How to Support an Alcoholic Through Recovery

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If a friend or family member appears to be struggling with alcohol abuse, you may be feeling confused and helpless. Supporting a loved one with alcohol addiction can be a daunting task, but it can prove impactful and rewarding for your relationship.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • How to identify a drinking problem
  • How to talk to your loved one about their drinking
  • Treatment options and resources for alcohol addiction
  • What to do if your loved one doesn’t want to get help

When Does Alcohol Use Become a Problem?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V) characterizes alcohol use disorder as a persisting medical condition where an individual can no longer control their alcohol use despite the negative physical, social, mental, and occupational consequences it causes.

Here are some signs that someone you know may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder:

  • Failed attempts to cut back or stop drinking
  • Craving alcohol
  • Using alcohol despite knowing it makes their emotional/physical problems worse
  • Using alcohol even under risky circumstances, such as driving or swimming
  • Increased family conflict due to alcohol use
  • Using alcohol even when it prevents them from fulfilling their responsibilities at home/work
  • Using more alcohol than was originally intended
  • Spending a lot of time looking for alcohol, using alcohol, and recovering from using it
  • Tolerance – where they have to consume higher levels of alcohol for the same effects
  • Withdrawal — where they experience physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they stop drinking

Alcohol also alters the way the brain functions, meaning increased alcohol intake can impact their everyday behavior. Here are some behavioral signs that can indicate alcohol misuse:

  • Neglecting personal care
  • Impaired judgment
  • Aggressiveness and sudden mood changes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor social functioning
  • Problems driving or operating machinery
  • Signs of other substance use (such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, or sedatives)
  • Frequent falls or accidents
  • Recurring absences from work or school
  • Suicidal ideation

How to Talk to Someone About Their Drinking

Having an honest, empathetic, and gentle conversation can encourage your friend or family member to recognize that they are battling an addiction.

However, approaching this conversation can be difficult as they might show anger, defensiveness, or simply deny that they have a problem — so here are a few ideas to help you.

Things That Help

  • Choose the right moment to talk: Choose a moment when your loved one is not drinking. Make sure both of you are sober, calm, and focused. Find a private, comfortable room and environment, minimizing any distractions in your conversation.
  • Express your concerns in a caring way: Remember to be compassionate in your wording. Tell them what your worries are regarding their drinking and the effect it is having on their health and your relationship.
  • Seek support in the conversation: If it’s difficult to talk to the person by yourself, invite other family members or close loved ones to help you. Make sure everyone approaches the conversation with care, coming from a place of love and concern while establishing healthy boundaries in the process.
  • Be empathetic and listen: Ask questions about what difficulties they’re experiencing that may trigger their drinking behavior. Are they dealing with anxiety, depression, a sense of loss, or loneliness? Try to understand the underlying causes for their behavior and extend empathy and support in the conversation.

Things to Avoid

  • Don’t take their response personally: Pushbacks, denial, and anger are common responses you can expect from the person you’re confronting. This has nothing to do with you. Give them the time and space to understand your concerns and come to terms with their addiction.
  • Don’t make excuses for their addiction: Don’t cover up for your loved one or make excuses for their behavior. While it’s difficult to see them in this condition, neglecting their responsibility will only make it harder for them to acknowledge the problem and seek help.
  • Don’t attempt to punish, threaten, or bribe: Offering ultimatums or emotional appeals can increase your loved one’s feelings of guilt, self-hate, or shame, which can increase their compulsion to drink. Offer them support, love, and advice, instead of threatening or guilt-tripping them.
  • Don’t blame yourself: Remember that you are not responsible for your loved one’s drinking problem and you cannot make them stop. As much as you may want to intervene, the acknowledgment of their addiction and acceptance of help has to come from within.
  • Don’t rush recovery: Addiction recovery is a lifelong process that may have periods of remission and relapse. Don’t expect the person you care about to get over their addiction according to a timeline you put. Be patient and understanding.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

Whether your loved one is acknowledging their addiction or not, it’s always helpful to know about treatment centers, support groups, and resources available to encourage your loved one to get help by:

  • Offering to accompany them to group meetings, doctor’s appointments, or counseling sessions
  • Working with them to make a concrete treatment plan
  • Calling a helpline for advice or sitting with them while they do so

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options

There are several types of treatment options available for alcohol addiction, which include:

  1. 12-Step Programs & Support Groups. Recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) allow people to spend time with those facing the same problem. These support groups can help counter feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

New research from the American Journal of Psychiatry has affirmed the effectiveness of AA and other 12-step programs, reporting that they lead to higher rates of abstinence than other treatment methods.

  1. Residential Treatments. Residential treatments or rehab facilities provide intensive care for alcohol addiction. This treatment method involves admitting individuals to special care facilities for 30 to 90 days. While at the facility, the individual receives treatments such as detox, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication to help them stay sober.
  1. Behavioral Treatments. These involve individual, group, or family therapy sessions. This treatment method can help patients identify underlying causes of addiction, repair damaged relationships, develop skills to stop consuming alcohol, and manage drinking triggers to prevent relapse.

Alcohol Addiction Resources

  • CuredNation: We offer telehealth services and medicine-assisted recovery for substance use disorders. Our services include medically managed detox, online addiction support and virtual care platforms, and recovery from concurrent mental health issues alongside addiction.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely available resource for individuals with alcohol addiction. The organization has around 120,000 groups in over 180 countries. This treatment approach centers on 12 steps to recovery, which are spiritual guides that individuals apply to their daily lives.
  • Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA): DRA is also an independent, self-help membership organization based on a 12-step treatment program like AA. It specifically caters to individuals who want to treat concurrent mental health disorders alongside alcohol addiction.
  • SAMHSA: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has an extensive nationwide treatment directory for individuals with substance use disorders.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS): SOS is a non-profit organization based in the US offering a non-religious path to long-term sobriety. Their treatment approaches consider sobriety a separate issue from spiritual beliefs.
  • SMART Recovery: SMART Recovery focuses on self-empowerment and behavioral change in battling addiction. Their programs operate in 23 countries (including the US and Canada), with over 2500 groups globally.
  • Women For Sobriety (WFS): WFS is a peer-support program designed specifically for women recovering from substance use disorders. The organization holds both regional and online meetings based on the New Life Program, providing supportive, affirming principles that address the unique challenges of women in recovery.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups: Al-Anon is an international mutual aid organization for individuals who have been impacted by another person’s alcohol use disorder. They hold support meetings around the globe, allowing families to cope with the challenges of helping a loved one recover from addiction.

How to Support Your Loved One During Their Recovery Journey

Once your loved agrees to treatment, here’s how you can support their journey to sobriety:

  • Remove alcohol from your house: If you live with the person you’re trying to help, this makes recovery so much easier. Also, avoid attending social gatherings that involve drinking. Instead, opt for sober activities like visiting museums, going for a hike, or eating at restaurants that don’t serve alcohol.
  • Build a support network for your loved one: If your loved one is not being treated as part of a support group, it’s important to build a network for them at home. You can lean on friends and family who can offer love, support, and understanding.
  • Model healthy behavior: Abstaining from alcohol, prioritizing self-care, and engaging in healthy activities like exercise and meditation in your own life can serve as an inspiration for your loved one.
  • Help them set goals: Goals are essential for instilling a sense of purpose in your loved one’s life. You want to engage in non-judgemental discussions about their short- and long-term goals, and help them set SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
  • Celebrate small wins: These could be completing a day without alcohol or showing up for treatment. You want to celebrate all small wins to encourage and motivate your loved one. Whether it’s treating them to their favorite meal or organizing a movie night for them, make sure to celebrate.
  • Work on your relationship to reduce stress: Alcohol addiction affects the entire family and can strain relationships. Relationship stress is a trigger for relapse, so it’s important to work on your relationship with your loved one. A simple conversation might be enough or you may need family counseling for more extensive relationship issues.
  • Educate yourself on alcohol addiction treatment: Addiction treatment for alcohol use disorders is technical and involves medication and behavioral therapy techniques. If you’re not educated on these topics, you won’t be able to effectively help your loved ones through treatment.

What to Do if Your Loved One Doesn’t Want Help?

In some US states, it is possible to force your loved one to go to rehab even if they are resistant to getting help. For example in Florida, the Marchman Act allows you to enlist the help of the court to order your loved one into treatment.

Involuntary rehab is not ideal, but it may be a last resort for individuals whose resistance to treatment may pose a risk to their own health or the safety of those around them.

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