How to Support an Alcoholic Loved One or Friend

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When a friend or loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, it can feel emotionally draining to sit on the sidelines and watch their struggle feeling as though you are helpless to assist in any way. Additionally, the difficulty they face to personally acknowledge an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and begin the process of seeking help can be overwhelming. As a friend, companion, or family member, you have likely tried to encourage or even help your loved one stop using several times but to no avail. For many family members who live with or are close to someone with an alcohol use disorder, the cycle of encouraging them to seek help only to feel rejected often leads to what feels like a never-ending circle of frustration, stress, anger, and relapse as the addict also feels the emotional challenge of knowing they need help but struggling to accept it.

The signs of alcoholism are different from person to person. Unfortunately, addiction, including addictions to alcohol, affects people in different ways. Therefore, it can be challenging to pinpoint specific symptoms that indicate if a friend or loved one has alcohol use disorder or is “an alcoholic.” However, data suggests that alcohol remains one of the most widely abused addictive substances in the United States. Recently the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration1 conducted a survey that showed as many as one in twenty deaths that occur worldwide are alcohol-related. Here in the United States, 90,000 people each year lose their lives to alcohol-related causes.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse’s published data suggests that there are as many as 17,000,000 Americans (at least 18 years of age) who can be diagnosed for an alcohol use disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)’s diagnostic criteria. In addition to those, almost 1,000,000 adolescents and teens (individuals between the age of 12 and 17) were diagnosed with alcohol use disorders of varying severity.

How to Know Your Loved One or Friend is an Alcoholic

Addiction is a disease of the individual. This means that although two people may struggle with alcohol addictions, alcohol's impacts on their physical, psychological, and spiritual health will be different. Because the effects of alcoholism vary so widely, it can be difficult for addiction treatment professionals to accurately diagnose the severity of alcohol use disorders. For this reason, the DSM lists specific diagnostic criteria that help addiction treatment professionals accurately diagnose alcohol use disorders based on mild, moderate, or severe symptoms.

When someone continues to consume alcohol regardless of knowing there are harmful physical and psychological consequences to their actions, they have an alcohol use disorder. Drinking, even social drinking, is considered problematic if your friend or loved one chooses to drink regardless of how drinking impacts their performance at home or work, how alcohol contributes to declining relationships, causes new or worsening health problems, or leads to legal issues directly related to alcohol. Additionally, someone who chooses alcohol to dull pain associated with a physical or mental health condition or drinks because they cannot feel pleasure or joy otherwise may meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder.

Addiction, alcoholism, or alcohol use disorders are all words to describe the same situation. When someone has developed an alcohol addiction, they experience a psychological and physical need to consume alcohol. Eventually, the physical craving for alcohol becomes so intense and so overwhelming that it can be debilitating. Consequently, your friend or loved one will turn to alcohol (almost constantly) to alleviate the emotional and physical discomfort associated with not having alcohol in their body.

The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders or DSM lists 11 specific criteria mental health, and addiction treatment providers can use to diagnose the presence and severity of alcohol use disorders. It is important to note that someone does not need to exhibit all 11 criteria to have an alcohol use disorder. The severity of their addiction will depend on the number of standards they have. Although symptoms may appear different from person to person, some of the most common that appear in most situations include making excuses for drinking, choosing alcohol over essential obligations, changes in personal hygiene, cognitive changes, physical health changes, and increasing isolation.

What You Can Do to Help

If you have a friend or loved one who struggles with addiction, it is not unreasonable to want to help them get well. But, you have likely tried several times and several different tactics to encourage them to seek potentially lifesaving help without success. So what are some things you can do to help your loved one while still helping protect your emotions?

The first step you can take is to learn about alcohol addiction and alcohol use. There are multiple online sources and helpful services available for family and friends of struggling alcoholics looking to learn more about the effects of addiction. You can also contact your primary care provider or a mental health provider for support and guidance. The more you know about alcohol use disorders and the effects of chronic alcohol addiction, the more equipped you will be to have a conversation with your friend or loved one about how seeking help can help them heal.

It is also important to take care of yourself. Many people who try to help a friend or loved one seek help for addiction lose themselves in the process of trying to help someone else. Alcoholism is often referred to as a family disease. This is because the effects of alcohol affect everyone in the family regardless of relationship or age. It is crucial to remember that you cannot adequately and successfully help your friend or loved one address their challenges if you fail to take care of yourself.

Talking to Your Loved One or Friend About Their Addiction

In addition to self-help and learning about alcohol addiction, you may also consider talking to your loved one or friend about their addiction2. Unfortunately, conversations about alcohol use are often emotionally charged in difficult for both parties. There are a few tips you can follow to help ease the stress of the moment and ensure your conversation is as successful as possible.

First, choose neutral territory and a time when your loved one is as sober as possible and a location where you can speak freely. Choose an environment away from home or areas where they can simply walk away. Also, try to use “I” statements instead of accusatory statements such as “you” or “you're." The goal of the conversation is to help your loved one understand that you are concerned for their health and safety, not that you are angry with them for having an alcohol use disorder. Try to stick to the facts and point out the behaviors that scare you or make you nervous.

Keep in mind that you do not have to have this conversation alone. Often, when trying to help a friend or loved one overcome addiction, a group effort such as an intervention may be the most beneficial way to help them understand how addiction affects them and those they love most.

Staging an Alcohol Intervention For Your Loved One

When people think of interventions, they often picture what they see on TV. Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, reality TV and many movies have popularized the idea of interventions for everything from relationships to drug addiction. Unfortunately, the picture presented on television is typically not an accurate representation of a proper intervention. Televised interventions often consist of yelling, crying, anger, people storming in and out of the room, and several more theatrical components designed to build ratings.

A true intervention, although frequently emotionally charged, is little of the above. Interventions are well-planned events designed to help a friend or loved one accept help to overcome addiction. The process of planning an intervention involves several hours of work, planning, and thought before friends and family approach the addict. Failing to put in the work often leads to intervention failure. It is also important to remember that an intervention is not a singular event but the process of helping your friend or loved one except treatment and find the most effective treatment program to meet their needs.

Tips on Having a Successful Intervention

A successful intervention is designed to help a friend or loved one struggling with alcohol addiction except that they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, need help, and that they have a strong support system of friends and loved ones behind them to provide support throughout the entire treatment process. Data provided by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence states that nearly 90% of addicts seek help3 for addiction after an intervention compared to only 10% without the benefit of intervention assistance. However, the "true" success of interventions is difficult to determine as it is challenging to know how many addicts are successful in treatment and beyond.

There are vital factors to consider when planning an intervention 4 to ensure the greatest possibilities for success. Some of these factors must be included in the planning process, and others as part of the physical intervention itself. First, the intervention must focus on the positive to every extent possible. Although there will inevitably be negative emotions, and the individual struggling with an alcohol addiction must acknowledge the hurt and harm of their addiction, it is crucial not to blame and not to point fingers. Instead, offer that addiction causes problems; however, there are solutions available, and you are there and ready to help make solutions possible.

It is also vital to stay on topic as much as possible and avoid hurtful and accusatory statements. Allowing an intervention to devolve into what is commonly seen on television is likely to lead to a failed intervention. Additionally, an experience like that may inspire your loved one to be unwilling to participate in conversations about their addiction in the future.

As part of an intervention for a friend or family member, you need to remember that not all interventions are successful the first time around. Although the conversation and the process may inspire your loved one to consider seeking help for their addiction, one conversation may not be enough to encourage them to actively accept treatment. This does not mean another intervention is required. However, more conversations with family and loved ones, talks with their physician, meetings with a mental health provider, or personal time for self-reflection may help them realize seeking help is the best course of action for their overall health and well-being.

Once the intervention is over, be there and be available for your loved one. Understand that they may not want to talk about their struggles with alcohol immediately. They may want time to think, reflect, or work through the emotional frustrations resulting from the intervention process. Despite the positive desires of an intervention, it is nearly impossible for an intervention to occur without some (potentially) negative emotions. Make sure your friend or loved one knows that you are available when they are ready to talk. Also, offer your services and time to help them research addiction treatment centers and even take them to the rehab of their choice when they are ready.

Finding the Right Alcohol Treatment Program

Many of the millions of Americans who struggle with an alcohol use disorder do not realize the harm their addiction causes beyond the direct impacts on their physical and psychological health. For many, the concept that alcohol addiction causes physical and psychological harm to their friends and loved ones can sometimes be complicated to accept. As part of an intervention, you can work with your loved one to find the best inpatient alcohol rehab possible.

Choosing the best alcohol treatment program will depend on various factors, all of which are unique to the specific needs of the individual seeking help. The best way to determine if a program is right for your loved one is to do your research. Consider the level of care they need (inpatient or outpatient), the severity of their addiction, the presence of any underlying medical or mental health conditions (co-occurring disorders), and whether this is the first time they've accepted addiction treatment. These factors are important in choosing a program where all of their treatment needs can be addressed in a comprehensive, evidence-based program focused on their specific needs and goals.

Helping your friend or loved one choose a treatment center where they can feel safe and comfortable overcoming their struggles with addiction is vital to their ability to attain and maintain lasting sobriety. However, choosing the “right” alcohol treatment program can seem like an overwhelming process.