Helping a loved one who is struggling with alcohol abuse… a topic where the advice is much easier to give than to put into action. Many blogs and books will provide you with their “expert” advice and “simple” steps but the reality is that addiction is messy and emotional. Though I know we’d all like to take some analytical, cookie-cutter, actions to helping the person we love, for many it's very hard and sometimes even impossible. I have worked in the field of addiction treatment for a decade, I am a recovering addict and I have loved many who were struggling with their substance use disorders. With all of that being said, I am writing this out of my own experience and opinions and to genuinely let whoever is reading this know - you are far from alone. While the addict is masking their feelings with their substance of choice we are often left, sometimes alone, with unbelievable anxiety, sadness, shame, and guilt. Sometimes we are in denial and don't even want to believe the blatantly obvious- that someone we love is struggling, often severely and there’s not much we can do to help. Some of us have tried everything to help and some of us ignore the obvious to protect our mental health and well being.
So, how do you know someone is struggling with a substance use disorder? First things first are having to base your conclusion on actions. Until a person struggling admits they have a problem, there will be an excuse for every weird behavior and odd event. Though every addiction has similar characteristics, the signs that describe what a person is using are different. For instance, a person abusing cocaine is going to show different behaviors than one abusing opiates, etc. Beyond behaviors, the withdrawal can be different from each drug. With this being the case I've decided to write about each drug separately. Let’s begin with the most deadly….
Alcohol is the most common and deadly drug of them all. A person does not, I repeat DOES NOT need to drink daily for there to be a problem. Here are a few facts: Almost 27% of adults reported binge drinking in 2015. Alcohol is the number one leading cause of death in Americans ages 18-49, killing an average of 88,000 people annually. That is double the amount of people who die from all opiates combined. These outrageous numbers have an unbelievable economic burden of 249 billion dollars a year, ¾ of that is due to binge drinking. Beyond economic burdens, the most critical burden is carried by our youth with 10% living with a parent with alcohol problems. Alcohol creates other diseases in the human body such as cancer, depression, epilepsy, strokes, high blood pressure, several liver diseases, brain damage, and heart disease.
Due to the legalities, availability and social norms of alcohol, many people go on drinking without receiving help for a long period, if ever. Only 7.9% of people struggling with alcoholism receive help each year. I would have to think this has a lot to do with not only our healthcare system but with the overall social acceptance of alcohol. Before I list the signs that someone may have a drinking problem, I want to note that many of us already know, in our gut, if someone we love has an alcohol disorder. Alcohol problems can vary from binge drinking to “functional” daily drinking. Some people only drink beer, others only drink on the weekends, some experience withdrawals while others don't. Chances are you know your loved one quite well and some of these signs won't apply while others do. This is a general list of observations.
Signs someone is struggling with an alcohol problem:
Making risky decisions while under the influence like:
As I said earlier, anyone can increase this list and just because someone blacked out and felt ashamed doesn’t naturally mean they are an alcoholic. The main idea is if a person is drinking, despite negative consequences and shows an inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed when they do drink, there might be something to pay attention to. Too often a person turns to alcohol when they are in distress. Drinking to cover up the feelings of heartbreak, loss, depression or anxiety can lead to a serious problem. If you have a loved one that is going through a distressing time in their lives it’s important to talk to them sooner than later, especially if they are drinking to “feel better”.
So now that we know some signs a person with an alcohol problem might display, what can we do to help?
For me, the best way I can try to understand why someone is acting out is to just have a conversation. Conversation is not a code word for lecture. Have a genuine conversation where you do more listening than talking, while the person is sober. While your listening makes sure to hold back any judgments you have for the time being as this will cause the person you're trying to help become closed off. If YOU have ever used negative coping mechanisms or have found yourself at some point drinking in a way that was unhealthy, let the person know. Have resources ready, a therapist, a detox center and a treatment facility. Many times a person doesn't even know where to go to get help- this can be a push in the right direction. Don’t talk down to, lecture, or condescend the person who is struggling. This is no time to sit on a pedestal. Once the conversation is over you should have an idea of “why” the person is acting out and how they feel about their drinking. If you are lucky your loved one will change their ways after this heart to heart, possibly take you up on your resources and get better. For some, this will not be a reality. For me, knowing where someone is at, building trust and bonding allows me to offer help in the future. Let them know you love them, explain exact behaviors or events that are worrying you and let them know you are here to support them in their journey to a healthy life. Your influence as a loved one can play a crucial role in the problem drinkers' recovery.
Offer to help build healthy coping mechanisms with your loved one Once some of us get far enough into our drinking or drug use, most of the people we surround ourselves with are also drinking and drugging. This can make it difficult to get out of the environment and habit of drinking. Offer your time to go out and have fun, sober. Maybe play a sport, go to a sporting event or work on a project together. For those who haven't gotten too deep into their drinking yet, this could help. Others again may be too far gone.
No more lending money, making excuses, drinking with them or bailing them out. Enabling needs to stop today. This is easier said than done, I know this. The closer you are with the person that is struggling the more difficult this can be. Create boundaries and stick to them. There are also meetings like Alanon where you can learn how to do this and gain support in the process.
Chances are your loved one has created a lot of stress for you and we cannot be helpful if we neglect our health and wellness. You are not responsible for their actions. You cannot heal them. You can only offer help if they ask for it. Remove yourself from toxic environments and start to heal your mind and body.
Make a plan with close friends and family of the loved one. An intervention is a time for you all to confront your loved one about their addiction and the resulting consequences and to ask them to accept help. A common practice is to collect information and decide on a time and place that works best. The struggling person's wellbeing should be at the forefront of these conversations. Many people will write letters or make notes on what they want to say, providing specific examples of destructive behaviors and the impact it’s had on the family. Offer a pre-arranged treatment option and spell out the consequences if the person does not accept this offer. Stay calm and stern on these consequences and if you have the means to hire a professional to help guide the intervention, do it.
There are some other avenues available in some states like involuntary treatment mandates that are done through the courts. This is something to consider if it’s available where you live. I hope your loved one get the help that they need. Addiction, unlike other illnesses, makes a person do and say beyond hurtful things. Addiction places a burden on everyone involved and creates resentment, anger, and fear. The best thing for your loved one is to be helped by addiction professionals to begin their journey to a solid recovery. Don’t be afraid to take action, your action can very well help save their life. Make sure that you receive help whether that's going to support groups or seeking counseling. As I said earlier, having a healthy YOU is the most important thing you can do.