How to Help Someone With an Alcohol Addiction
Navigating how to help someone with alcohol addiction can be incredibly confusing, challenging, and emotionally exhausting.
Even when it feels hopeless, there’s so much you can do to support your loved one through their struggle.
Additionally, it’s important that you prioritise supporting yourself as well.
Read on to discover if your loved one is facing a full-blown addiction. Learn how you can talk with them about their struggle. Discover how to get them into treatment, and the various treatment options they can explore.
When should you say something?
If your loved one has been engaging in alcohol use, you may wonder when you should say something.
You may be concerned about your loved one, and unsure if talking with them will help or further antagonise the situation.
With there still being such a stigma surrounding addiction, you may be conscious of not wanting to offend them
It can be even more difficult to help if they aren’t willing to admit they have an addiction.
Learning about the stages of alcohol addiction will help give you clarity on where your loved one may currently be. This allows you to better assess how to approach a conversation with them.
The 4 stages of addiction
Addiction doesn't happen overnight, it's actually a process that happens over time. When figuring out the best way to help someone with an alcohol addiction, it’s important to know which stage they may be in.
There are 4 stages that someone moves through before reaching full-blown addiction.
The first stage is experimentation.
- During this stage, a person may try alcohol a few times and doesn't experience any really negative social or behavioural consequences. Adolescents and young adults typically go through this stage. However, the problem arises if someone believes that drinking can help them feel better or solve their issues. When this happens, they're at risk of progressing into the next stage.
The second stage is regular use.
- During this stage, drinking becomes a regular part of a person's routine. Because the person is consuming alcohol so frequently, they run the risk of developing a dependency. A dependency on alcohol occurs when the body needs alcohol to avoid and prevent withdrawal symptoms. It also means that a person will need to consume more and more alcohol in order to achieve the desired effect.
The third stage is high-risk drinking.
- During the third stage, alcohol becomes a priority in a person's life. They may engage in risky behaviours or demonstrate a shift in their behaviours. This is a result of their alcohol use itself as well as their compulsive need to obtain alcohol. Experiencing cravings for alcohol can also play a part in this stage. These overwhelming urges for alcohol is what compels a person to seek and obtain alcohol, regardless of what it takes or what it costs. People in this stage may also begin to justify or deny dangerous actions such as driving while intoxicated.
The fourth and final stage is addiction.
- At this point, a person's body has usually become fully dependent on alcohol in order to function at a baseline. Someone in the fourth stage will continue to drink despite negative consequences in multiple areas of their life. They may experience consequences to their career, their family, children, relationships, and their goals. Alcohol addiction is more than just drinking heavily and regularly, a person affected will regularly lose all control over their alcohol consumption once they start to drink. Even when they genuinely want to stop their alcohol intake, they will find it near on impossible to stay away from the stuff. With hardly any exception, a person suffering from alcohol addiction will need the correct help and treatment in order to recover.
When trying to help someone with an alcohol addiction, it’s never too early or too late to intervene. Regardless of what stage a person is in, having a conversation with them can help them to change the course of their life.
Signs of an alcohol addiction
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alcohol use disorder is measured based upon 11 criteria. A person can be considered to have mild, moderate, or severe alcohol use disorder based on the number of criteria they meet.
The 11 criteria for alcohol use disorder are as follows:
- Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
- There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
- A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
- Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
- Recurrent alcohol use results in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
- Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
- Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
- Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
- Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
- Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: a) A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect. Or b) A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
- Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol b) Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
If your loved one meets 2-3 of the above criteria, the severity of their condition falls into the “mild” category.
If they meet 4-5 of the criteria, their condition falls in the “moderate” category.
Lastly, if they meet 6 or more of the criteria, their condition is considered to be severe.
How to talk to a loved one who is struggling with alcohol addiction
If you’ve come to the understanding that your loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, you may not know how to talk to them about it. It is incredibly difficult seeing someone you love suffer from an addiction. However, talking to them may prove to be beneficial for both of you - if the conversation is approached calmly and honestly.
Try not to guilt, shame, or judge
When you want to help someone with alcohol addiction, it’s important to remember not to shame or guilt them. If they’re struggling with alcohol addiction, they’re likely already experiencing feelings of guilt and shame, whether they convey it or not.
Additionally, try not to be judgmental of your loved one. Remember that your loved one didn’t choose to have an alcohol addiction and that it is an illness. Remember that they aren’t a bad person and that the nature of the disease changes the way their brain works.
Empathise and offer compassion
An important thing to remember when you want to help someone with an alcohol addiction is to offer compassion, love, and a listening ear. Your loved one may feel embarrassed or ashamed if you share with them that you’ve noticed they’re drinking more often than usual, or that you’ve noticed behavioural changes. If this happens, be sure to offer empathy. Let them know that you want to understand how they’ve been feeling and that you are there to support them in getting better. Remember, addiction in any form is a symptom of an underlying issue.
Use positive language
Rather than condemning your loved one for their behaviours, acknowledge that they are very ill. Tell them that alcohol use disorders are recognised medically and that they can recover if that is what they want. Let them know that addictive disorders are now far better understood and that treatment can be successful if they truly want to get well. By emphasising the positive, that addiction is treatable, you will be giving your loved one some much-needed hope and steering them in the right direction.
Remember the nature of the disease
Finally, know that if your loved one is facing an addiction, their alcohol use has quite literally altered how their brain is working. Try to keep in the back of your mind that they may be manipulative. They may lie, or they may act impulsively, all as a result of their condition.
Remember that the person you love is still in there! And know that their behaviours are not a reflection of you or how important you are to them. Alcohol addiction is incredibly powerful, and truly overhauls a person’s priorities so that even loved ones become secondary to alcohol.
You can make a difference to help someone with an alcohol addiction
You may have heard that it isn’t possible to help someone with an alcohol addiction if they don’t want your help.
Also, you may have also heard that you can’t force someone to go to treatment for an addiction.
It’s true that you can’t physically force someone to get help for a problem they may not even be willing to admit they have. However, what you do and say can have an impact on your loved one’s well-being.
Instead of dismissing your loved one or deeming their situation hopeless, you can be present and engaged with them.
You can demonstrate to them how their drinking has been spilling over into different areas of their life.
You can highlight to them how things have changed since they began drinking. Also, you can help them develop an awareness of these changes as well.
Finally, you can empathise with them while getting them to see that their alcohol use has become problematic for their well-being. However, it’s incredibly important to take care of your own well-being in the process.
Enforcing healthy boundaries
When you love someone who is facing an alcohol addiction, it can be incredibly easy to get consumed by their struggles.
However, it is so important for your own mental, emotional, and spiritual health to not get consumed by someone else's addiction.
It sounds easier said than done. However, try your best to not let your loved one’s addiction take over your life. It can be easy to fill up all of your mental space and exert all of your emotional energy worrying about them, and vacillating between a range of complicated emotions.
Additionally, be mindful not to enable your loved one. Enabling someone who’s struggling with an alcohol addiction doesn’t overtly mean pouring them a drink. It means engaging in behaviours that help them to perpetuate their addictive behaviours.
Examples of enabling an alcoholic loved one include:
- Lying to their boss to cover for them
- Giving them money
- Paying off debt for them
- Bailing your loved one out of jail
- Making excuses for your loved one to other people
When you love someone, you can feel like you’re betraying them by not following through on actions such as those listed above. However, enabling them only ends up hurting them in the end. Enabling puts a wider gap between your loved one and the consequences of their alcohol use. This can only serve to aid them in continuing to drink for longer. This is why healthy boundaries are so important.
Prioritising yourself to best help someone with an alcohol addiction
As you’ve probably already come to know, loving someone who’s addicted to alcohol can be incredibly draining.
You’ve likely heard the saying before, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.
What this means is that you need to prioritise your own mental and emotional health. Doing so allows you to effectively help your loved one.
If you’re depleted, you can’t help anyone.
For this reason, it is so important to practise self-care. Incorporating self-care practises into your life allows you to be present, grounded, empathetic, and patient with your loved one. It helps you recharge when you’re feeling drained, and helps you restore your energy.
Self-care isn’t limited to spa days. It can be as simple as making time for yourself to walk to your favourite park, or to watch your favourite television show. Self-care can look like hanging out with good friends, or watching a movie that makes you laugh.
Practising self-care in this way helps give you perspective. This way, your entire world doesn't become consumed by your loved one’s struggles. When you love someone deeply, it can be hard to know that they're in pain. However, you feeling drained isn’t going to help them, and is only hurting both of you.
Additionally, attending a support group like Al-Anon or going to individual therapy can help give you a safe space to express what you're going through. It can be a great way for you to receive validation, support, and guidance from others who understand. These groups are also a wonderful way to foster connection, so you feel less isolated and alone.
Holding an intervention to help someone with an alcohol addiction
If you've tried to talk to your loved one about their alcohol addiction and you aren’t getting through, it may be time to hold an intervention.
An intervention is when family, friends, loved ones, and a trained interventionist or therapist all gather together to gently confront your loved one about their drinking. The intention of the intervention is to get a person to agree to treatment. It is not a forceful or coercive event. An intervention is meant to wake up your loved one and open their eyes to what their addiction has done to their life. It is intended to show them how their use has affected those closest to them.
Your loved one doesn’t need to hit rock bottom in order to reap the benefits of an intervention. They can get help at any point in their addiction.
Following a successful intervention, your loved one goes straight into a treatment programme.
Offering support throughout recovery
Entering a treatment programme can be incredibly difficult for your loved one, as they may feel scared, overwhelmed, and even ashamed. Additionally, recovery in itself is a lifelong process, and going to a rehab programme is just the first step. Because of this, it's important to support your loved one and to be there for them as they embark on this journey.
Below are several different forms of treatment that your loved one can go to:
If your loved one is struggling with moderate to severe alcohol dependence, the safest way for them to stop would be to go through a medical alcohol detox. This is because stopping high amounts of alcohol abruptly can be incredibly dangerous. Beyond the normal withdrawal symptoms such as hand tremors, sweating, and nausea, there is a risk of more significant symptoms such as seizures, breathing problems, or delirium tremens. A medical detox provides approved medication that acts as a buffer to these symptoms, whilst helping the brain to recalibrate a safer pace. Whilst a detox alone is not sufficient to keep a person sober, it is often an important and vital first step.
If your loved one attends an inpatient rehab programme, they will live at their chosen rehab facility for an allotted period of time. Most inpatient programmes generally last 1 to 3 months. Residential rehab programmes offer round-the-clock care and access to professionals. They also follow set schedules that typically include meal times, individual counselling sessions, and group counselling. Some rehab programmes also offer holistic treatment options such as yoga, meditation, or art therapy. Inpatient and residential alcohol rehabs are a good option for someone that has become very ill from drinking. They provide a safe space for respite and healing.
Outpatient counselling or therapy
Your loved one can either go to an inpatient rehab facility immediately after detox and then transition to outpatient therapy, or they can go straight from detox to outpatient therapy. Outpatient implies that your loved one is living at home, and is attending therapy or counselling sessions. These sessions can be multiple times a week, once a week, or even biweekly depending on how far your loved one is into recovery. This element of treatment is often crucial, as ongoing therapy is key when it comes to gaining insight into oneself, developing coping skills, and learning how to navigate life’s challenges in real-time.
Your loved one can attend recovery support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery. These groups are appropriate for people in all stages of recovery, and also for people who are still struggling with active use. Your loved one can find meetings online, or can attend meetings in person. These meetings are a great way for your loved one to feel less alone in their struggles, and to know that there’s hope for them to get better and thrive. It’s a great way for your loved one to learn how to navigate life’s challenges from people who have been there.
A final word on how to help someone with an alcohol addiction
We know this is a challenging time, and we want to emphasise the importance of taking care of yourself through this journey.
Recoverlution offers a wealth of resources and information on the nature of addiction if you want to learn more about this complex disease.
We also offer many tools and resources in our Wellness Hub for you to engage in a self-care practise, including yoga, meditations, and breathwork.
Finally, you are welcome to freely join our Community, where you can connect with other people just like you who have loved ones facing addiction by creating your own support group.
You’re never alone, and Recovlerution is here to support you through this challenging time.
Author - Thurga
- How to set boundaries with an alcoholic or addict https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2017/08/how-to-set-boundaries-with-an-alcoholic-or-addict#1
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC
- Drug addiction - getting help https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/addiction-support/drug-addiction-getting-help/
- Alcohol Support https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-advice/alcohol-support/