what you want them to do.
This never works. I would say that it “rarely works” but I think the truth is that it never works. So it is probably not worth doing on your part.
I say “probably” because there are times when it is exactly what you want to do, and this has to do with setting healthy limits. For example, maybe you are roommates with the alcoholic and you have decided that you can no longer live this way. So your lease renews in another month or two. So you make a decision and you draw a hard line in the sand: If they can get sober within the next month then you will renew the lease. If not, you are moving on. Simple and effective. But this cannot be an idle threat, don’t make this ultimatum if you are not willing to stick to what you say. That is the most important thing about an ultimatum: You have to be willing to follow through with your promises. If you are just making a hollow threat then don’t bother, it is only hurting the situation rather than helping.
In other words, it is fine to make an ultimatum if you are really willing to live up to your words. In order to make this sort of proposal you might want to ask for help first. Go to Al-anon and make sure that you are doing the right thing and that you are not acting emotionally. You want to be rational and think things through when you are making big decisions like this. It always helps to have support and guidance in such situations.
As for interventions, this is the idea where you round up all of the alcoholics friends and family and you all try to convince them to go get help. This may seem like the one suggestion in this article that actually can directly affect the alcoholic, and that might be true. But that does not necessarily mean it is a good suggestion. I tend to believe that interventions are usually not successful, and if they are successful then this is a function of lucky timing more than anything else. In other words, if you do a large scale intervention and it actually works, then you could have just asked the person to go to rehab without all of the fanfare instead and that would have worked as well. You cannot convince a person to surrender. They are either at their bottom or they are not. You can’t just talk them into their bottom. It doesn’t work like that.
At the very least you can encourage your friend to get help at rehab. Ask them to ask for help. Ask them to take action. Ask them to go to detox, to go to a treatment center. Give them a phone number. Find the local treatment centers in your area and write the phone number down. Ask your friend to call it and ask them for help. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Ask them to keep the phone number in their wallet.
You might also try to take the person to an AA or NA meeting, but this is probably not going to go over to well unless your friend has decided that they want help. Those meetings are for people who really want to change, who actually want to be there. They don’t try to convince people to want to change. That is a key point. The motivation for change must come from within, so if your friend is simply not ready to get help then there is not much you can do. Be ready to help them when the time comes. At least have a phone number to call, a detox center, or a rehab that you can call and start asking questions.
Timing is everything. Eventually after the alcoholic has experienced enough pain in their life, they will ask for help. That is when you can direct them to professional treatment services.