How to help a family member with alcohol addiction

Has your friend, partner or other family member slipped into problem drinking? But you’re not sure what to do; you’re not even sure if you’re overreacting or not.

First, we want to reassure families that they represent the single greatest source of strength for loved ones out there.

However, as much as you want to help, bombarding people with emotional pleas and outpourings of recriminations on the ways they are affecting you makes them defensive and fearful. They SHOULD listen to you. They SHOULD stop, but the fact is, they don’t. Think about it: You don’t like it when people tell you that you have to do something either.

It’s really hard not to overreact, but worthwhile. And it will strengthen your relationships if you think this through.

What you hope to attain is for people (children, family members) to trust you so that when they are ready, you will be a strong voice for them. Meanwhile, you hope to trust them (within reasonable limits) in turn.

But I want to help!!

Yes! And you can. But sometimes because you care so deeply, your instincts can encourage you to try to rescue people. “Rescuing” is a difficult— often impossible—task. Moreover, sometimes both adults and children really need to work their way through challenges themselves.  Often, there is no other option. Even though you may be able to fix specific problems temporarily, you cannot fix what fuels the other person’s difficulties in this way. In fact, it can feed them.

Jumping in and solving problems for your loved one or dictating to them what they need to do, even if completely obvious to us, does just doesn’t work as well as having periodic, cooperative discussions about concerns so the person can come to their own conclusions. Hopefully, they will welcome (or come to) welcome and value your input.

But wait!!! That sounds like you just have to sit there and suffer while loved ones make their way endlessly through addictions, wreaking havoc on themselves and others.

No, not at all. Each of us gets to establish our own boundaries, based on our OWN values and what is important to us. We are not responsible or capable of taking on responsibility for most things outside of ourselves, especially other people and their issues.

Not only that, sometimes we put ourselves in jeopardy of becoming “co-dependent”, where we become dependent on love relationships or the care-taking elements of helping someone with addictive behaviors. And give your loved ones some room, too. They are already feeling desperate and trapped. As angry or hurt as you may feel, try to remember that (and it’s not easy!).

So What CAN I do to Help?

You can be there for them, offer help and advice when asked, and always show your love and concern. But you can’t provide life answers for them.

So what in the world can you do when you see something addiction-like going on, and the person you love is either hiding risky behavior or is convinced that they are fine, even though you can see all kinds of negative consequences that they seem oblivious to?

  1. First, take a deep breath; don’t panic.

You cannot make people do anything. (Even your children.) Repeat that to yourself. For spouses and partners, as well as ourselves, drinking and other habits, such as eating, can ebb and flow with varying consequences. We often embark on periods where we are more and less healthy in various ways. That’s not to say that we don’t need to pay attention, and situational stressors can often tip us over into problematic behaviors if we don’t keep a good eye out. We understand these situations are hugely stressful and can get frustrating, and even scary and dangerous. However, overreacting does more harm than good for both ourselves and our loved ones.

Maybe take another deep breath.

  1. Second, how are you doing?

Take a quick pulse on things. Are you running yourself ragged? Are you trying to compensate for or explain your spouse’s/loved one’s bad behavior? Are you eating okay? You will be better able to cope and think if you can keep the basics on track.

  1. Third, are you able to speak to your loved one calmly?

No one ever won an argument with someone who is falling down drunk. If it’s at that point, make sure you’re safe and see if you can get the person to calm down and go to sleep. Be polite, calm and disengage. Try not to fight. It’s very easy for that to escalate. You don’t want to have to call police for emergency help unless absolutely necessary.

It’s never a bad idea to wait at least overnight before talking if you are seriously upset or angry — in any situation. When someone’s been drinking, their reactions are completely off. It does no good to try to accuse, scold or explain why you’re upset when someone is drunk —  or even to engage them in those moments. It won’t help, they won’t remember. They can’t think clearly. Chances are good they will respond badly. The next day, let them know you are concerned and why without attacking. Describe the situation. “I was worried because …”; “I feel” statements are good when describing your feelings. Distinguish between your concerns for them and for yourself. Both are valid, but they are different. Try not to make demands, order people to do or not do things, call names or belittle.  Ask your loved one if they themselves are concerned. What have they tried to do for themselves? Do their efforts make sense? Are there ways you can help?

  1. Fourth, consider together what commitment to action your loved one might make—including seeking outside help.

Consider together what additional actions your loved one might take, with your input (you ARE involved) to improve the family situation. These could include changes in behavior by all family members and those involved in the situation, imposing restrictions on the family member, even changing living arrangements.

EVERY ASPECT of the situation is fair game, including seeking assistance from professionals and others outside the household or family.Don’t jump to extreme solutions like interventionists or hugely expensive rehabs without first talking, researching and exploring your options. Those are extreme short-term measures that will only help if your loved one is ready to take such a step.

Agree to revisit the plan after a period of time, to evaluate whatever steps were taken, and to adjust from there. Based on success, consider whether things are moving in a better direction, whether outside help might be good, if overall goals are still the same for each of you, and/or what next steps to take.

  1. Last, set boundaries.

Boundaries are to protect you and your sanity. They are not punishments, and they are not to elicit behavior from anyone else. It’s like the lock on the door, or the alarm around the property perimeter. We are all entitled to those, and sometimes when people are in the throes of intoxication, such boundaries can be critical. Always remember that protecting your own safety — and that of vulnerable family members, such as small children— comes before anything else. ALSO REMEMBER that, ultimately, you are not fighting your family member OR an addiction.

You are working to create a safe, nourishing and productive place (including your family space) for yourself and everyone you wish to include who chooses to participate positively in it.

For additional resources concerning family members, please see the following articles from our blog:

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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