Misconceptions abound about what a person should do to help an alcoholic friend. Many feel they can make the person stop drinking by shaming them, disposing of their alcohol, hiding their money, or getting them arrested. Others think that if they simply love them enough, the person will stop drinking on their own. None of these methods are particularly effective for truly helping an alcoholic. So, what does work when trying to help a friend overcome addiction?
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Before diving into how you can help an alcoholic friend overcome addiction, it is first vital to learn about the signs and symptoms associated with alcohol addiction.
These lists are not exhaustive but instead list the primary or most common signs associated with alcoholism:
Someone's behavior may be the first sign they are struggling with alcohol addiction. Behavioral signs include:
- Drinking to the level of intoxication every time they consume alcohol
- Skipping out on important duties like work or school
- A drastic change in behavior, such as defensiveness or sneakiness
- Stealing money or valuable items from friends or family
- Using alcohol at inappropriate times or environments, like at work or first thing in the morning
- Losing or ruining friendships
- Spending time with a new or unusual social group
Someone’s behavior may not lead a loved one to suspect alcoholism. However, an individual’s physicality or health can be another sign of an addiction. Physical signs include:
- Sudden and unexpected weight gain or weight loss
- Physical injuries like broken bones or excessive bruises or cuts
- Excessive shaking or sweating
- Change in speech, like slurring of words or speaking too quickly to understand
- Discoloration in an individual's face and/or eyes
- Little to no physical energy
- Disheveled clothing and/or appearance
How to Help an Alcoholic Friend Overcome Addiction
If a friend or loved one is experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, it may be time to step in and help them overcome their alcohol addiction.
The following are some guidelines for helping with navigating this difficult and sensitive time in your loved one’s life:
Stop Enabling Your Friend’s Alcohol Abuse
Many people feel it is compassionate to try and “save” their friends from the consequences of excessive drinking; they often think enabling their alcohol abuse equates to support.
For example, some may make excuses to the boss when their friends are too hungover to go to work, give them money to purchase alcohol when they are broke, or repeatedly bail them out of jail when they get arrested for alcohol-related crimes.
Though at the moment, you may feel as if you are supporting your friend, these enabling behaviors are unhealthy for both parties. It helps the dependent person continue to function in their alcohol addiction and causes the enabler emotional, sometimes even physical or monetary, distress.
The dependent person is much less likely to fix the deterioration the drinking is doing to their life if a fallback is always available; there are seemingly no consequences for the person struggling with alcoholism.
You may also make yourself a target of blame from your alcoholic friend, or others close to them, as the “cause” of the drinking, as you enable this behavior to continue. Your behaviors may be harmful or misconstrued even when you are simply trying to help.
Changing your behavior in this aspect can be difficult, but alcohol-dependent people must suffer the consequences of their actions. Without the ability to learn from their mistakes, an individual struggling with addiction may be stuck in a continuous cycle of potentially life-threatening behavior.
Tell Your Friend How Their Addiction is Affecting You
Another strategy for helping an alcoholic friend overcome addiction is to write down instances you have witnessed that concern you, such as personality changes, apathy and lack of personal hygiene, and dangerous behavior (like blacking out or drunk driving).
Next, when discussing how their behavior made you feel, make sure to form “I” statements regarding these behaviors. One example would be, “I feel sad that you stopped spending time with your kids due to your drinking.”
You want these to come from a place of concern, not judgment. Do not bring up instances you were not a part of or “rumors” other friends or family members may have shared with you. This is not the time to list all of the things they have done “wrong” in their life, but instead, an opportunity to share how their drinking has affected you.
Set aside a time to bring these concerns to your friend or loved one in a non-confrontational way. The conversation should come from a place of compassion, do not ambush the person, and be careful to not threaten or hurt your loved one with your words.
If you verbally attack the person or make inferences based on hearsay, you will likely be met with defensiveness. It is crucial to be honest, but not angry (even though you may rightfully be) and let them know you will be there to support them if/when they choose to get sober, if you are willing.
Meet Them Where They Are At
Every person who suffers from alcoholism experiences the disease differently. Therefore, it is crucial to meet your loved one where they are at in their journey, not expect them to be where you want them to be.
If your friend expresses a desire to stop drinking, avoid jumping into a lecture or harping on their past mistakes in a negative manner. Instead, ask what the friend would like you to do to give support.
For example, they may ask you to drive them to support group meetings or an addiction treatment center. On the contrary, they may say they don’t want to quit drinking completely and simply want to cut back. It’s also important to be supportive of this behavior, even if you “know” it’s not going to work. Addicts must lead their own recovery charge, and you can only help in ways they are ready for.
People need to want to stop drinking to be successful in recovery. Some get there faster than others, but it is important to remember that any steps are considered progress.
Celebrate all milestones with your friend, including something as small as going one day without a drink, if that is a huge accomplishment for them. Encourage your friend or family member that if they can go one day without drinking, they can go two, which can turn into months and even years of sobriety.
Keep encouraging and congratulating your friend on each and every step they make toward recovery. Even a pat on the back or a kind word can be enough to help an alcoholic get through this difficult time.
Encourage Additional Support
Though it may be tempting, don’t try to be your friend’s only source of support. Not only does this place too much pressure on you, even leading to resentment from both parties, but those struggling with alcohol addiction often need a plethora of treatment tools to maintain recovery.
Types of Support
Accountability, both from the individual and others around them, is crucial to remaining sober. As a friend, you may encourage your loved one struggling with addiction to utilize not just one but a few treatment tools when looking to get sober.
Rehab may be the best option for those ready for a drastic change. Rehab centers, like addiction, are not one size fits all. They offer a multitude of services, all with an individual's overall alcohol management in mind.
They range in length (30 and 60 day are most common,) structure (inpatient vs. outpatient), and methodology. The goal of rehab is to focus on staying sober while learning the tools to help you stay in recovery once discharged from the facility.
If your friend is looking for a relatively intensive program, then rehab may be the best resource to present them with.
Alcohol monitoring is an excellent tool to promote accountability.
Soberlink's alcohol testing device is a superb way to help your friend stay sober, regardless of location or current resources. More than a breathalyzer, Soberlink’s comprehensive system allows scheduled tests and real-time results that can be shared with both treatment professionals and others in their Recovery Circle, like you, their supportive friend.
Favored and trusted by Addiction Professionals, this system allows users to see daily, weekly, or monthly reports using an easy-to-read color-coded system. The device is also sleek and discrete and can be easily carried in a purse or pocket if your friend or loved one is worried about discretion. Its mobility, user-friendly system, and sharing capabilities allow your friend and those who wish to support them to visibly see their successes and encourage them to keep going.
Therapy or an Alcohol Recovery Coach
Finding an Addiction Professional who focuses on alcohol abuse and addiction is an effective way for your loved one to receive help maintaining sobriety.
While there are many different Treatment Clinicians with different methodologies, encourage your friend to find one who specializes in alcohol addiction management as they will best fit their specific needs.
If your friend or loved one needs guidance on finding proper treatment, point them in the direction of Psychology Today’s Therapist Finder. This search engine allows individuals to include their insurance and specific preferences like in-person or virtual sessions. More importantly, it allows a person to filter their results to only produce professionals specializing in Addiction Treatment.
Another way to support your loved one is to encourage them to attend a group support meeting. The most familiar group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a 12-step program that has been around since 1935. It is a free resource that is extremely accessible, as it has meetings all around the world at all times of the day, both in person and online.
To help your friend or loved one find a meeting near them, utilize their meeting finder to find the next gathering.
Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely recognized support group for those struggling with alcoholism. Still, there are many others your friend can attend, such as Smart Recovery or Celebrate, to meet others on the same journey and begin to develop a sober social circle.
Find a New Hobby to Do Together
For newly sober people, it can feel as if there is “nothing” to do anymore without alcohol; their social calendars may look and/or feel bleak in this new stage of life. To help them find a new sense of normalcy, offer to start a new hobby or activity together.
You can include them in an activity you already enjoy and show them the ropes, or maybe suggest something new to learn together to prove to your friend how willing you are to lend support. You even can find a hobby that promotes a healthy lifestyle like hiking or a workout class, reading a book and discussing it together, or cooking a meal together.
Finding something new to do with a loved one will help your struggling friend or family member fill their time and find joy in things other than drinking. Simultaneously, when you offer to spend more time with them, they may feel more determined to take steps toward recovery.
What NOT to Do When Helping a Friend Overcome Addiction
While helping your friend overcome addiction is a beautiful act, there are a few things you want to avoid when doing so.
1. Don’t Judge Their Decisions
It can be difficult to remain calm and understanding when you know your friend is making decisions that are hurting them. However, judging their decisions will not help them get better. In many cases, it can do just the opposite.
When trying to help, remain calm and understanding and do your best to keep your criticism to yourself.
2. Don’t Give Ultimatums
Many believe giving ultimatums to addicts will finally make them stop, when supporting an addict where they are at can be more beneficial to their recovery. Ultimatums force many people to choose between their addiction and their loved ones, but the nature of this disease can influence a healthy choice.
Those who are addicted to alcohol are usually physically, mentally, and emotionally dependent on the substance and may need time to choose to get sober on their own. It is okay to take some time away if you need to, but be careful if choosing to completely abandon your loved one if they don’t stop drinking as it may be hard to repair the relationship at a later time.
3. Don’t Expect Quick or Drastic Change
Alcohol recovery is a lifelong process and commitment to change. As long as it is not harmful to you, stick by your loved one and be patient, because sustained sobriety may take longer than you hope.
There may also be relapses or slip ups, and instead of being angry, try and understand the difficult changes they are experiencing. Remember that even small progress is progress, and remember to celebrate their small wins.
Don’t Forget to Help Yourself
We know it can be excruciating watching your loved one make poor decisions that negatively affect their life. Even when you want the best for someone and choose to love them unconditionally, it still can be a struggle.
When helping your loved one overcome addiction, don’t forget to seek support for yourself.
Attending a support group, such as Alanon, can help with coping and detachment and will give you a space to talk with others who have experienced an alcoholic loved one. Therapy is also beneficial for talking about the struggles you are experiencing.
We know you want the best for your loved one, but don’t forget to look for resources for yourself as well.