How to Help an Alcoholic
When you witness the harm that alcohol addiction causes a family member, you may feel frustrated, sad, and helpless. To help you reach out to someone you love with alcohol addiction, we look at the steps you can take to approach them about their alcohol use and where to find support services in the UK.
What is an Alcoholic?
An alcoholic is someone who has a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. It is characterised by a desire or a compulsion to drink alcohol despite the negative consequences it causes in their lives (Medical News Today).
While many people engage in social drinking, it is when one begins to rely on the substance and cannot control how much is consumed that it becomes a problem. A person who is addicted to alcohol is unable to quit using on their own and may show the following signs:
- Changes in personality
- An inability to maintain healthy relationships
- Lack of interest in hobbies
- Drinking alone or secretly
- Consuming higher amounts to achieve the same effect
How Do I Approach a Loved One About Their Alcohol Use?
Speaking to someone you care about concerning their alcohol use can be challenging. Reaching out may be met with resistance or denial; however, there are ways to approach a relative or friend when you are compassionate and non-judgmental in the process.
Compassion is about understanding and is an important part of successfully reaching out to someone with alcohol addiction. Someone who is in denial about their alcohol misuse and dependence is more likely to listen to you if you approach them from a caring and unconditional position rather than one where they feel attacked and defensive.
2. Fair But Firm Boundaries
Your ability to create fair and firm boundaries is a necessary part of helping a family member or a friend with alcohol dependence. In a situation where someone who is addicted to alcohol has created a destructive environment that is harmful to their children, a firm approach is recommended. An example of establishing boundaries in this circumstance is to explain to the individual why the children should be removed from the environment until they get better. This helps the person recognise the seriousness of their actions while providing hope that they can restore their family if they work on their recovery. Boundaries need to be established in a fair and not a punishing manner.
Another important aspect is co-dependency. Co-dependence is defined as a mutual dependence that maintains addiction. It is a learned behaviour in which someone who is not addicted to alcohol experiences a sense of importance and value when they care for the person with dependence. This type of unhealthy attachment compromises the ability to overcome the grip of addiction. Owing to the dependencies that are created, fair and firm boundaries must be set by each family member. This means relearning a sense of independence without enabling the alcohol dependent individual. While the person addicted to alcohol is focused on the substance, the co-dependent is attached to or ‘addicted’ to the alcoholic which makes intervention more challenging.
3. Offer Support (and Guidance)
Those in the midst of addiction need support from their family to assist them through the process of recovery. By offering your unconditional support and guidance, you can start a conversation about recovery. First educate yourself about the treatment options for alcoholism so you can advise on how and where they can start the road to recovery.
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What Should I Avoid Doing?
While we want what is best for the people we love and become terribly frustrated when we witness how alcohol is affecting their lives, there are certain attitudes and approaches that should be avoided.
Force, confrontation, and anger should not be a part of reaching out. Let’s look at what to avoid when speaking to someone with addiction.
Forcing Someone into Treatment Doesn’t Work
Threatening and forcing someone to change and to seek treatment for addiction will be met with a negative response. Individuals who are forced into treatment will most likely resist and shut down. Unless the person is fully committed to changing their life, it will most likely result in relapse.
Only in situations where there is risk to a child owing to the destructive actions and environment of the person misusing alcohol, one may speak to social worker to learn of the legal options for protecting children (AP News). But remember, fair and firm with boundaries is considered a better way of managing a difficult situation. If you feel that the person and their children are at risk, speak to a recovery professional who can provide trusted advice.
It is natural to feel angry towards the situation and the person who is addicted to alcohol but approaching them in anger is not the way to help them. When we are angry, we can become emotional. We may blame them for their terrible life decisions which will only result in the individual shutting down or wanting to hide their drinking behaviours. You may be coming from a compassionate position, but it is all about how the message is received. Approaching someone about addiction is a difficult subject and doing so in anger simply pushes them further away.
Do Not Attempt an Alcohol Detox without Professional Advice
When someone develops an alcohol use dependence (AUD), they will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop consuming alcohol. Withdrawal from alcohol addiction can be dangerous and includes the following symptoms:
- High levels of anxiety
- Delirium Tremens (DT) which is a life-threatening condition that causes hallucinations and seizures (WebMD).
If you were to attempt alcohol detox or try to assist someone with detox without a professional, it increases the risk of complications. Detox from alcohol should only be performed with medical support and under the supervision of a GP or addiction specialist.
If a loved one has attempted an alcohol detox previously, or is having difficulty due to withdrawal symptoms or intense cravings for alcohol, an alcohol rehab programme within a residential rehab setting may be a better option.
Supporting Family & Loved Ones
The problem with addiction is that it is not one-sided. Loved ones who are affected by the actions of alcohol dependents may become enablers, may try to control addiction behaviour, or keep their distance. There are also higher incidences of violence and abuse in families where alcohol use disorder is present (ASPE). Children who are raised by an alcoholic parent experience far reaching consequences into adulthood. They become part of a dysfunctional family environment in which destruction including violence and abuse become the norm (ASPE). Parental alcoholism can also cause psychological and emotional difficulties in children that last into adulthood. Children may find it difficult to form lasting and trusted relationships with peers and a pattern of unhealthy relationships may continue into adulthood. They may constantly seek approval from others for fear of abandonment (VeryWellMind).
What Support is Available in the UK for Families of Alcoholics?
In the UK, the following support services are available for the families and children of alcohol dependents:
For families affected by the alcohol use of a relative, Adfam offers reliable information and more than 200 support groups for families struggling with alcohol dependence (Adfam.org).
This programme is available to those who are affected by the drinking (past or present) of someone else. Group meetings are held in which friends and relatives of alcohol dependents provide support for one another and share their experiences (Al Anon).
For those living with an alcohol dependent, Bottled Up offers advice on how to help families. It also provides 24/7 support and confidentiality services (Alcohol Change UK).
They offer a free helpline, instant chat, and online messaging boards for children dealing with parental alcoholism (Nacoa.org).
You can also contact the NHS for more information on support groups and therapy programmes.