How can you persuade a family member to attend treatment services for alcoholism? There is no perfect answer to this question but it is definitely a topic that many people want answers for. I have been in this position myself at times because even though I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict myself, I have also tried to encourage others to seek treatment as well. In fact, for much of my journey in recovery I was working in a drug and alcohol treatment center. To put it bluntly, I have witnessed a lot of drama when it comes to people attempting to sober up and get clean. It is not an easy path no matter which side of the “problem” you reside on.
Even though you cannot really persuade someone to do something against their will, there are some things that I have learned over the years that might at least help a few people out there.
The problem with learning more about how to help other alcoholics is that we usually don’t like the answers we get. But that doesn’t mean the answers are not true (unfortunately).
You can’t force anyone to change, but you can influence them indirectly
You cannot force someone to change their life, no matter what the issue at hand may be.
This is definitely true of alcoholism and drug addiction. If someone is not ready to get sober, then no amount of foot stomping or threatening talk from you is going to make them change their minds.
You may be asking yourself: “If that is true, then what is the point of even trying? If you can’t change another person, then what is the point of this article?”
While it is true that you cannot directly force another person to change against their will, you can definitely influence them, and by this I really mean that you can affect them indirectly.
So perhaps you cannot go directly to the person and say “I want you to stop drinking alcohol every day!” and have that work out. This is not likely to change anything.
But you might be able to go the person in your life and say “When you are drinking I will no longer be around you any more.” (Nor will my children, etc.). Or you might set other boundaries that limit how much you interact with the alcoholic in your life. At the time, the alcoholic may shrug their shoulders and say “big deal, I don’t really need you to be happy anyway, I have my booze!” So they go back to their drinking and think nothing of your new boundaries that you have set.
But if everyone does this in the life of an alcoholic or drug addict then it can really start to add up. Even though you are only affecting the alcoholic “indirectly” by your choices (which are essentially limits and boundaries that you set for yourself about what behavior is acceptable to you and what is not), eventually this may add up to have a real impact on the alcoholic.
Where do you learn to set limits and boundaries? Most people learn it by attending Al-anon meetings. That is one organization of people that can help you to learn how to deal with the alcoholic or drug addict in your life. They can give you support but they can also help to teach you how to set healthy limits and boundaries.
Most addicts and alcoholics are not completely isolated (yet). In the end of their disease (right before death) they may be completely isolated, but in the beginning stages of their addiction they typically still have many people in their lives.
Now if one of those people in the life of the alcoholic starts going to Al-anon and they learn how to change their own behavior (and start setting healthy limits and boundaries) then this will have a certain amount of impact. Which is to say, probably not a whole lot.
But then if everyone in the life of that same alcoholic is going to Al-anon and they are all learning how to set healthy boundaries, then watch out. Suddenly the alcoholic has no one to enable them any more. No one to listen to their sob story any more, how the world has it in for them and they are a victim so they need to drink every day (“If you had my problems, you would drink too!”). So you might say that everyone in the life of the alcoholic is “ganging up” on them. This is partially true. Although realize that they are not attacking the alcoholic in this case. They are not deliberately trying to give them a hard time or anything. They are just all on the same page now as far as how NOT to enable the alcoholic, how NOT to feed into the disease, and how NOT to cosign the alcoholic’s crap when they try to lean on your shoulder and have you justify their drinking.
If this actually happened (where everyone around the alcoholic suddenly started going to Al-anon) then it would do a great deal to help force the hand of the alcoholic. I am not saying that it would cure him instantly or anything. Or even that this would be effective for sure in the long run or not. But you can bet that it would speed up the process.
And what process it that?
The process of surrender. The process of the alcoholic breaking through their own denial. Where they suddenly realize that THEY are the source of their own problems, and that they cannot really blame it on others any more.
Let me tell you something. When I finally had my moment of truth, when I finally surrendered and realized that I needed to ask for help and go to rehab, I was alone. My friends were out of town on a family trip. My girlfriend was with her family. I suddenly had no one to “party” with for a while. And so I sat in an empty apartment and tried to drink enough and use enough drugs to convince myself that I was having a good time.
You know what? It didn’t work. I was lonely, I was depressed, and I could not pull myself out of the hole. Everyone had left for the moment and I was forced to look at myself.
This is key. I was forced to look at myself, at my life, at what my life had become. Here I was, trying to get as drunk and stoned as possible, and I was all alone in my apartment. How pathetic was that really? Was this really the ideal that I had been striving for my whole life?
I don’t know why we surrender at certain points in our journey but that was my point of surrender. And it had to do with the fact that I was alone for the first time in a while. No one to point the finger of blame at. I had all the booze I needed and I could not make myself happy.
So what does this have to do with Al-anon?
If you learn how to set healthy limits and boundaries regarding the alcoholic or the drug addict in your life, then you move them closer to the sort of situation that I am describing up above. It is not about completely abandoning the person, because that is not what you have to do exactly. Rather, you must stop enabling them and allow them to suffer the consequences of their own disease. Sometimes we “rescue” the alcoholic or the addict when we really need to let them fall flat on their face. They have a saying for this, it is “putting pillows under them” as they fall. For example, calling in sick for your spouse when they are too hung over to get out of bed in the morning. When you make that call and cover for them, you are “putting pillows under them.” You prolong the pain and the agony for a while and you help them to keep the charade going.
Then the next day at work they are trying hard to make good, to make it up to the boss, to show them that they are still able to perform. So they straighten up for a few days or maybe a few weeks but eventually they go back to chaos and drinking again. Because they never fell flat on their face. They never learned the lesson that they were supposed to learn.
Unfortunately, the alcoholic and the drug addict are motivated by PAIN. They seek to avoid pain by drinking and using drugs. They escape from a million different forms of pain (anxiety, boredom, etc.) when they self medicate with alcohol or other drugs.
Alcoholics are motivated by pain. If you take that pain away from them, then you are enabling them to continue to drink. If you “put pillows under them” then they will never experience the pain that is necessary for them to finally hit bottom. This is what setting healthy limits and boundaries is all about. You are deciding what you will tolerate.
Once the alcoholic has had enough pain and misery in their addiction, they will decide to change. This is the moment of surrender.
The alcoholic is living in fear. They are afraid. They will deny this, and tell you that they are not afraid (most of the time). But make no mistake, the alcoholic and drug addict lives in fear.
They also experience pain as a result of their addiction. The pain is easy to brush aside usually, simply by using more and more of their drug of choice.
Eventually their drug of choice becomes less and less effective (this is known as tolerance). When this happens it becomes much harder to medicate their fear, and their pain.
They will reach a point when they become so miserable that they no longer care about their fear of sobriety (they actually have a million fears, but the fear of being sober and living without alcohol is a good fear to focus on at this point). They will be sick of living in pain because so many bad things have happened and they have experienced so many consequences in life.
When their pain finally exceeds their fear, they will stop drinking. They will face their fear because they will be “sick and tired” of being in pain.
This is the turning point. It takes guts. Some people never make it, they just keep self medicating. Others self destruct entirely. But some people finally realize that they are sick of the pain, and they want to escape the pain, and they want a better life. And they are willing to face their biggest fears in order to accomplish that.
This is recovery. When you face your biggest fears in order to find a better life for yourself.
Therefore, if you are in the life of an alcoholic or a drug addict, do NOT deny them of their pain. If you do then you preventing them from moving closer to true surrender.
Be the example, set your boundaries, stand your ground
There is a hard truth in dealing with addiction that no one wants to hear.
It is this:
You must be the example.
That is just for starters, but it is also a pretty big piece of the puzzle. You must be the example.
You would be amazed how many people who wander into Al-anon eventually end up in AA themselves! This is because many of them were in denial themselves, and they wanted someone else to change their life while they had major problems of their own. Or in other cases, they may not have been alcoholic when they got to Al-anon, but somewhere along the way they may pick it up. It does happen.
So this is part of your baseline for dealing with another alcoholic or drug addict: Don’t be drunk or messed up on drugs yourself.
Now that is not to say that you cannot be in recovery, because you most certainly can be. But you cannot be drinking or abusing drugs to excess and expecting someone else to change. You would be amazed how many people out there screw this simple concept up. Be the change that you wish to see in others.
After you are a living example of sobriety, set your boundaries. This is why it is important for you to be clean and sober yourself to some degree. Because you are going to demand and expect the same thing from others. We don’t want to be hypocrites.
Set your boundaries. If the alcoholic in your life comes to your home and they are drunk and obnoxious, is this acceptable to you? Maybe you live in the same house together, maybe you don’t. Either way, you have to set a boundary here. If you cannot legally bar someone from your space then you may need to create another space. Don’t just hole up in their home and expect them to change for you. Go find your own space where you can claim your own boundary of “no drunken chaos.”
If you cannot walk away from a drunk then you don’t have much power over the situation. You have to at least gain that much so that you can walk away from the chaos when things get really bad.
For example, maybe they drink often but rarely start yelling at people. You find the yelling to be unacceptable. So they suddenly get really drunk one night and they start yelling at you and they are obnoxious and out of line. A few things about this sort of situation:
1) The last thing that you want to do is yell back at them and engage them. If you do this then they can yell at you and take the focus completely off of themselves and their problem. If you do not engage them then eventually they have to look at themselves. Alcoholics don’t like to do this because they will not like what they see. Don’t yell back. Don’t react to them.
2) Don’t be in a situation where you have to take abuse from someone. Don’t give someone that kind of power and control over you. If you cannot walk away from a yelling match then you are stuck and you living at the mercy of a madman. If you can walk away then you might try doing that consistently for a while so that the alcoholic must look at themselves. If everyone walks away from them then they eventually have to look at their own lives. This is how they will eventually break through denial, by looking at themselves.
3) If you can’t walk away from a yelling match or you are in an abusive situation then you need to seek outside help. Call a help line, call a support group, do whatever you can to get away and find your freedom.
4) At some point you may have to ask yourself if you want to stay in a relationship where they are abusing alcohol or drugs. This is not fair to yourself at some point because they may be promising future change and never delivering. Again, Al-anon can help you learn to set boundaries here. One boundary might be “if you are still drinking by X date then I am going to disappear from your life.” Then you take steps to make that happen. Some people might argue that the alcoholic will not let them leave. In that case you are giving away too much power, and not giving yourself enough credit. The bottom line is that you do not want to just hold out false hope for years or decades if the alcoholic in your life is never going to change. You must learn to draw a line in the sand and then stick to your guns and get out if things don’t ever turn around.
Get help for yourself so that you can be strong
Key concept: Don’t focus on the alcoholic or drug addict getting help. Instead, focus on YOU getting help. Go to Al-anon! Sorry to keep harping on that but if you are not doing at least that much then the rest of these concepts are sort of meaningless. You need help and support. Go get it from the people who have already been through your exact struggle. That is the starting point.
As you become stronger, you depend on the alcoholic or drug addict in your life far LESS for your own happiness. This is important and may even have a direct impact on their journey to sobriety.
Why ultimatums don’t work unless you actually follow through on your threats
You may be tempted to threaten the alcoholic in your life with something just to get them to take action.
Don’t ever do this. Ultimatums never work. The alcoholic will always test you on it and see if the worst case outcome comes true.
Don’t fall for this. Don’t make ultimatums. Instead, figure out what you are really willing to do in terms of consequences, and then simply communicate that instead. It’s not an ultimatum if you are really going to carry through with it. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. Don’t make threats that you don’t intend to follow through on. Instead, learn to set healthy boundaries that you can enforce.
Should you organize a formal intervention?
Probably not, though I would not rule it out completely.
My opinion is that the following offer is just as effective as any intervention is:
“We (family and friends) are done helping you in any way, except for one. We will help you get to detox and rehab. If you want help with anything else, forget it. We will not help you in any way until you get sober, except by taking you to treatment. Let us know if and when you are ready to get help.”
Then, you stick to your guns. You have to really not help them in any way, other than to take them to rehab. It’s a tough stance to stick to, but it is really the most powerful (indirect) way that you can affect the alcoholic in your life.
Offer them rehab, or nothing.