Posted by Perry Clayman
Do you know an alcoholic and want to know what you can do to help them? Perhaps you are concerned about a family member, loved one, friend or even a work colleague who you feel has a drinking problem.
Trying to get an alcoholic to accept help for their drinking can prove very challenging. We hope that this page will help you to better understand alcoholism and provide you with some useful suggestions as to what you can do to help.
Understand Alcoholism Is Not A Choice
The first thing that will prove useful when approaching an alcoholic over their drinking is to have a better understanding of what alcoholism actually is.
Some make the mistake of thinking that alcoholism is a lifestyle choice and that the alcoholic is choosing to self destruct through alcohol. Approaching an alcoholic with this misinformation is likely to achieve very little. In fact is it likely to push them further away.
Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction, is a recognised mental health condition. An alcoholic will have no more of an idea of why they continue to drink despite negative consequences than you do.
Alcohol addiction is characterised by:
● A mind that continually obsesses over alcohol
● An inability to control alcohol intake
● A compulsion to drink alcohol despite negative consequences
● An inability to stop drinking despite a desire to do so
If an alcoholic you want to help is showing the characteristics of alcohol addiction, then they will likely need professional help and treatment in order to stop drinking successfully.
As someone who wants to help, you can support them in accessing the correct treatment and by giving them hope that alcoholism can be effectively arrested and sobriety maintained.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a progressive disease of the brain and is the most serious form of harmful drinking. Someone who is an alcoholic will have a strong and uncontrollable desire to drink. Drinking alcohol will often take precedence over commitments, obligations, family and work.
An alcoholic that drinks frequently and heavily will likely be alcohol dependent. This means that suddenly stopping alcohol without an alcohol detox plan or medical plan in place can be very dangerous, in fact, it can be life-threatening.
Stopping alcohol too abruptly when there are an alcohol tolerance and dependence present will result in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms that an alcoholic can experience will depend on the length of time they have been drinking harmful levels of alcohol and the amount of alcohol they are consuming regularly.
An alcoholic, especially one who is alcohol dependent cannot just “quit drinking” – It isn’t as simple as that. You can learn more about why by reading our symptoms of alcoholism page.
When approaching someone you think may be suffering from alcoholism, it is useful to establish if they are alcohol dependent as this will greatly influence the type of alcohol treatment they need and whether a medical alcohol detox needs to be part of this.
Signs of Alcohol Dependence In an Alcoholic
There are some definite signs to help you establish if an alcoholic is alcohol dependent. This determines whether or not it is safe for them to stop drinking alcohol without medical intervention – this is assuming that they want to stop.
If your loved one or family member is drinking over 8 units of alcohol, more than 5 days a week, it is possible they could be alcohol tolerant and dependent. A visit to a doctor will verify this.
Alcohol tolerance occurs when an individual’s brain has adjusted to accommodate a regular amount of alcohol; they find that in order to feel alcohol’s effects they need to increase the amount they drink. They may also experience some alcohol withdrawal symptoms although to a lesser degree than if they are alcohol dependent.
Alcohol dependence occurs when the brain has acclimatized to NEED a certain amount of alcohol in order to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Signs of alcohol dependence in an alcoholic include:
● Drinking daily
● Going to great lengths to obtain alcohol
● Drinking to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms
● Drinking heavily or constantly topping up their alcohol throughout the day
● The frequent smell of alcohol on their breath – no matter what time of day
● Developing alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they cannot get a drink or haven’t had enough to drink
If the person you want to help is showing signs of alcohol dependence, it is important that medical help and advice is sought before they attempt to stop drinking.
Breaking Through Alcoholic Denial
If an alcoholic person you want to help is in denial of their condition, then this is a common problem and a characteristic of alcoholism.
Your alcoholic family member or friend may well be drinking around the clock, living in squalid conditions and failing to manage their finances, relationships and work – yet they will still deny they have a drinking problem.
Denial within an alcoholic is very frightening for those that love and care for them. Ultimately denial can lead to an alcoholic death.
Your loved one, family member or friend may deny their alcoholism by:
● Drastically underestimating how much they drink
● Downplaying the negative consequences of their drinking or denying them completely
● Complaining that family and friends are overreacting to their drinking and that they are still in control
● Telling you they can stop drinking whenever they want to
● Blaming their drinking on others, their job, their finances, stress, relationship etc
● They have a number of excuses or obstacles that they present to you when challenged to stop drinking
When faced with an alcoholic who is in denial of the seriousness of their drinking, it can feel hopeless, scary and frustrating. We understand this very well. Many of our patients who enter our alcohol rehab centres are still in denial of the scale of the problem when they first walk through our doors.
In instances where there is denial present in an alcoholic, it needs to be challenged and eradicated before any real progress can be made in their treatment.
We appreciate that unlike our counsellors and therapists, your average person is not equipped to deal with an alcoholic mind. However, there are some suggestions you may want to try that can help the alcoholic see and accept their own truth.
Whatever you do, do not ignore the problem as it is extremely unlikely to get better on its own.
What to Say to an Alcoholic In Denial
When speaking to an alcoholic who is in denial, it is important to remain calm and not take anything they say in response personally. Stick to the facts rather than emotional pleas and don’t try to bargain with them. You can only try your best, you can do no more than that.
If you can, try and speak to them when they are relatively sober or sober after a binge.
You may find it helpful to:
● Recount specific instances where they have lost control of their drinking yet said they were only going to have one or two drinks
● Help them to see the damage their drinking is causing to their mental and physical health by telling them the changes you have observed
● Recount the times when they have told you they would stop or reduce their drinking yet have failed to do so
● Recount negative consequences that have happened as a direct result of their drinking
● Help them to see the progression of their illness. For example: “You only used to drink at weekends and a few evenings, I’ve noticed you are drinking daily and am concerned”, or “I’ve noticed empty bottles/cans in the garage/garden/around the house”
● Gently point out behaviours that are only normal for someone suffering from alcoholism
● Tell them what you have learned of alcoholism and perhaps guide them to our symptoms of alcoholism page and the similarities you have observed
● Advise them of treatment options available (many alcoholics will not acknowledge their illness as they fear there is no real help available)
● Reassure them that you will help them access the help and support they need to get well – that they don’t have to do it alone.
If they are still unwilling to accept they are alcoholic when it is evident to others that they are, you may want to consider the tough love approach or arrange a professional alcohol intervention.
For alcoholics that accept that they need help but are unsure treatment will work, we will gladly show them around one of our private alcohol rehabs so that they can meet with our patients and counsellors.
Many of our alcoholic patients felt utterly hopeless when they first came to us for help. We are happy to advise that this very rarely remains the case following treatment and that most go on to make a full and lasting recovery.
What Is Tough Love & When to Use It With an alcoholic
“Tough Love” is a term used in the alcohol treatment field for an approach that is used to ensure you are not enabling an alcoholic’s drinking.
The end goal of tough love is for the alcoholic to reach rock bottom and ask for help. Tough love is a stern approach which basically sends the message –
“I know you didn’t choose to be an alcoholic, but you do have a choice whether or not to accept help. I love you but will not be a part of your self-destruction”
Examples of tough love include:
- Purposely distancing yourself from the alcoholic until they are ready to accept help
- Refusing any requests that you may feel enable their addiction
- Refuse to lie or cover from them
- Making decisions that are best for you and other family members that the alcoholic may not agree with or dislike
- Refusing to financially support their alcohol addiction. This includes paying bills and providing housing. All this achieves is it alleviates them from financial responsibility so that they have more money available to spend on alcohol
- Refusing to be their nursemaid when they are feeling unwell after a drinking binge
- Not allowing them to manipulate you
- Saying “no” to addiction and “yes” to recovery
Tough love can be very hard at times, but when you find it most challenging is probably when it is most needed. Remember that the aim is to help the alcoholic in the long term.
The tough love approach should be used when an alcoholic is unwilling to seek help and continues to try to manipulate you.
How Tough Love Helps an Alcoholic
With an alcoholic who is unwilling to tackle their drink problem, tough love is one of the very few options left.
An alcoholics illness thrives on manipulation and deceit. By withdrawing your support through a tough love approach you are allowing the alcoholic to feel the consequences of their own actions. We appreciate this can be especially difficult if the alcoholic you want to help is your child, parent or spouse.
If you have previously unintentionally enabled their alcohol addiction, the tough love approach can come as a great shock to them.
Realising that they can no longer manipulate you for their own gain, their only option is to seek and accept alcoholic treatment if they are to win back your support.
What Is an Alcoholic Intervention & When Is It Needed?
An alcoholic intervention is needed when an alcoholic is in a desperate state yet is still in denial of their problem, or unwilling to seek help and treatment. It may be that their health is suffering, they are putting themselves or others in danger, or are destroying their relationships with significant others.
If all previous attempts to help them have failed then an alcohol intervention can be a life-saving process.
Any addiction intervention needs to be well planned and thought through in order for it to be effective. If you can afford to pay for a professional alcohol intervention then you will benefit from a trained professional taking over the situation and making all the necessary arrangements.
Professional alcohol interventions also tend to be more successful. The interventionist will be well rehearsed in keeping control of difficult and highly emotional situations. Furthermore, once the alcoholic has agreed to treatment, the alcohol interventionist will take them directly to alcohol rehab for inpatient treatment.
If you cannot afford a professional alcohol intervention please read our page on how to get an alcoholic into rehab.
Helping an Alcoholic Who Has Relapsed
Alcoholic relapse is a common problem. When an alcoholic relapses they are usually full of guilt and shame. Often, they will go to extraordinary lengths to hide their relapse and the true extent of their drinking.
An alcoholic who has relapsed will undoubtedly feel a failure. They may well feel that their situation is hopeless and that there is no point in even trying to get well. This is far from the truth. Many alcoholics relapse yet are able to learn a valuable lesson from their experience and go on to have far stronger sobriety than before.
When trying to help an alcoholic who has relapsed, ask them what they feel led them to the relapse. It could be that they have tried to stay sober without support or have not undergone any treatment previously for their alcoholism. If this is the case, explain to them that they are suffering from an illness and that there is professional treatment available to help them get well.
If they have previously undergone treatment and have relapsed, they may need more treatment to help them get back on track. Regardless of their current predicament or the reasons that led them to relapse, it is important to focus on how you can support them in getting help now.
Treatment Options & Help For Alcoholics
Supporting an alcoholic in accessing treatment for their alcoholic problem can prove invaluable. Many alcoholics struggle to take the first step and ask for help as they are afraid of being judged. By offering your support you are taking some of the fear out of their predicament.
Treatment options for alcoholics include:
Free NHS community alcohol services – Free alcohol treatment is accessible through their GP and their local drug and alcohol team
Alcoholics Anonymous – 12 Step meetings for alcoholics are also free to access. They offer a structured programme of recovery and a network of support from like-minded individuals. However, those who attend 12 Step meetings are not professionally trained and are not able to facilitate a medical alcohol detox or professional counselling.
If the alcoholic is alcohol dependent then they will need both medical help and emotional/psychosocial support in order to get well.
Private alcohol rehab for alcoholics – PCP specialises in providing comprehensive inpatient treatment for alcoholics. This includes an alcohol detox where required, a bespoke alcohol treatment programme and aftercare. Please call us today for more information.
Help for You As Someone Who Is Affected By Another’s Alcoholism
It is important not to leave yourself out of the equation when trying to help an alcoholic. After all, you cannot fix them, you can only offer to support them. If you find that a family member or loved one’s drinking is affecting you, you would likely benefit from some counselling or support from an association such as Al Anon.
It is always helpful to have support yourself when trying to support someone who is very unwell.
Alcoholics Anonymous UK
Al Anon UK