What exactly can you do if a friend or a family member is struggling with alcoholism?
Are there things that you can say that will actually make a difference? Is there a sure-fire intervention method that you would be crazy not to try?
Let’s take a closer look at exactly how to help an alcoholic that may be suffering in your life.
How to help the alcoholic in your life without enabling them
The problem with “helping” alcoholics is that most of what you might do to try to help them is actually hurting them instead. This is especially true if it is help that they have requested from you, rather than your own suggestions.
In other words, we need to differentiate between actually helping an alcoholic and enabling them.
So now then….what exactly is “enabling?”
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that your son or daughter has children and they need to feed those kids. And your son or daughter is also addicted to alcohol and they need to buy booze. So they come to you one day and say that they are all out of money and that they need to feed their kids. So naturally, being a good person and wanting to help the children, you give the alcoholic money to buy food.
Or maybe you are wise to this problem, so you simply go feed the kids directly. Or you take them food directly. Or whatever.
It doesn’t really matter in the end, because it is still an enabling behavior. What you are doing is training the alcoholic in your life to ignore their responsibilities and to just go ahead and drink their money away, because someone will bail them out. Therefore you need to stop bailing the person out, in any capacity.
If this is enabling, then what is “helping?”
You can help the alcoholic in your life by detaching from them and further isolating them. This may sound cruel but it is the only thing that you can really do in order to move them closer to surrender. Your job is to back off and let them experience the consequences and misery of what they have sown. If you step in and try to lessen their pain then you are actually only prolonging their addiction. Better to back off and let them become truly miserable due to their alcoholism. This is the only way you can really indirectly move them closer to surrender–by letting them experience pain and misery.
Note that you do not have to force them to be miserable–that will happen on its own. The alcoholic is creating their own chaos and misery, and your job is to stay out of it. At times there will be an urge to jump in and “save” the alcoholic from certain consequences. You must resist this urge so that they are driven closer to true surrender.
It is important for you to understand how the surrender process actually works. For example, you may be under the (false) impression that an alcoholic might get sober because they want to enjoy life or they want to achieve some specific goal. This is not really how surrender works in recovery. Instead, the alcoholic is fighting an internal battle. The battle is between the pain and misery of addiction weighed against their fear of sobriety and the unknown. They fear sobriety and they fear living without alcohol. Now ask yourself a question: “What would make an alcoholic face those fears? What would motivate them?”
The answer is pain. Pain and misery. Pain and misery and chaos and consequences. These are the things that motivate the alcoholic to get sober. I wish it were different, I wish I could tell you some happier truth, but this is reality. This is how surrender really works. I did not get sober until I was fed up with the pain in my life. I had to be miserable, alone, and frustrated with my life beyond belief. I had to be at a breaking point from being so miserable. This is what leads to true surrender.
So unfortunately if the alcoholic in your life is suffering a great deal, this is actually a good thing. In fact it is the only thing that will move them closer to surrender. Now you may ask the question: “What if this person just starts drinking less and less, and they sort of come out of the pain and misery on their own?” That may happen and I sincerely hope that it does, but if it does then that person is not a “real” alcoholic. They may have had a drinking problem but if they can self-correct without any help then they are not really an alcoholic to begin with. The true alcoholic will need to seek help when they are finally ready to change their life. They cannot do it alone. They cannot initiate this change alone because they do not know how to live.
Setting a healthy boundary and making a clear offer to the alcoholic
So one of the things that you want to learn how to do is to set a healthy boundary.
In order to do this you need to communicate to the alcoholic. Try to do this at a time when the person is not drunk or overly emotional. I realize that those times may be few and far between but obviously it is not going to do a lot of good if you try to communicate this when they are intoxicated.
Setting a boundary is pretty simple. You must tell the alcoholic specifically what you are willing to do, and what you are not willing to do.
Now there is a real danger in wanting to make hollow threats to the alcoholic in order to try to get them to take action. For example, you may tell the alcoholic that you are going to kick them out of the house if they do not go to rehab. Don’t say this unless you are fully prepared to kick them out of the house with absolutely no regret about the decision. You have to be willing to “walk the walk” when you set a boundary. Do not set a boundary unless you fully intend to keep it.
One of the things that you will probably want to say to the alcoholic at some point is how you will help them.
Tell them that you are done helping them in nearly every capacity except for one. Tell them you will no longer give them money or bail them out of any problems at all unless it involves one thing. And that one thing is them, checking into rehab. They need to go to treatment. They need to check into inpatient rehab. The kind that has a detox and a residential unit.
Tell them that you will help them if they are willing to do that, and that you will only help them with that. If they need help with anything else in their life, such as money for food or a ride to the post office then they can look somewhere else. Don’t bother coming to you for any kind of help or assistance unless they are ready to get in a car and go to rehab. Period.
I call this “making an offer.” You have stated your offer and the alcoholic is free to accept or reject your offer. You are not really making any threats other than to say that your help is unavailable unless they are wanting to go to rehab.
Some alcoholics will even try to turn this offer into manipulation. They will say “OK, I really want to go to rehab and get some help, and I will do that, but in order to do that I need this, this, and this right now!” That is where you must be strong enough to say “No, you are just manipulating. Tell me when you are ready to go to treatment without all of these strings attached and I will help you. That is my offer.”
Now obviously if they go check into rehab this is generally the best course of action, but it is certainly no guarantee of sobriety. They may very well leave treatment and relapse immediately. If they do you should not be shocked in the least as it generally takes more than one try for an alcoholic to “get” recovery. But any trip to rehab is definitely a huge step in the right direction and it also might the beginning of their sobriety journey. Since you can never know for sure and this is generally the best alternative for most alcoholics, it should become your default offer. You will help them with getting to rehab, and nothing else. Take it or leave it.
Letting the alcoholic experience natural consequences without setting them up to fail
It may sound like I am encouraging you to set the alcoholic up to fail. This is not the case.
They alcoholic will fail on their own. They have a disease and they are going to be facing all sorts of increasingly heavy consequences as a result of that disease. So you do not have to go out of your way in order to make life harder for the alcoholic. They will do that all on their own.
It can be really hard to step back and get out of the way of someone who is slowly self destructing. And it can be extremely hard if you think there is serious risk to their own health, which there often times will be when dealing with alcoholism. For example, knowing that the alcoholic drinks and drives on a regular basis. How are you supposed to deal with a situation like this? It is never easy and there are no perfect answers. Obviously you have a responsibility to the safety of others to report such a person, but then again you don’t want to become an object of resentment if you one of the only “beacons of hope” in the alcoholic’s life that actually encourages recovery.
The alcoholic may have many enablers in their life. If they do then there is not much that you can do about this. One tactic is to try to educate the other enablers about what they are doing. In other words, if you teach them how enabling works and try to get them to put their foot down then it could lead the alcoholic to surrender much quicker. But this is not an easy thing to do and it can get complicated and messy really fast if you are trying to educate people on how to behave around the alcoholic. Generally one of the best ways to do this is to try to take these other enablers with you to an Al-anon meeting, which is something you will also want to attend yourself.
Attending Al-anon for your own sanity and support
Al-anon is a support group for the loved ones of alcoholics. You should go there.
If there are other enablers in the life of the alcoholic, you might eventually ask them to come along with you to a meeting.
One of the things that they will teach you in Al-anon is how to set healthy boundaries. This is how you stop enabling someone, by setting boundaries. You define what you will and will not do in order to “help” them. If the alcoholic is struggling because they have enablers in their life then you might try to educate the enablers by bringing them to an Al-anon meeting. Simply ask them if they would be willing to come with you to one. When they ask what it is just say it is like a support group for friends and families of alcoholics.
It is important to attend Al-anon for your own sanity. Understand that you are not going there so that you can learn how to change the alcoholic. If that happens it will only be due to a very indirect path. The best that you can do is to put your foot down, stop enabling, and then hope that the alcoholic will surrender and go to rehab. But simply going to Al-anon is not necessarily going to make this happen any faster, or at all. Rather it is more important that you go so that you have some support for your own sanity. It is not fair to ask someone to carry the burden of addiction all by themselves. At least if you go to a support group you will have help and can share the burden a bit. It helps.
In the end there are not a lot of things that you can do other than encouraging treatment. You cannot control another person directly.
In some states (and countries) you can go through the committal process and force someone to attend treatment. I generally regard this as a bad idea though based on the following ideas:
1) Treatment is for those who want it, not for those who need it. Many people need rehab but you cannot force them to change their lives.
2) If you force someone to do something as major as inpatient rehab there is likely to be quite a bit of resentment as a result. This is not going to help your cause in the long run, and it may be a very long process indeed (the alcoholic in your life finally sobering up).
3) Hitting bottom and true surrender are an issue of timing. If the person is ready for change then no intervention is necessary. On the other hand if they are not at a point of surrender then there is nothing in the world that could possibly help them, including being forced into rehab. Just going to rehab does not change people. They have to surrender first if it is going to be effective.
In other words, someone might point to the fact that they did a formal intervention once and it worked great. In that case the person was at a point of surrender anyway and the intervention was not even necessary. This is my opinion of course, but I stand by it as being accurate. You can talk someone into treatment but you cannot talk them into a lifetime of sobriety. They are two different things and if the alcoholic is not ready for a lifetime of sobriety then going to treatment is of little consequence.
That said, it is still possible to encourage treatment in a less formal manner, which I believe you should do. This should become part of your boundaries that you set, in the sense that you will help them get to rehab but you will not help them with anything else.
If they are at the point of surrender then they will agree to treatment without any resistance. If you have to convince them to go then they are probably not ready to change their whole life.
Remember that it is pain and misery that fuels the moment of surrender. The alcoholic is not going to decide to change when things are going well. Therefore if you want to do an “informal” intervention and suggest that they go to treatment you may think a bit about your timing. Ask them if they have just suffered a major consequence in their life. They wake up after a week of intense alcohol abuse and their spouse has left them. They wake up in jail after having wrecked their car. These are the times when your suggestion might best be heard, because they have additional motivation to want to change. It is pain and misery that motivates the alcoholic to change. Capitalize on this information and use the timing to your advantage. Encourage them to change when they are going through serious pain and misery.
If you have a son or a daughter who is struggling with alcoholism then it can be particularly difficult. In that case you will definitely want to follow the suggestions in this article and get to Al-anon for support. Remember not to make any hollow threats, tempting as it may be. Take care of yourself and set the example of good health. Detach from the alcoholic and force them to look at their own actions instead of blaming you want others for their problems (which they will try to do anyway).
Ultimately your best option is to encourage treatment. While rehab is not a magic bullet, it is still the best option that they have. And if the person truly surrenders before attending treatment then they will have a really good chance of remaining sober.
What about you, are you trying to help an alcoholic in your own life? Has anything helped or worked well for you? What have you learned? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!