How to Help an Alcoholic: Top 5 Tips
Written by Bridget Clerkin
Alcoholism—or, as it’s now known, alcohol use disorder (AUD)—is unfortunately nearly as widespread as it is hard-hitting, impacting more than 14 million Americans in 2019 alone, according to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It’s extremely difficult watching a friend, family member, or loved one struggle with the disease, and since alcoholism is so frequently hidden, denied, or even glamorized in society, it can be even harder to help an alcoholic friend.
But if you’ve found yourself wondering how to help an alcoholic that doesn’t want help, here are five tips that might make the tricky process a bit easier.
Tip #1: Do Some Research
Before you start to tackle a problem, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself, and with alcohol use disorder, there can be a lot to learn. First, it might be helpful to consider some of the official definitions tied to the disorder itself.
Alcohol use disorder is a chronic, or continuing, issue tied to an impaired ability to control alcohol use. It can range anywhere from mild to severe, taking the form of either alcohol abuse, when a person routinely drinks too much, or alcohol dependence, when a person is physically addicted, which can show up as a high alcohol tolerance, alcohol cravings, or withdrawal symptoms in the absence of regular alcohol consumption.
Frequent binge drinking or heavy alcohol use are other ways to identify a potential alcoholic. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking can be roughly defined as drinking the following or more in two hours:
- Four drinks for women
- Five drinks for men
Heavy drinking is having binge drinking episodes five or more days over the course of a month.
These actions can have severe consequences, including liver diseases like cirrhosis and increased likelihood for cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast—on top of less deadly but still dangerous effects like an increased appetite for risky behavior.
On top of learning about what the disease is and what it looks like, you may also want to educate yourself on some options for help before approaching your friend or loved one. There are many different types of treatment programs out there, from in-person treatment centers to outpatient group therapies. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to learn more about rehab options for your loved one today.
Inpatient programs are the most intensive form of care, with an alcoholic remaining in a rehab clinic for a number of days getting professional treatment. But there are also behavioral therapies, such as:
- One-on-one counseling
- Group therapy
- Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous
Coming into the conversation armed with a little information and insight on the options for your friend or loved one will help you be more prepared and poised, and hopefully make them more inclined to listen.
Tip #2: Practice What You’ll Say
Still, it’s not just enough to know the facts. You have to know how to deliver them. Before approaching your friend or loved one about their drinking problem, it might be a good idea to actually rehearse what you want to say.
Before you begin to help an alcoholic it’s important to remember that these types of conversations are never easy, for a number of reasons. Many alcoholics operate within a certain level of denial; and even if an alcoholic is aware of their drinking problem, many subsequently suffer from guilt, depression, or other issues that might make it difficult for them to talk about their situation openly.
From the standpoint of a concerned friend or family member, emotions are another potential conversation killer. You care deeply for your loved one, which is why you want to help them in the first place, but getting carried away by the pain, or even the concern, you feel could derail your message, or make you come off as too angry, demanding or dramatic to bother listening to.
For the message to truly sink in, a calm, steady tone is best. (This is why falling back on a script could be so helpful.)
And just like in Hollywood, second only to script is location, location, location. Where you deliver this message matters almost as much as the message itself.
Try to control for as many conditions as possible when bringing the topic up. Approach the person at a time and place when they’re relaxed and free from distractions if you can. You want to aim for a time and space when they’re the most likely to give you their undivided attention and listen with an open mind.
Tip #3: Intervene, If You Must
Of course, sometimes words aren’t enough. Many alcoholics, especially those still in denial, might require stronger actions to move them toward seeking help.
This can come in the form of an intervention. There are several different types of interventions, all aimed at helping different types of people struggling with different aspects of AUD. Again, research is key, and if you’re considering staging an intervention, you should absolutely do some reading first about the different approaches you could take and how to organize the event. (Many people also choose to work with a professional, to ensure the process is as successful as possible.)
Generally, though, the concept behind an intervention is to gather together all the people who are concerned about your friend or loved one, to make a point about how many people are affected by the person’s drinking. The idea is that there’s strength in numbers, and once the person physically sees how many people are reaching out, he or she realizes there needs to be a change.
Still, it’s perhaps even more important to make sure everyone sticks to a script when performing an intervention, to help ensure the person feels cared for instead of ganged up on by the people in their lives.
Tip #4: Be There For Them
Extending this cared-for feeling generally can be considerably helpful for a friend in need.
For many of those wondering how to help an alcoholic friend, one of the most powerful answers may also be one of the simplest: Be there for them.
Alcoholics are statistically far more likely to suffer from depression than the general population, and feelings of depression or guilt have also been statistically linked to a higher likelihood of relapse for recovering alcoholics.
Asking someone to quit drinking, in many if not most cases, requires asking them to change their entire lifestyle. This process is stressful enough on its own, but the person will be doing so while contending with regular day-to-day stressors and all without their usual coping mechanism.
It may be difficult, but showing support for your friend or loved one throughout their journey could help allay these feelings, giving them a steadfast and solid presence to depend on during a time otherwise filled with such major changes. This may include active participation in activities like open AA meetings.
Tip #5: Be There For Yourself
It can be easy for your relationship to veer into abuse, especially if there was already an unhealthy dynamic established between you and your loved one. You need to be there for yourself while you are trying to help an alcoholic friend or family member.
It may not be intentional on their part, but someone attempting to quit drinking might fall back on old habits, becoming manipulative. They might lie to you, or take out their frustration, guilt, and anger on you, becoming emotionally or physically abusive. And even when the attempt is earnest and the relationship between you two solid, the process can be messy, with many starts and stops, making for an all-together physically and emotionally draining experience.
For this reason, it’s equally as, if not even more, important to keep your own preservation in mind, which includes setting and sticking to boundaries to protect your own mental and physical health. Groups like Al-Anon or Alateen, which hold meetings, not unlike AA and offer other resources, are great places to find support and advice on how to perform this tricky tight-rope walk.
After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Only when your own physical and mental health is taken care of can you extend your energies effectively to others. And so, the biggest secret for how to help an alcoholic friend may actually start with helping yourself.
If you want to know more about Alcoholics Anonymous, you can find your closest local meeting online. And if you want more information about rehab options for your loved one, you can call 800-839-1686Who Answers?.