Knowing how to help an alcoholic is the first step. When a person is struggling with alcohol addiction, they may hide how much they drink, lie to themselves or others about their consumption, or deny they have a problem. This can make it difficult for them to get help with alcohol or for loved ones to talk with them about seeking treatment.
To better understand this complex disorder and how to get help, the following discusses the stages of addiction development, the risk factors to be aware of, how to help an alcoholic in denial, how alcoholism is diagnosed, and what effective alcoholism treatment looks like.
Although alcoholism, or an alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic disease, it is treatable and can be managed effectively.
In addition to the resources below, getting help for alcoholism is just a phone call away. Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 at 1-888-685-5770 to provide guidance and information on various treatment options. Please call today.
Helping an Alcoholic
Step 1: Learn About Alcoholism
Without fully understanding the alcohol use disorder, it can be hard to talk about alcoholism with your loved one who’s struggling.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is when one can no longer control their use of alcohol, compulsively abuse it despite its negative ramifications, and/or experience emotional distress when they are not drinking.1
AUD is a chronic, relapsing disease that is diagnosed based on an individual meeting certain criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Additionally, according to the DSM-5, alcoholism is believed to have a strong heritable component. Between 40–60% of the variance of risk is attributable to genetic factors.2
However, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to understanding alcoholism. It is a multifaceted and complex disease, so while someone may inherit a predisposition to it, genes do not fully determine a person’s outcome.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) also explains that because alcoholism is a disease, it is an involuntary disability.3 This means that although people choose to drink initially, it may be out of their control to quit once they become addicted.
As the disease progresses, negative emotional, physical, and social changes are experienced such as marital problems, changes in mood, alcohol withdrawal, health issues and/or job loss.3 Denial is also an integral part of the disease for many, making it harder for them to acknowledge their need for treatment.3
Step 2: Research Alcohol Treatment Facilities
The type of treatment that will be most suitable for your loved one may be determined by several individual factors such as any previous attempts to quit, current alcohol use and corresponding level of physical alcohol dependence, any co-occurring medical and/or mental health conditions and any additional substance use.
Regardless of their level of alcohol abuse and whether they’re in denial, seeking the guidance of addiction treatment professionals can help you better understand how treatment works and what that may look like for your loved one.
Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC), a leading provider of addiction treatment services across the U.S. The admissions navigators at AAC are here to answer your questions about treatment 24/7 and all calls are confidential.Treatment during COVID-19: What You Need to Know
Step 3: Choose a Time to Talk
Committing to getting sober and seek treatment for alcoholism takes courage.
Yet, often times, those struggling with alcohol may not immediately be receptive to discussing treatment or admitting that they have a problem. Because of this, it may take a few conversations before they are willing to discuss treatment.
Before talking with them, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider who specializes in addiction to obtain guidance. Once you’ve done that, choose a time to sit down with them when they are sober so they can better process what you are saying.
Be careful in your word choices and try and remain calm while sharing how their drinking has affected you. Remember, this is not an issue they can control anymore.
If they remain in denial and aren’t ready to seek treatment, it may be time to consider an intervention. An intervention is a process that typically involves a drug and alcohol counselor, physician, or an intervention specialist along with family and friends.
Step 4: Check Your Addiction Treatment Insurance
If they’re ready to seek treatment, you may want to start thinking about how you will cover the cost of rehab. The cost of a treatment program for alcoholism can vary widely, depending on the type of program and your insurance coverage. Because treatment costs can differ, you want to make sure the program you enroll your loved one in will actually work.
AAC can improve treatment outcomes for those in recovery for alcohol use disorder. Find out if you or your loved one’s insurance covers treatment at an American Addiction Centers facility by filling out the form at the bottom of the page. Your information is kept 100% confidential.
In 1960, biostatistician and alcohol abuse researcher Elvin Morton Jellinek (E. M. Jellinek) gained widespread attention when he published The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, offering a new way to look at alcohol addiction.4
Jellinek viewed alcoholism as a chronic relapsing condition that needed to be treated by health professionals and developed a theory on the progression of alcoholism through various stages.
His model, now widely accepted, detailed his theoretical stages of alcohol addiction, each characterized by different changes in mental, physical, and social functioning.4
Although not every person struggling with alcohol abuse goes through these stages, they can be a helpful checklist to assess alcohol consumption and prevent forthcoming problems.4 Based on Jellinek’s theory, the four stages of alcohol addiction are:
The first involves general experimentation with alcohol and is when alcohol tolerance develops as the person begins drinking more regularly as a coping mechanism for anxiety, stress, or other emotions.5,6
Jellinek considers this the transitional stage where the development of a cyclical pattern of alcohol abuse starts. Drinking becomes more regular and individuals begin using social gatherings as an excuse to drink. They may also start consuming alcohol to cope with the negative consequences caused by drinking such as hangovers.6 At this stage, blackouts may also occur.5
This is the most crucial stage in Jellinek’s theory, and when a person begins to drink frequently and consistently, maybe even starting off their morning with a drink.6 They may struggle with worsening relationships with friends and family or experience changes to their behavior that impacts them negatively.5 They often feel health impacts such as hangovers or feeling sick more often when not drinking.
This final phase leads to a complete loss of control over alcohol consumption—the individual must drink.6 At this point, the individual’s body begins to require the presence of alcohol to feel normal. When the individual does not consume alcohol regularly, they may experience withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings.
What is considered to be an alcoholic?
There are many factors to consider when making a diagnosis of alcoholism, formally known as alcohol use disorder, or AUD. Some signs that a person’s drinking is problematic include continuing to drink despite negative effects on their relationships, physical health, job or other important obligations. Alcoholism should be diagnosed by an addiction specialist who can outline an appropriate detox and treatment plan.
How do you tell someone they have a drinking problem?
This may vary from person-to-person and you may need a substance abuse counselor or the advice of someone who does interventions to guide your approach. Some signs that an individual may have a problem include: negative social, physical, and emotional changes as the disease of alcohol use disorder progresses.
Finding Effective Alcohol Treatment
Since the mid-1970s, research has pointed to a number of key principles that are necessary to form the basis of any effective alcoholism treatment program.12
Treatment may involve medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, therapy through a rehabilitation program to understand the addiction and change behaviors, and long-term aftercare programming such as peer support groups to help maintain sobriety and avoid relapse.12
It should also be noted that no single treatment is appropriate for everyone and plans must be reviewed and modified according to a patient’s changing needs.
Effective treatment will also focus on more than just a person’s alcohol abuse and will seek to address other possible mental disorders.12 Research indicates that remaining in treatment for at least 90 days allows for better outcomes.13
What Does Alcoholism Rehab Entail?
If you suspect that you or someone you care about has an AUD, it may be time to seek professional help. Research has shown that rehabilitation treatment can be very effective in helping individuals maintain a life of sobriety.14
According to NIAAA, about a third of people who successfully complete a rehabilitation program show no further symptoms 1 year later and have fewer alcohol-related problems.14
Depending on the severity of the AUD, individuals can enter into a number of alcohol rehabilitation programs including inpatient and outpatient settings.
Treatment typically involves a mix of private and group counseling sessions, behavioral therapies, medications, and support groups.
After a rehabilitation program has been successfully completed, aftercare is an important part of the recovery process.
Aftercare efforts vary, but things like sober-living arrangements, continued sessions with a therapist, and ongoing participation in peer support groups, such as 12-Step meetings, help many individuals maintain a life of sobriety.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 84% of treatment facilities offer aftercare services.15 Those that don’t can work with you to devise a plan using other outlets prior to program completion.
Support Their Recovery
Once your loved one completes treatment, it can be beneficial to continue to support their recovery efforts as they manage their sobriety long-term. A few ways to continue supporting them on their recovery journey include:
Encourage new social activities and interests: Your loved one will need to find new social activities that don’t involve alcohol consumption and the more you become involved in finding new things to do together, the easier it may make it for them to settle back into normal life again as a sober individual. Consider looking into outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, kayaking or find new hobbies to get into such as cooking, yoga, or wood working. Volunteering is also a great way to give back to the community and a way for your loved one to feel like they are making a difference in others’ lives.
Discuss triggers: We all have triggers, but for those in recovery, they may lead to a relapse or cause individuals to begin thinking about drinking again. If you’re aware of these potential triggers, you may be able to help them avoid those situations or people that cause anxiety, stress, or other emotions that may prompt a relapse. It may help to ask them what has caused them to drink alcohol in the past whether it be loneliness, depression or boredom, and find way to encourage healthier coping mechanisms that don’t rely on alcohol.
Be cautious of enabling behaviors: It may be easy to try and cover up someone’s drinking in order to keep them from getting in trouble with friends, family members or employers; however, be cautious of doing so. If they begin to drink again or try and make excuses for their drinking, don’t take over their responsibilities or help them avoid the consequences (legal or relational). Instead, set boundaries with them that show you no longer allow unacceptable behaviors in their life. This doesn’t mean to become angry or to try to control them, these boundaries are meant for you. Additionally, you may want to encourage them to speak with an addiction specialist, therapist or other peers in recovery about what’s going on.
Have a plan for relapse: As with other chronic conditions, relapses following a period of sobriety may occur and are common. Remember, “just saying no” when presented with the opportunity to drink may not be enough to prevent it from happening. In the case that your loved one does relapse, it may be helpful to have a plan in place. First and foremost, the faster you discuss the relapse with them and/or they return to treatment, the better. Consider having the number of their sponsor (if available) or an addiction hotline in your phone to call if this should happen. Offer support and grace; they may be feeling embarrassed or guilty and the more you make them feel supported, the easier it may be for them to get the help they need.
Lastly, it’s also good to remember that while you can do your best to support them, a relapse may occur and is common. If this happens, it is not your fault, regardless of how supportive you’ve been.
Get Your Loved One Help for Alcoholism
We understand how scary and overwhelming the process can be to get your loved one help for alcoholism, but American Addiction Centers is here for you. Call our hotline at 1-888-685-5770 today to speak with an admissions navigator about treatment options for your loved one. There’s no obligation to make any decisions right away and all calls are 100% confidential.
Or, if they’re ready to seek treatment, use the form below to verify their insurance and begin their recovery journey with us.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing; 490-491.
. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (1990). Public Policy Statement on the Definition of Alcoholism.
. Page, P. B. (1997). E. M. Jellinek and the evolution of alcohol studies: a critical essay. Addiction, 92(12). 1619-1637.
. McCrady, B. and Epstein, E (eds.). (1999). Addictions: A Comprehensive Guidebook.
. World Health Organization. (1951). Expert committee on mental health: Report on the first session of the alcoholism subcommittee. World Health Organization Technical Report Series, 42. 1-24.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drug Misuse and Addiction.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Abuse as a Risk Factor for and Consequence of Child Abuse.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2002). Alcohol and Minorities: An Update. Alcohol Alert, No. 55.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1999). Are Women More Vulnerable to Alcohol’s Effects? Alcohol Alert, No. 46.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Mental Health Effects.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Effective Treatment. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). The N-SSATS Report: Recovery Services Provided by Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities in the United States.