How to Help an Alcoholic

Things to not do if you love an alcoholic

Verywell / Laura Porter

If you're close with someone who has alcohol use disorder (AUD), it can be difficult to know what to do to minimize conflict and stress, support your loved one, and tend to your own needs at the same time. You might feel helpless to change anything at all.

The only way you alone can change the current course of your interactions with someone with a substance use disorder (SUD) is to change how you react.

By adjusting your approach and attitude toward the problem, you can put it in a different perspective so that it no longer dominates your thoughts and your life. In some ways, knowing that you can make this change is empowering.

Below are nine things that you can do that may help relieve the pressure, and in some cases, also better help your loved one start their path to recovery.

First, a note about terminology: While "alcoholic" is a colloquial term, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends saying "person with alcohol use disorder" for accuracy and to reduce stigma. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) describes a diagnosable medical condition that is classified as mild, moderate, or severe.

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1

Free Yourself From Blame

It's common for someone with AUD to try to blame their drinking on circumstances or others around them, including those who are closest to them. It's common to hear them say, "The only reason I drink is because you..."

Don't buy into it. If your loved one is truly dependent on alcohol, they are going to drink no matter what you do or say. It's not your fault.

2

Don't Take It Personally

When someone with alcohol dependency promises they will never drink again but a short time later are back to drinking as much as always, it is easy to take the broken promises and lies personally. You may think, "If they really love me, they wouldn't lie to me."

If your loved one has become addicted to alcohol, however, their brain chemistry may have changed to the point that they are completely surprised by some of the choices they make. They may not be in control of their own decision making.

3

Know When to Take a Step Back

Many family members of someone struggling with alcohol dependency try everything they can think of to get their loved one to stop drinking. Unfortunately, this usually results in leaving those family members feeling lonely and frustrated.

You may tell yourself that surely there is something you can do. But the reality is that not even the person dependent on alcohol can control their drinking, try as they may.

Let a Crisis Happen

You may still want to help your loved one when they are in the middle of a crisis. However, a crisis is usually the time when you should do nothing. When someone reaches a crisis point, sometimes that's when they finally admit they have a problem and begin to reach out for help.

If friends or family members rush in and "rescue" the person from the crisis situation, it can delay the decision to get help.

For those who love someone living with an addiction, it is very difficult to sit back and let the crisis play out to its fullest extent. When they reach the point in their substance use when they get a DUI, lose their job, or go to jail, for example, it can be difficult to accept that the best thing they can do in the situation is nothing.

You don't have to create a crisis, but learning detachment will help you allow a crisis—one that may be the only way to create change—to happen.

4

Understand They'll Need Outside Help

Substance use disorder is a primary, chronic, and progressive disease that sometimes can be fatal. No matter your background or expertise, your loved one will likely need outside help.

Keep in mind that someone with alcohol dependence usually goes through a few stages before they are ready to make a change. Until they begin to contemplate quitting, any actions you take to "help" them quit will often be met with resistance.

Remember, it's not your responsibility to "cure" their AUD. You just happen to love someone who is probably going to need professional treatment to get healthy again. That's their responsibility, not yours.

Treatment for AUD can include, counseling, support groups, and medication.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5

Don't Accept Unacceptable Behavior

Accepting unacceptable behavior usually begins with some small incident that you brush off with, "They just had too much to drink." But the next time, the behavior may get a little worse and then even worse. You might slowly begin to accept more and more unacceptable behavior. Before you realize it, you can find yourself in a full-blown abusive relationship.

Abuse is never acceptable. You do not have to put up with unacceptable behavior in your life. You have choices.

If you have children, it's important to protect them from unacceptable behavior as well. Do not tolerate hurtful or negative comments addressed towards them. These comments can result in lasting damage to a child's psyche.

Protect your children, and don't hesitate to keep them away from someone who drinks and does not respect your boundaries. Growing up in an alcoholic home can leave lasting scars.

6

Have Reasonable Expectations

What might seem like a reasonable expectation in some circumstances might be totally unreasonable when it comes to someone with an addiction. When your loved one swears to you and to themselves that they will never touch another drop of alcohol, you might believe them.

However, for someone with an alcohol dependence, that expectation may turn out to be unreasonable. If the person is incapable of even being honest with themselves, it may not be reasonable to expect them to be honest with you.

7

Stay Focused on the Present

The key to dealing with alcohol dependency in the family is staying focused on the situation as it exists today. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It doesn't reach a certain level and remain there for very long; it continues to get worse until the person with an alcohol problem seeks help.

Don't allow the disappointments and mistakes of the past affect your choices today—circumstances have probably changed.

8

Don't Enable Their Behavior

There is a joke in recovery circles about an alcoholic in denial who screams, "I don't have a problem, so don't tell anyone!" Someone with AUD typically doesn't want anyone to know the level of their alcohol consumption because if someone found out the full extent of the problem, they might try to help.

If family members try to "help" by covering up for their drinking and making excuses for them, they are playing right into their loved one's denial game. This is just enabling. Dealing with the problem openly and honestly is the best approach.

What Is Enabling?

Enabling occurs when someone else covers up or makes excuses for the person who has a SUD. As a result, the person with a SUD doesn't deal with the consequences of their actions.

Often, in trying to "help," well-meaning loved ones will actually do something that enables someone dependent on alcohol to continue along their destructive paths. Make sure that you are not doing anything that bolsters their denial or prevents them from facing the natural consequences of their actions.

When You Enable Them

What happens when you enable them? The exact answer depends on the specific situation, but typically two things happen: They never feel the pain, and it takes the focus off of their behavior.

For example, if your loved one passes out in the yard and you carefully help them into the house and into bed, only you feel the pain. The focus then becomes what you did (moved them) rather than what they did (drinking so much that they passed out outside). 

When You Stop Enabling Them

Instead, if you do nothing and they wake up on the lawn in the morning with neighbors peeking out the window and come into the house while you and the children are happily eating breakfast, they are left to face the results of their own behavior.

In other words, their behavior, rather than your reaction to their behavior, becomes the focus. It is only when they experience their own pain that they will feel a need to change.

Natural consequences may mean that you refuse to spend any time with the person dependent on alcohol. This decision is not being mean or unkind. It is an act of protection for yourself.

It is not your job to "cure" your loved one's alcoholism, but allowing natural consequences to occur is one factor that can push a person from the pre-contemplative stage to the contemplative stage of overcoming addiction.

The contemplative stage ends with the decision to make a change, yet further steps such as preparation, action, and later maintenance and likely relapse are usually needed before the addiction is controlled.

9

Don't Put Off Getting Help For Yourself


If you've been covering up for your loved one and not talking about their addiction openly for a long time, it may seem daunting to reach out for help. However, it's important to make sure you're getting the support you need as well. Lean on the people around you, and, if you need to, reach out to a mental health professional to speak about your stress and what you're going through.

A support group such as Al-Anon Family Groups may also be a helpful source of support when you have someone in your life with a drinking problem. The group can give you a place to get social support and encouragement from others going through a similar situation.

A Word From Verywell

There may be very little you can do to help someone with AUD until they are ready to get help, but you can stop letting someone's drinking problem dominate your thoughts and your life. It's OK to make choices that are good for your own physical and mental health.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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