How to Help an Alcoholic

Getting the help you and your loved one need and deserve
Grandfather with children
Table of Contents
I didn't cause the alcoholism, I can't control anyone's drinking, and I cannot cure alcoholism.

When you see a family member or loved one repeatedly choose alcohol or other drugs above all else, you might begin to lose sight of the person you thought you knew. But the person you love is still there. The problem is that alcoholism—or what doctors today refer to as "alcohol use disorder"—has taken hold.

Individuals who are actively addicted to alcohol are often the last to realize they need help. Likewise, family members who have been hurt, traumatized and overwhelmed by a loved one's addiction are typically at a loss as to what to do, where to turn or how to help. The first step forward is recognizing that alcohol addiction isn't simply "a drinking problem" or a matter of how much or how often someone drinks. Alcoholism is classified medically as a "substance use disorder," a chronic, progressive disease that involves alterations in brain chemistry and circuitry, and impacts a person's physical, mental and behavioral health. And here's the really difficult part: try as you might, you can't make your loved one sober or love away alcoholism. What you can do is learn more about addiction as a disease, seek out the most-effective recovery resources for yourself or your loved one, and embrace the care and support you need and deserve at this challenging time.

What Makes a Person an Alcoholic?

Most people who choose to drink alcohol can do so without becoming addicted. For some, however, drinking can lead down a dangerous path to alcohol use disorder. Many factors contribute to a person's vulnerability toward alcohol dependence, including genetics, family history of substance abuse, environmental factors and the age a person first starts drinking or using other drugs. Alcohol use vs. abuse is not a black or white issue—there are shades of gray. Some people drink as a way of dealing with difficult emotions or to cope with symptoms of an undiagnosed mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. Some turn to alcohol to cope with trauma stemming from adverse childhood experiences such as abuse. People with an alcohol use disorder can be highly functioning or compromised. Learn more about what influences a person's susceptibility to alcohol dependence and the warning signs, physical and behavioral symptoms, and stages of alcoholism.

What Can I Do if I Think My Loved One Is an Alcoholic?

Living with someone in active addiction affects every aspect of life—from work to finances, physical well-being to relationships with family and friends. Ignoring or denying the difficult and painful consequences of alcohol addiction will only make things worse. In fact, by the time families reach out for help with a loved one's alcoholism, the disease may have progressed to a crisis level involving an accident, lost job, arrest or medical emergency. The short-term effects of alcohol abuse can make people prone to violent behavior, injuries and accidents.

It's also important to understand that alcoholism is an isolating disease that thrives in secrecy and shame. The most loving response you can have is to give voice to your concerns and reach out for help. Here are four positive actions you can take today if you're worried about your loved one's alcohol use:

1. Educate yourself about medical implications of alcoholism

Left untreated, alcoholism can be fatal. Treatment for severe alcohol use disorder typically involves medically supervised detox in order to safely manage withdrawal symptoms which can include headache, nausea, anxiety and high blood pressure. Read or listen to Alcoholism: A Doctor Discusses Alcohol Withdrawal, Detox and Treatment to learn about important medical considerations.

2. Learn about treatment methods and rehab programs

Addiction treatment comes in many different forms and modalities. What are the most-effective approaches to alcoholism recovery? How can you determine the best treatment fit to help your loved one get sober? Understanding a Twelve Step Recovery Program for alcohol addiction and the importance of ongoing recovery programming and support groups.

If you're not familiar with the Twelve Step recovery, you might also want to do some research into how recovery support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can help. Here are some basics about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Twelve Step recovery practices.

3. Consider the possibility of an alcohol intervention

During an intervention with a loved one, family members show love and support while setting clear boundaries around substance abuse and consequences related to drinking. Clinical interventionist Drew Horowitz explains that an intervention with an alcoholic is not a confrontation, a fight or an argument. It's a family meeting—often facilitated by a professional who understands what it takes to motivate someone to enter treatment. Read or listen to Is It Time for an Intervention? to learn more about the process and possible next steps for your family.

A professional intervention can be especially beneficial if your loved one is in denial about the extent of their substance use problem. In active addiction, denial can be a powerful dynamic for the person with alcoholism as well as loved ones, building up subtly over time as everyone goes into survival mode in order to make it through the next crisis. Denial can show up as defiance ("I can quit drinking whenever I want to"); denial can show up as blame ("The only reason I drink is because you …"); and denial can show up as deceit ("I swear I only had two drinks"). A professional interventionist has expertise in addiction treatment, family systems and what's involved in encouraging an alcoholic or addict to enter treatment.

4. Get help for yourself

Regardless of whether your loved one seeks help for alcohol abuse, the situation has likely taken a toll on you. While you can't will your loved one to get sober or control their behavior, you can control your responses. Yes, you are dealing with a lot, but you are not powerless. You can make choices that are good for your emotional health and well-being. Support groups such as Al-Anon and Alateen are free, accessible recovery programs for family members and friends of alcoholics and addicts. Al-Anon promotes the "three Cs" of recovery: I didn't cause the alcoholism (or the consequences of drinking,) I can't control anyone's drinking and I cannot cure alcoholism. Learn more about Addiction Recovery and Support for Families and the importance of self-care and setting healthy boundaries.

Unconditional love and encouragement will go a long way in helping your loved one find freedom from alcoholism but, ultimately, the desire to change has to come from within.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, get the help you need and deserve. With residential and outpatient levels of care available throughout the country, Hazelden Betty Ford treatment centers offer every patient the very best chance for lifelong recovery. For more information, call 1-855-993-5803.

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