How to Help Your Loved One with Alcoholism
Navigating tricky situations, finding help and taking care of yourself
Having an adult child, partner or sibling with a substance abuse problem puts a tremendous strain on your relationship. It can disrupt family gatherings and even has the potential to uproot your life entirely. You never know when the next shoe will drop, when you’ll get a phone call you’re dreading or whether you should be up all night worrying.
Unfortunately, the No. 1 rule when it comes to sobriety is that we can’t force anyone to get sober. That change only comes when the person truly wants it for himself or herself, and sometimes, rock bottom is farther away than we imagine it might be for anyone. Worst case scenario, it never comes.
So how do you handle it when things do get out of control? How do you continue to lead as healthy a life as possible? And what do you do when you fear your loved one’s life is at risk?
If You Want to Express Your Concern
“Offer support for treatment within your means, which may include assisting with costs of treatment, watching their house while they are away or helping with transportation,” says Brad Lander, a psychologist and clinical director of addiction medicine at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “The key is to only assist to the point it is reasonable. And don’t accept blame for their drinking. No matter what your history may be, everyone is responsible for their own lives.”
The timing of a conversation about your loved one’s drinking is important, says Scott Dehorty, executive director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health Group.
“It is best to have a talk with the loved one, when they are not intoxicated, about how they feel their drinking has impacted their life,” Dehorty says. In addition, “The questions should be phrased in ways that are information-seeking, rather than accusatory, as any type of accusation may increase defensiveness.”
Trying to make someone admit to a problem will most likely backfire. “Try speaking with the person with the illness, rather than addressing the illness," Dehorty says. "Ask them if this is the life they want and, if it is not, how can they better get to the life they want. Drinking may just be one aspect, but then you have gained an opening for further discussion.”
On Your Own Turf
If there is a gathering or occasion at your house, remember: your house, your rules.
Lander says this might include no drinking in your house, not lending the person money, and not lying for him or her. If the situation is bad enough, or has been bad enough in the past, you reserve the right to ask the person not to attend any function because of his or her drinking.
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
“When we see our loved ones in pain, we often can feel this pain ourselves, and that is very hard,” says psychologist Megan Warner, assistant clinical professor in Yale University School of Medicine’s psychiatry department. “It is common, for parents especially, to try to control or fix their adult child’s addiction and the consequences of that addiction.”
Taking Care of You, Not Them
Nancy B. Irwin, a therapist and addictions specialist at Seasons in Malibu, recommends Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings. Those are free 12-step support groups that have given profound relief and guidance to those affected by those addicted to alcohol.
“Accepting that you cannot change another's behavior is the crucial first step,” she says. “At the right time, you may wish to say to the addict, ‘I love you, and I cannot be around you when you are not sober. Call me or come back home when you are sober.’"
Additionally, it’s important not to assume the person's responsibilities, like paying bills, no matter how tempting. It only makes it easier for the alcoholic to keep drinking, experts say.
“It’s also pointless to hide bottles or empty them,” Lander says. “Give up trying to control or enable. It will eat you alive.”
When to Call an Intervention
According to Dehorty, the level of involvement and intervention with a loved one largely depends upon the severity of the problem.
“The actions taken with someone who causes embarrassing situations at functions a few times per year would differ greatly than those taken with someone who is known to be drinking daily, [drinking while] caring for children and/or driving while intoxicated,” he says.
“If the severity is high, meaning the problem is dysfunctional and unsafe, and the person is in denial about the issue, it is recommended to seek professional help from an interventionist,” Dehorty says.
The interventionist will likely ask “a bunch of intrusive questions,” says Jeremy Pitzer, CEO of The Oaks at La Paloma in Memphis. “Prepare to be fully and completely honest. This is difficult or painful at best, but it is also a key step to make sure the final plan is the right plan.”
The goal, he says, “is to get the patient, along with all of the stakeholders, to endorse a plan together, whatever that looks like.”