How can you go about helping an alcoholic to stop drinking? What is the exact process by which you can (force?) someone to choose to change their whole life?
Is it even possible?
For example, can a carefully orchestrated intervention that does everything perfect really change the mind of a struggling alcoholic? Is it possible to plant the seeds of change in someone, such that they really follow through and take action based on your urgent request?
I have gained a lot of perspective on these questions throughout the last 12+ years. In fact, my experience goes back further than that to when I was still drinking actively every day, and could not find a way out of my disease. Because it was during those times when my concerned friends and family did an intervention on me, to try to get me to make a change in my own life.
Since then, I have been on the “other side of the fence” in many cases. I have worked for many years at an alcohol treatment center, trying to help other people to recover. I have lived in a long term rehab center for alcoholics, many of who struggled and relapsed frequently. I have learned a great deal about trying to help other people to overcome alcoholism.
It’s not easy. It is not an easy job. Not by any means.
Helping alcoholics is a tough job. It’s a really tough job. I think this is because many alcoholics don’t really want help, even if they have reached this state of “half surrender” where they end up in treatment but they are still not quite sure that they want to give up their booze for good yet.
Even when the struggling alcoholic seems fully committed to recovery, they still may relapse. In fact the numbers sort of predict that they will. The numbers, in general, are not very good.
But that doesn’t mean it is hopeless. Tens of thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts recover every year, and stay sober and continue on to improve their lives. It happens. There are success stories out there. But they are still pretty remarkable, from what I have observed. Every sober alcoholic (or clean drug addict) is a miracle.
So the question is simply this: How can you help an alcoholic to stop drinking? How can you inspire to them to change, to ask for help, to take action?
Here is what I have learned so far.
Begging someone to go to rehab generally doesn’t work
What exactly is an intervention?
There are so called “formal interventions,” and there are much more informal interventions as well, but they all boil down to the same thing:
Trying to get someone to stop drinking. Trying to get someone to ask for help. Trying to get someone to take action in order to fix their life.
Ultimately, this means trying to get the person to go check into treatment. Get them to rehab. Simple as that.
You and everyone else knows that they have a problem, and you all want them to get help, and therefore you want the person to go check into alcohol treatment. You want them to detox. You want them to go through a recovery program. You want them to go to AA. You want them to heal their life and get back to “normal living.”
Pretty much every intervention is an attempt to convince the alcoholic to do exactly this. To go get the help that they need.
So you might have a very specific goal, and you might have even arranged for them to check in to a rehab facility somewhere. Your goal is to help them, to get them into rehab.
The problem is that this doesn’t usually work.
If it does work, then my opinion (take this for what it is worth) is that you simply got lucky with your timing.
In other words, if you stage a massive intervention for the alcoholic in your life, and it actually works as you want it to, then you simply got lucky due to timing. In other words, the alcoholic was already at the point of surrender, and they just needed a nudge to get the help that they needed. You could have just put them in a car and drove them to detox. You did not need a formal intervention.
My opinion is that if the person refuses to get help and refuses to go to rehab (the intervention fails) then they were simply not ready to get sober yet, and nothing that you did would have made any difference.
Sure, you could have hired a different interventionist. You could have promised the person certain things. You could have done a million things differently but none of it would have mattered. Because the person just wasn’t ready to get sober yet. They were not done using or drinking yet.
There is no secret sauce that will cause a person to WANT to get sober.
You can ask them politely to go to rehab.
You can scream bloody murder in their ear like a raging maniac and demand that they go to rehab.
But if they are not ready to get sober, then none of this is going to make any difference. They will not change if they are not ready to change.
This is just my personal opinion on interventions, but it is also based on my own personal experience with surrender. The alcoholic is not going to change their whole life (quit drinking) just because someone asks them nicely to do it. Or because someone demands it. Or even because they can clearly see that they are self destructing because of their drug of choice. None of that stuff matters if they are not at the point of surrender.
You are either ready to quit drinking, or you are not.
The timing of this seems to be a fixed thing. It cannot be easily manipulated. In other words, you can’t just put a gun up to someone’s head and force them to WANT to stop drinking. Nothing in the world can get them to the point of surrender before they reach that point naturally, on their own.
Surrender happens in its own time. Period.
That said, there are a few things that you can do that will slowly ease the alcoholic closer to surrender.
Note that this is not magic. It doesn’t work instantly. You cannot directly manipulate someone into sobriety. It doesn’t work that way.
But there are a few things that you can do that might help.
How to indirectly nudge someone closer and closer to surrender
If you want to get the full story on how this stuff works, then I would suggest that you go to an Al-anon meeting.
The short version is this:
1) If you want to help someone stop drinking alcohol, then stop drinking alcohol or using drugs around them.
2) Stop enabling the person. Don’t bail them out of jail after a drunk driving. Don’t give them money, ever. For anything. Even if they say it is for baby food. It’s not, if they are drinking every day. This can be really tough, which is why you need support (see the suggestion above about going to an Al-anon meeting. There is support for you there).
3) Set limits and boundaries about what behavior is acceptable to you. Don’t make threats that you can’t make good on. Don’t ever do that, as it is just more manipulation. Those limits that you set WILL most likely be tested. So be fully prepared to follow through with the consequences of those limits that you lay down. Don’t say you will kick someone out of your house if they drink again if you don’t really intend to follow through on it. Learn how to set healthy limits and boundaries that you can stick to. Learn how to enforce consequences. If you lack this knowledge then you might go to an Al-anon meeting and ask for advice and specific examples.
4) Offer to help the alcoholic, but only on your own terms. Never on their terms.
Letting them know that the option is available…and that it is the only option
Tell the alcoholic in your life that you will help them to get professional help for their problem. Period.
If they want help in any other way, they are out of luck. You will offer nothing else other than a ride to detox or rehab.
You can expect that an alcoholic or a drug addict is going to try to manipulate you. They may very well try to enlist your “help” when it is really just manipulation to get something from you other than recovery: More money, more alcohol, more drugs, transportation, etc. This is part of the disease, for the most part. They can’t help but try to manipulate other people in order to get what they want.
So how are you to know when they are serious about getting help?
How are you to know when the alcoholic is really ready to change their life? They have cried wolf so many times.
The way to tell is this:
They stop trying to manipulate. They surrender. They give up. This is an attitude shift. They will seem like they are defeated.
Normally if you make a suggestion to an alcoholic, they will say “yes, but….”
After they surrender, they will no longer do that. They will stop manipulating. They will simply accept or reject your suggestions. Most likely they will accept whatever you say, so long as you are trying to help them.
When I finally surrendered, people suggested that I go to treatment. I agreed. They called up a specific rehab and said “is this one OK?” I agreed. I was defeated. Just get me to detox, get me some help, I am not picky. I am on the brink of death, insanity, and whatever else you can imagine. I am experiencing the death of my ego. I have just realized that I am not able to overcome my drinking by myself. It is the death of your ego. This is traumatic. You are no longer in a position to manipulate others. You will just want help at this point.
If you are dealing with an alcoholic in your life, 99 percent of the time you will get the manipulator. Only at that critical moment of surrender will you get someone who is willing to take your advice, to really take your suggestions, and to follow through without questioning everything. Without trying to see what they can get out of you.
So just be aware that “the disease” of alcoholism is all about manipulation. When they stop trying to manipulate, they are ready for treatment. They are ready to change their life, to stop drinking for good.
So one way to set a very healthy boundary for yourself is to say to the alcoholic in your life:
“I will only help you on MY terms. I will not help you on YOUR terms. If you want to stop drinking, come ask me for help, and I will help you. But you must do what I suggest, because I will not listen to you. You have cried wolf too many times.”
That may sound a bit childish but that is the reality when dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts. I only know this so well because I happen to be one myself. I did not really stop manipulating until I reached that point of surrender. Only then did I become willing to take suggestions.
Taking care of yourself as a way to help a struggling alcoholic
This may sound really indirect, but it is another concept that you will learn if you go to Al-anon:
Take care of yourself, first and foremost.
Set the example for the alcoholic in your life. Be the example for the alcoholic in your life.
This is important on so many different levels. It is about much more than just setting an example, in fact.
It is very difficult to describe exactly how this sort of self care can help to make you a stronger person, and how it might make it easier to deal with the alcoholic in your life.
First of all, you must take care of yourself on many different levels:
1) Don’t drink or use drugs. There are a surprising number of people at Al-anon meetings who eventually end up at AA! Rid your life of addiction. Quit smoking cigarettes too if that is an issue.
2) Exercise, eat healthier food. Become physically healthy. Take care of your body. Exercise every single day. No excuses!
3) Start to take emotional inventory every day. Protect your emotional balance in life. If something is aggravating you, figure out how to deal with it. Don’t increase your stress tolerance, lower it instead. Eliminate causes of stress from your life. Meditate.
4) Journal. Write down how you are doing each and every day. Later on you can read through your journal and see how much you have grown. This is huge. You cannot appreciate what you are not measuring.
There are but 4 suggestions listed above, but in real life there are hundreds or even thousands of things that you can do to take better care of yourself in life. It is up to you to explore and find out what those things are. You might also ask for help in this department from other people (start by talking to others at Al-anon if you like).
Doing all that you can do and then turning the rest over
If you follow the suggestions above then you will basically be on a spiritual path. You may choose to pray or you may not. Ultimately it will not matter if you do all of the suggestions listed because you will find a way to turn the results over to something other than yourself.
This is a process. You do what you can, you do your own part, and then you leave the results up to the universe. Or to your higher power. But you release yourself from that responsibility. Because you did what you could do.
And in doing so, you have learned how to take care of yourself, first and foremost. You can’t help someone else from drowning if your own ship is sinking. Therefore you must focus on your own life first and foremost. Be the example. This will give you a stronger foundation in order to deal with alcoholism and drug addiction, regardless of what happens or how it turns out.
There can be some big challenges when dealing with an alcoholic. Sometimes you will need to say “no” when your whole mind and body wants to say “yes.” If you are not strong enough then this could indirectly cause the alcoholic to stay stuck in their disease. Instead, you might have been strong enough to put your foot down when it was needed most, and you will not be strong enough to do that unless you are actively taking care of yourself. It is your own path of personal growth that can give you the strength to really give someone the tough love that they might need in order to heal.
There is only so much that you can do when it comes to motivating an alcoholic. You can ask them to go to rehab, you can set limits and boundaries, or you can make idle threats (that you don’t intend to follow through with). Obviously you do not want to make idle threats, but you do want to learn how to set limits and boundaries.
If you are really close to the alcoholic in question then it can get really tough because you will probably fight about this stuff all of the time. Interestingly, there are some techniques for fighting that may surprise you. One is that you should practice “non-reaction” when the alcoholic in your life tries to draw you into an angry fight. Normally they get drunk, do something outrageous, and then expect for you to react to them with anger. When you get angry it gives them the excuse that they need to justify their drinking.
The idea behind “non reaction” is that you take away their excuse. You don’t react with anger. You don’t react with anything. If they get drunk and expect you to get emotional, you don’t give it to them. You don’t react.
Why would you want to do this? Because it forces the alcoholic to look at themselves.
Think about that for a moment. If you are yelling and screaming back and forth at each other with a drunken spouse, they do not have to look at themselves. You give them a target, something to be angry at.
Take that target away. Don’t react. Don’t get drawn into an emotional argument. Simply shrug and don’t react at all. This will cause them to look at themselves, at their drinking, at their own behavior. Because you will not be yelling and screaming back at them any more. So they can no longer take the focus off of themselves.
Trust me, this gets really uncomfortable in a hurry for most alcoholics. They don’t like to look at themselves and their own drinking if they can help it.
The art of non-reaction is not easy to master. And you certainly can’t employ techniques like this if you are not working on becoming a stronger person yourself, because you will lack the self confidence to follow through with it.
Therefore one of the best things that you can do in order to help an alcoholic is to get to an Al-anon meeting yourself. So that you can become stronger. So that you can learn how to behave around the alcoholic: To not enable them, to not be drawn into the fighting, and so on.
Help yourself first. This can then lead you to the point where you are in a position to help the alcoholic in your life, even if indirectly.