How To Help An Alcoholic

Discover how to help an alcoholic who's unwilling to get help, even when it's difficult.

Helping someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be challenging. AUDs are chronic conditions characterized by an inability to control continued alcohol use despite the negative social and health consequences associated with their problematic drinking. Someone with an AUD might be in denial about their alcoholism or very resistant to pleas for them to get help. When this is the case, you may be left wondering how to move forward. 1

Often, substance abuse can affect an entire family unit and may also negatively impact close friends and coworkers. 2

It’s natural to be afraid for a loved one who continuously engages in maladaptive and potentially harmful behavior, such as alcohol abuse. With good intentions, loved ones of alcoholics may go to great lengths in an attempt to save the person they care about from the consequences of their substance use disorder (SUD) and end up enabling the addiction unwittingly.3

Unfortunately, you can’t control your loved one’s actions, but you can control your own behavior towards someone struggling with an AUD. In doing so, you might be able to help them see the need for and seek treatment for alcoholism. 

Discouraging an Alcoholic from Drinking  

Supporting the recovery of someone with an alcohol use disorder often includes ending any enabling of their addictive behavior and setting healthy boundaries for yourself. 

While you may believe that making excuses for your loved one protects them in a way, to begin to help an alcoholic, it may be necessary to allow the consequences of their drinking behavior to come to light as you refrain from enabling their addiction. 

Enabling Vs. Helping 

Enabling often accommodates addictive behavior, rather than discouraging it or helping to stop it. Enabling someone with an AUD is not synonymous with helping them, and it can unintentionally communicate acceptance or otherwise downplay the serious consequences of a loved one’s behavior. One example of enabling may include repeatedly bailing a child or other family member out of jail, covering their court fees, and hiring and paying for lawyers.4

Enabling a loved one who is struggling with alcoholism may also involve:5

  • Making excuses for your loved one’s alcoholism.  
  • Trying to “fix” your loved one.  
  • Minimizing the situation.  
  • Drinking with your loved one.  
  • Justifying your loved one’s actions. 
  • Suppressing your own feelings. 
  • Taking over your loved one’s responsibilities.  
  • Feeling superior to your loved one.  
  • Lying for your loved one.   

Unlike enabling, helping an alcoholic involves offering emotional support but not offering to be the fixer. You can continually communicate your concern and your love, while encouraging them to seek help for their disease.  You can also help the situation by helping yourself—setting clear boundaries (and sticking to them) and seeking help for yourself by attending support groups for families such as Al-Alon. 

How Does Enabling Hurt Someone? 

Without experiencing social, financial, or health-related consequences, an alcoholic may not fully recognize the pervasively negative consequences of their addiction. Enabling someone struggling with addiction prevents them from fully experiencing the repercussions of their actions. Therefore, someone abusing a drug, such as alcohol, may be less likely to make attempts to stop drinking if a loved one enables them.6

Enabling, in short, can prevent someone from learning the valuable lessons needed to save their life. Many people may think they are helping when they are actually enabling. 

Free and low-cost alcoholism treatment is available.

Quick Tips for Helping an Alcoholic: 

Do:
 

  • Educate yourself on the potential symptoms and behavioral changes associated with alcohol use disorders 
  • Set (and hold) clear personal boundaries. 
  • Offer help, resources, and a listening ear for someone struggling with addiction. 
  • Practice self-care and stress-reduction strategies to help yourself cope with your loved one’s addiction in healthy ways. 

Don’t:  

  • Protect your loved one from alcohol-related consequences. 
  • Blame yourself for their addictive behavior. 
  • Try to control their addictive behavior. 
  • Deny the existence of an alcohol abuse issue.  
  • Take your loved one’s actions personally. 

What is a Personal Intervention? 

If taking a step back isn’t enough to help someone struggling with alcohol abuse, it may be time for an informal discussion, also sometimes referred to as a “personal intervention”.7

Many people struggling with an AUD are in deep denial about their addiction, making it difficult to seek help. 

Personal interventions are a form of informal interventions and, in the right situation, may pose another promising solution to this denial. In relation to substance abuse, a personal intervention exists to “intervene” in someone’s addiction with the hope of that individual seeking immediate treatment help. Although the word “intervention” may seem daunting, these efforts towards mediation can mean something as simple as having a one-on-one conversation with your loved one.7

Although all interventions may seem the same, there are differences between interventions that are considered helpful and unhelpful. All interventions are considered a form of confrontation, and of course, some confrontations can be constructive while others may be considered unproductive by some. More helpful interventions on loved ones involved ones perceived as genuine that were delivered by trusted and respected individuals. Another common thread between helpful interventions includes the offerings of tangible solutions, such as clear steps to receiving professional mental health treatment.8

Well-conducted personal interventions may motivate some people struggling with substance abuse seek professional help for their addiction to alcohol. It is crucial that, if considering having a personal intervention with your loved one, that the discussion is well thought-out. A personal intervention shouldn’t feel like an attack on your loved one, but to address this person’s addiction and offer them help and resources. 7,8

There are plenty of intervention strategies that will help get you prepared for staging an intervention. No matter what, deciding what you’d like to convey to your loved one before approaching them is important. It may even be necessary for you to script your intervention before conducting it with your loved one. 

During an intervention, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids highlights the importance of:7,9

  • Waiting until the struggling person is sober. 
  • Staying calm. 
  • Carving out an ample amount of time for the discussion. 
  • Asking if it is a good time to talk. If the person says “okay”, then proceed. 
  • Talking in a quiet, private area. 
  • Emphasizing that this conversation is to express concern for your loved one and their self-destructive behaviors.  
  • Preparing for your loved one to be receptive or defiant.  
  • Telling the individual about the effects that his or her drinking has had on you and others.  
  • Using specific examples of alcohol-fueled incidents, to point out the severity of their alcohol abuse. 
  • Explaining that this discussion is not an attack, but instead an attempt to bring all the social and personal consequences of their addiction to their attention. 
  • Preparing to have resources available if the person struggling with substance abuse decides that they want to go to rehab.  
  • If necessary, setting boundaries and practice healthy detachment.
     

All in all, be genuine in your delivery and do your best to not take your loved one’s reaction to your conversation personally.   

Seek Help from Healthcare Professionals 

If your efforts to help convince someone of their need for rehabilitation services aren’t enough, it still isn’t time to give up on getting the individual to enter treatment. If you know of anyone else in the alcoholic’s life that has the kind of influence that may help, you should ask for that help. It can take a few discussions to get an alcoholic to see that the problem is serious and widespread. 

When all else fails, approach a healthcare professional, such as a counselor or therapist, for advice. Someone with expertise in the treatment of an AUD may be able to help you approach a friend or loved one in need in a more effective manner, or may aid in your efforts to encourage treatment for them.10

When Your Loved One Agrees to Treatment 

If you’ve held a conversation with your loved one and they are open to the idea of treatment, you’ll want to be certain they have the resources to quickly and easily find an alcohol treatment facility. It may be best to have a list of reputable treatment centers centers handy to make this person’s decision easier.

While someone is seeking treatment for alcohol abuse, you can offer in-person support while they search for the right provider. Your loved one may be worried about issues such as the pain of detox or logistics like childcare when they attend treatment. Ideally, before approaching your loved one with treatment options, you’ve thought through some of these issues. You can present a list of medical detox programs that will help them through withdrawal and go over options for childcare with them—e.g., maybe you can help arrange for a family member to watch them during the treatment period.   

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last? 

If your loved one decides to seek treatment for their alcohol abuse, they may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms at the start of the recovery period. In fact, fear of withdrawal may be one of the foremost concerns you may have to help address in order to get them to accept help. Understanding withdrawal, how long it will last, and the best ways to get treatment can help you address this fear with your loved one.  

Depending on an individual’s level of alcohol dependence, acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin within hours of the last drink and last for days.11

These symptoms tend to vary in severity based on factors such as how much and how frequently a person drank and their overall physical health. Certain alcohol withdrawal symptoms may be relatively mild, such as:12,13

  • Headache. 
  • Insomnia. 
  • Mild anxiety. 
  • Stomach upset. 

On the other hand those with severe alcohol dependence may also experience more severe symptoms shortly after they stop drinking, including:10

  • Confusion. 
  • Agitation. 
  • Fever. 
  • Hypertension. 
  • Alcohol withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens).
     

Due to the risk of severe or complicated alcohol withdrawal in some individuals, it may be necessary for those seeking recovery to be evaluated by a mental health professional. Next, they may need to be closely monitored by a team of medical professionals at a medical detox and alcohol withdrawal management program 

A medical detox program ensures the utmost safety during acute alcohol withdrawal, a time that can be very dangerous. Not only will medical detox give you peace of mind knowing you’re in the hands of qualified medical staff, but it can help you through the discomfort and provide a starting point for further treatment.

Resources Available for Loved Ones 

While it’s ideal for your loved one to decide on their own to enter treatment, sometimes they need help in making the decision to take the first step. Family members can be a major influence toward nudging a loved one into treatment. It may take multiple attempts, but consistent encouragement and repeated discussions about treatment may pay off eventually.

In the meantime, there are resources you can utilize to help you cope with your loved one’s addiction. These include:

  • Al-anon: This resource helps loved ones and family members of alcoholics share their experiences, offer support to each other, and find hope for the future.
  • Ala-Teen: This support resource for younger family members and loved ones of alcoholics is a part of the larger Al-Anon family groups.
  • Co-Dependents Anonymous: This 12-step group helps members achieve healthy and loving relationships.

Remember: prioritizing your mental and physical health is essential for healing from addiction.

Sources:

[1] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2020). Alcohol Use Disorder.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2004). Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy.

[3] WA State Employee Program (2016). Codependency and Addiction.

[4] Soc Work Public Health (2013). The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Family and Children: From Theory to Practice.

[5] University of Pennsylvania Health System (2003). Enabling Behaviors.

[6] Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer. 

[7] Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Intervention E-Book. 

[8] J Psychoactive Drugs (2012). Substance Users’ Perspectives on Helpful and Unhelpful Confrontation: Implications on Recovery.

[9] Partnership to End Addiction (2014). Helping an Adult Family Member or Friend with a Drug or Alcohol Addiction.

[10] American Family Physician (2004). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.

[11] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.

[12] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author. 

[13] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2014). Alcohol Use Disorder.

[14] National Institute on Drug Abuse (2018). Principles of Effective Treatment.