What is an Alcoholic?
The term, alcoholic, is used to describe someone who struggles with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). When someone struggles with alcoholism, there are similar behaviors that characterize having an addiction to alcohol. Some of these characteristics include a pattern of alcohol use involving difficulty controlling one’s drinking, preoccupation with alcohol, and continuing to use despite personal and/or professional consequences. Additional characteristics of having an alcohol use disorder include having to drink more to achieve the same desired effects (known as having a tolerance) and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal upon sudden cessation or rapid reduction of alcohol use. Someone with an alcohol use disorder has both a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.
Alcohol Use Disorders range in severity from mild, moderate to severe. Someone with a mild Alcohol Use Disorder may quickly develop into a more severe Alcohol Use Disorder if left untreated. This makes early-on intervention and treatment for alcohol addiction pertinent. Alcoholism is not as simple as a choice that can be easily controlled because it is more of a compulsion and a disease. Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders may want to quit but may not be able to quit on their own or without help. Although alcohol is a legal drug, it carries significant risk of developing an Alcohol Use Disorder.
Who Does Alcoholism Effect?
Many alcoholics believe that alcoholism affects only themselves, however, when one member of a family has an Alcohol Use Disorder, it affects the entire family. The family dynamic, including mental and physical health, as well as finances, are negatively impacted by the loved one’s drinking. Oftentimes, the home environment becomes unpredictable or even tense. Common responses from family members may be to make excuses for their loved ones drinking, attempting to control their loved one’s behavior, or denying there is a problem at all. As a family member, you may wonder what you can do to help, or change, the situation. Alcoholism is a disease that should be treated with compassion and care.
10 tips to help an Alcoholic Family Member:
1. Educate Yourself about Alcohol Use Disorders
The first, and a highly important step, toward helping an alcoholic family member is to gain education and learn what an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is. When a family member better understands the disease of addiction, one can experience more empathy and better understanding. They can further gain insight into whether or not they believe their loved one actually has a problem with alcohol and better understand what signs and symptoms to look for. Alcohol Use Disorders are more than just drinking a lot of alcohol. Alcoholism tends to develop gradually over time and often runs in families. Science is still seeking to better understand the actual cause of alcoholism; however, it is known to develop when someone drinks so frequently that it results in chemical changes in the brain. When these chemical changes occur, it increases the release of dopamine in the brain, resulting in an increase in pleasurable feelings, making one want to repeat the behavior of drinking more often and more heavily as their body begins to adjust to the presence of alcohol. When an individual must drink more alcohol in order to achieve the same desired effects, they have developed a tolerance, which is one of many characteristics of having an Alcohol Use Disorder. Additional characteristics of having an Alcohol Use Disorder include:
• Declining engagement in hobbies or activities that used to be of interest
• Using alcohol in high-risk situations, such as while driving or swimming
• Devoting significant time and resources to drinking or recovering from drinking
• Consequences at work, home or school due to alcohol use
• Continued use of alcohol despite one’s use leading to social, financial, physical, legal, relationship, and personal problems
• Becoming distressed about the prospect of not having access to alcohol
• Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon sudden cessation or rapid reduction of alcohol use (such as sweating, shaking, nausea and cravings)
• Overreacting to perceived criticism about one’s alcohol consumption
One may continue to drink despite personal or professional consequences. After time, the pleasurable feelings associated with alcohol use dissipate, leaving the individual in a state of physical and psychological dependence, where they need to drink in order to feel “normal” and in order to prevent experiencing withdrawal symptoms. As a family member, the more you understand about alcoholism, the better, so that you can have increased understanding of what your loved one is going through.
2. Prepare to have a conversation with your loved one
It is strongly suggested to take time to prepare, on paper, what you intend to share with your loved one. This may include your concerns, signs of problematic behavior related to alcohol use, as well as compassion. Try to be supportive and remind them that you care, while avoiding negative statements. Using “I” statements reduces accusation and allows us to articulate how we are feeling. An example of using “I” statements includes. “I really care about you. I feel concerned about your drinking and it worries me.” Showing respect while being supportive is crucial. Once you have prepared what you intend to share, it is suggested to practice saying it aloud first.
3. Make sure your loved one is sober
Choosing when and where to compassionately share your concerns with your family member is crucial. Most importantly, be sure to have this conversation when your loved one is sober. This way, they are coherent and have the capacity to fully hear and understand you and your concerns. Try not to have expectations, as well as prepare yourself for various responses. You may not receive the response you are hoping for. Do not give up hope, as when you bring up your concerns, it allows you the chance to share your feelings and be heard. Be particular with where you decide to have this conversation. Make sure you choose a quiet, safe place so that you have privacy and no distractions.
4. Listen Openly and be Honest
Being honest, open and compassionate can help tremendously when sharing your concerns about your family members drinking. Be prepared for defensiveness and if possible, try to roll with any resistance. Share with compassion your concerns while offering your support to your family member. Be sure to listen intently and not interrupt them while speaking. This allows for open dialogue and invites an honest and safe conversation.
5. Offer Support
It is very important to show empathy, compassion and understanding. Provide as much reassurance that you will be there to help your loved one as much as you are able to. Be sincere. It often helps to put yourself in your family members shoes and covey empathy when expressing yourself. Oftentimes, the most desired outcome would be to have your family member agree to enter treatment. Being prepared by having a list of resources, including treatment options and support group meetings, is beneficial. If your family member agrees to quit drinking, or cut down on their alcohol consumption, make sure that they make sincere commitments and be sure to follow-up with them on those commitments. Holding your loved one accountable for their decision to change is important, however, remember that actions speak louder than words.
6. Do Not Attempt to Control your Family Member
If your loved one is unwilling to seek treatment, it is important to try not to control the situation. The biggest challenge is when our loved one with an Alcohol Use Disorder is in denial that they have a problem with alcohol. They may attempt to blame external circumstances or other people for their drinking despite how obvious it may seem to others around them. Unfortunately, until your loved one admits they have a problem, there isn’t much that a family member can do except set healthy boundaries and express their concerns. Approaching a conversation with an open ear, expressing your concerns with compassion and respect, and offering help are all great ways to approach the situation. When we attempt to control our loved ones, such as forcing them into treatment or attempting to force them to quit drinking, we may find ourselves taking on the burden of not being able to make them change when we want them to.
7. Consider Involving a Professional
Having a private conversation with your loved one to express your concerns regarding their drinking is not the same thing as having an intervention. An intervention for Alcohol Use Disorders involves an Addiction Professional, family members, colleagues, close friends, and other loved ones to get together to confront and urge their loved one to enter treatment. They first meet to plan, on paper, what they intend to share, and follow-up with consequences if their loved one does not agree to seek help and enter treatment. When a conversation involving you expressing your concerns is not enough to encourage your family member to make healthy changes, or if your loved one is resistant or unwilling to admit they have a problem, meeting with an addiction professional to plan an intervention is extremely beneficial.
8. Avoid Falling into Co-Dependency
After you have attempted to implement all of these measures, it is important to remember that you cannot force a loved one to enter treatment or get sober unless they are ready. The best options are to offer support, listen intently, provide resources and follow-through with any consequences you set forth with them. Sometimes, as loved ones of family members with Alcohol Use Disorders, we begin to attempt to control, enable, manipulate or rescue our loved one. These are examples of co-dependent behavior. A co-dependent relationship is a dysfunctional and imbalanced relationship that leaves the family member taking on responsibility for things that are out of their control in attempt to change their loved one’s alcohol use. This may leave you feeling overwhelmed and drained. Other indicators of co-dependency include:
• Overreacting and over-identifying with your family member by taking on your alcoholic loved one’s thoughts and feelings.
• Needing your loved one to behave in a certain way in order for you to feel “okay.”
• Feeling overwhelmed with thoughts, worries and anxiety about your loved one.
• Attempting to fix your loved one rather than focusing on yourself.
• Trying to control your loved one’s drinking or other behaviors.
• Taking responsibility for your loved one’s behaviors.
9. Set a Healthy Example
Set an example for healthy living by giving up alcohol and any recreational drug use. Setting firm, healthy boundaries is also a great way to set a good example, while also benefiting yourself during this difficult time. Attending support groups for family members of alcoholics, such as Al-Anon, is a great way to show your loved one that help is available to everyone. If you begin attending support groups, your loved one may be more open-minded to attending one, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). When one member of the family becomes healthier, it can make a great impact on the other members of the family. Always remember, actions speak louder than words.
10. Help Yourself
Watching a family member struggle with alcoholism can be very difficult. We often want to do everything we can to make an impact on our loved one in order to help them change. But in reality, the only person we have the power to change is ourselves. Attending support groups, such as Al-Anon, is a healthy way to focus on yourself while meeting others who can relate to your situation. It is a great place to find hope. Other meetings, including Co-Da, help family members of alcoholics and addicts with overcoming co-dependency. Take time to engage in activities that you are passionate about, such as hobbies, recreational activities, exercise, or spending time with family or friends. This is a great way to live your life and focus on what you can control.
Help is Available
One of the most important things that you can do for a fellow family member who is struggling with an alcohol addiction is to let them know they are not alone and not to shun or shut them away but to be a good support system and let them know that help is available. At Transformations Recovery, we offer comprehensive and holistic Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs (IOP) for alcohol and drug addictions, as well as co-occurring disorders, such as mental health issues. We further offer support for family members affected by loved ones with alcohol or other drug addictions. Contact one of our dedicated staff today to learn more about helping your family member recover from an Alcohol Use Disorder.