Tips for Helping an Alcoholic Friend or Family Member

Tips for Helping an Alcoholic Friend or Family Member

If you’re in recovery from alcohol addiction, it no doubt took you a long time to admit your drinking was a problem. If you’ve never been a heavy drinker yourself, you’ve no doubt had some habits that were hard to admit and harder to break. In either case, if you have an alcoholic friend or family member, and desperately want to help them get sober, start by empathizing with the universal human craving to believe “I can handle anything” and “Everyone else is unreasonable.” Trying to nag, bully or guilt-trip someone into alcohol detox treatment only provokes them to retreat deeper into denial.

Here’s what you can do to help:

1. Make sure you aren’t “helping” in all the wrong ways.

Attempts to “help” by first protecting the drinker’s job or the family’s reputation are extremely common—and extremely dangerous. The psychologists’ term is “enabling,” as in enabling the addiction to continue by minimizing consequences that might make things “hurt enough” for the person to get serious about quitting drinking.

Signs of enablement:

  • Rushing the freshly dented car to the body shop, or cleaning up evidence of someone’s having been sick on the floor last night.
  • Making up “respectable” explanations for why your loved one is too sick to go out.
  • Taking over responsibilities the drinker has been neglecting, or using your own money to make up funds spent on alcohol.

If you’re guilty of any of those habits, you’re probably hoping that if you “fix things” often enough, the larger problem will go away painlessly. Trust us, it won’t. You’ll do your loved one much more good by standing aside for negative consequences before things get worse.

2. Understand what alcohol withdrawal is really like.

Pouring beer down the sink is not only an invitation to a fight, it may actually endanger the drinker’s life. It’s never a good idea to abruptly cut supply lines for any drug—“cold turkey” withdrawal can do real damage to the body and mind—but alcohol is among the more dangerous substances to try this with. Patients in opiate detox centers rarely need more than to be kept comfortable and hydrated until the flu-like symptoms abate; patients in alcohol detox are at such high risk for seizures and altered heart rate that they need steady medical observation, and sometimes carefully measured prescription medication. Always make it your goal to find proper medical detox for your loved one.

3. Find a support group and therapist for yourself (and the rest of the family, if you’re responsible for minor children or other dependents).

If your loved one is currently refusing to consider alcohol detox treatment or even family therapy, you can still get professional counseling for yourself, and you can join Al-Anon or another support network for families of alcoholics. You’ll meet others who are struggling with problems similar to yours, who know coping strategies, and who may even be able to point you toward the best alcohol detox program for your loved one.

4. Take time to build a life for yourself apart from worrying about your loved one’s problem.

Continue to enjoy your favorite leisure activities and to pamper yourself on a regular basis. Eat healthy and get your sleep. This isn’t selfish—by keeping your body strong and your head clear, it actually equips you to be more effective in helping your alcoholic friend or family member.

5. Research available alcohol detox programs.

Not to shove them in your loved one’s face, but so you’ll have an immediate recommendation handy at the “low points” when alcohol rehab looks pretty good compared to continuing in addiction. If you can say, “I know a place you can talk to about getting help” right then, your loved one might well be ready to do it. If you have no specific suggestions, chances are the opportunity will be lost and the person will return to denial once the “down period” wears off.

Get recommendations for specific detox centers from your support group, family doctor or health insurance agent. If you look up additional options online (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Treatment Services Locator page is a good place to start), review their websites thoroughly, then schedule a visit to tour the premises and talk to the treatment providers.

A good detox center should have all the following attributes:

  • Convenient location
  • Sound reputation and a history of several years at the same place
  • Trained medical personnel on staff
  • Well-established procedures for responding both to individual patient emergencies and emergencies involving the entire premises
  • Well-equipped facilities including patient rooms, dining areas and recreational areas
  • Evident respect for patients and their individual needs

Presumably you know your loved one well enough to also anticipate how they’ll respond to specific treatment approaches and facilities: the best alcohol detox center for one person might not meet all needs for another. Take a careful look around and ask questions.

6. If you decide to go the “intervention” route, get professional advice and plan carefully.

Interventions—having multiple peers confront the problem drinker with evidence of the harm his or her behavior is doing—can be the catalyst that propels the person into treatment and for which they later thank you profusely. It can also be a way to push the person deeper into denial and leave them hating their friends. Never just “ambush” anyone with accusations and demands: talk with an experienced intervention counselor in advance; involve only people who care deeply for the affected person and can be trusted not to lose control of their emotions; and thoroughly plan everything you will say. And always go in with a specific detox center in mind that will take the person immediately if they agree to treatment.

7. Once your loved one does begin treatment, be there for them throughout detox and beyond.

Make sure they know you see them as a person you’re concerned about, not just a problem you want to solve. Visit them regularly during their time in inpatient detox. Attend therapy sessions with them during and after. Commit yourself to supporting them for the long term in healthy ways—including encouraging them to believe in themselves and pursue their unique dreams for the future.

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(Closing note: Most of the above also applies if you are trying to help an addicted loved one who is refusing to get prescription drug rehab, cocaine addiction treatment, amphetamine detox—or even help for a non-chemical addiction such as compulsive gambling.)

If your loved one is ready for alcohol detox, please call Inland Detox at (888) 739-8296. We provide medically managed treatment to ensure safe withdrawal and preparation for a sober future.