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 on their own. None of these methods are particularly effective for truly helping an alcoholic. So what does work?
A lot of people feel it is compassionate to try and “save” their friends from the consequences of excessive drinking. For example, they 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 bail them out of jail repeatedly when they get arrested for alcohol related crimes. These enabling behaviors are unhealthy for both parties. It helps the dependent person continue to function in his or her alcohol addiction, and it causes the enabler emotional distress.
The dependent person can ignore what the drinking is doing to his or her life if a fallback is always available. You also make yourself a target of blame as the “cause” of the drinking, even though you are trying to help. Changing your behavior in this aspect can be difficult, but it’s important the alcohol dependent person suffers the consequences of his or her actions. Attending a support group, such as Alanon, can help with detachment.
Another strategy for helping an alcoholic friend is to write down things you have witnessed that concern you, such as personality changes, apathy and lack of personal hygiene, dangerous behavior (like blacking out or drunk driving). Next, 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.”
Set aside a private time to bring these concerns to the person in a non-confrontational way. Come at the friend from a place of compassion. If you verbally attack the person or make inferences based on hearsay and you are likely to be greeted with defensiveness. Tell the friend you will support him or her if and when he or she decides to give up alcohol. Only say so if this is true. Some friends need to completely detach for a time to retain their own emotional health.
If your friend expresses a desire to stop drinking, this is not the time to go into lecture mode. 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 research treatment centers. On the contrary, they may say they don’t want to quit drinking and simply want to cut back. It’s important to be supportive of this behavior as well, even if you “know” it’s not going to work. Addicts must figure this out for themselves.
People need to want to stop drinking to be successful in treatment. Some get there faster than others do, but any steps at all are 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. If the person can go one day, 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 he makes toward his recovery. Even a pat on the back or a kind word can be enough to help an alcoholic get through this difficult time.
Don’t try to be your friend’s only source of support. This is too much pressure on you and could even lead to resentment from both parties. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely recognized support group for alcoholics, but there are many others your friend can attend, such as Smart Recovery or Celebrate, to meet others in the same boat and being to develop a sober social circle.
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.