How to Deal with Alcoholism in Your Family
As intervention specialists, we’re often asked to give advice for families of alcoholics. Sometimes the questions are about how to do an alcoholism intervention, what to do in cases of extreme alcoholism, where to go for the best alcoholism treatment or how to avoid active alcoholism relapse.
But the question that family members never ask us, but should, is: What do we need to STOP doing as family members to fix this problem?
Well-meaning family members are all about trying to figure out what they can do, what they need to do more of, and how they can better help their loved one kick their alcohol addiction. Sadly, this type of thinking often leads families into enabling behavior that only prolongs the addiction for their loved one.
Family members ask us, “What can I do to get my loved one into rehab? I’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work.” This is because families are not trained professional interventionists.
Be Wary of Manipulation
Let’s be blunt: Alcoholics are pros at manipulating family members to keep enabling their addiction. You need a professional who can take on this challenge and get through to your loved one.
Alcoholics are the most difficult addicts to contend with because they are often able to maintain their addiction while holding down a job and other responsibilities. If their life isn’t falling apart, they can get away with simply saying, “I’ll try to cut down,” or, “Maybe it is getting a little out of hand, but I can get it back under control.”
But unless they flat out admit, “I am an alcoholic,” they’re not going to rehab – willingly, at least. Nothing less than a crystal-clear admission of their addiction will motivate them to begin to accept responsibility for their alcohol consumption.
Yet this type of realization is incredibly difficult for family members and non-professionals to achieve – no matter how much coaxing they try, or how many examples of the problem they present to the individual. Logic simply isn’t powerful enough to get a person to admit that they’re powerless to alcohol, and emotionally berating them only makes them retreat further into defensiveness and blaming the problem on others.
Even professional interventionists and alcohol treatment counselors find that alcoholics are some of the most difficult people to get through to. Let’s look at why that is.
Why Alcohol Addiction Isn’t Like Other Addictions
Alcoholics have difficulty realizing the true seriousness of their problem due to several reasons that set alcohol addiction apart from other addictions:
- Alcohol is legal and socially acceptable.
- Alcohol is easy to obtain and relatively cheap compared to other substances.
- Alcohol is everywhere, especially at social events and business gatherings.
- Alcohol abuse is easy to cover up and downplay.
- Alcohol is one of the most physically damaging addictive substances – but most of the damage happens on the inside where it isn’t obvious.
- Detoxification from alcohol can be dangerous and should be medically supervised, but most people think that quitting cold turkey is the way to go.
- Full recovery from alcoholism can take years.
- Even when sober, avoiding alcohol in our society is nearly impossible.
Given these challenges, it’s important for family members to learn some key facts about alcoholism in order to understand what it really takes to help a loved one conquer alcohol addiction.
What Families Need to Understand About Alcoholism
Alcohol addiction has been around for centuries, and families have been fighting it for just as long. Our understanding of addiction and how it affects the body and mind have evolved in recent years, but many families are still operating on outdated information that has been passed down through our society.
Here are the key facts you need to know about alcoholism and how to deal with it:
Alcohol Is a Drug
Experts have identified alcohol as the second-most addictive drug in the world, second only to heroin, and alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., playing a role in a loss of 88,000 Americans each year.
And yet, thousands of alcoholics go about their daily lives, often appearing perfectly fine on the outside…until the day their addiction creeps up and kills them.
Alcoholism Is a Progressive Disease
Alcohol addiction usually starts out innocently enough – a few drinks here and there, then a drink a day, two drinks a day, etc. A weekend of binge drinking now and again, and then once a month, then every weekend…
This is how alcoholism sneaks up on people. It happens so gradually that, even in advanced stages, the alcoholic will not realize the seriousness of the disease. He or she may simply see it as a stress reliever, or no different than what lots of other people are doing.
Alcoholics may claim that they can stop anytime they want to, and they will, when the time is right…that’s just not right now. And it never will be. To them, there’s never a good time to stop consuming the substance they’re addicted to.
Alcoholics Are the Last People to Realize They Are Alcoholics
“I’m not an addict. I’ve got things under control.”
Because of the unique factors that support alcohol consumption in our society, and the gradual nature with which the addiction takes hold, alcoholics don’t know they have a problem, even when it’s obvious to everyone else around them.
It is very rare that alcoholics will address the disease successfully by themselves. This is why it’s so important for them to get outside help so they can see what is really going on and commit to the recovery process.
Medically Assisted Detox Is Necessary for Alcoholics
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include delirium tremens, seizures or heart failure, and can be potentially fatal. This is why we recommend that alcohol abusers begin the detox process in a medical facility where their health can be monitored. Medical professionals can also use a variety of therapies and medications to help ease the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms.
Even if the withdrawal symptoms are not extreme enough to lead to death, they will most likely be so unpleasant that the alcoholic gives up on quitting on his or her own. This is why professional detox and treatment is so crucial.
Recovery from Alcoholism Takes Years, Not Days or Months
Unlike with some drug addictions, recovery from alcohol doesn’t happen overnight, or even within the first few weeks. True alcoholism recovery takes months or years and requires continued vigilance to keep from relapsing into active alcoholism.
In fact, most alcoholics will still not accept the full seriousness of the problem even through the first year of recovery. Many have the idea in the back of their mind that eventually they can get back to having a social drink once in a while. This is why it is key to have a long-term plan for ongoing treatment and maintenance within the first one to three years of initial detox and treatment.
There’s No Such Thing As an ‘Easy’ Intervention or Recovery
It’s important to accept that the recovery process will be emotional for the individual and the family. Many families put off having an intervention because they’re waiting for the right time, but there is no right time. Or at least, there’s no time when it will be an easy, calm, completely conflict-free process.
The only right time to get professional help for your loved one is right now – before more damage is done to their body and life. However, having the support of an interventionist who offers family care and support can ease the process, increase the likelihood of success and help create a safe environment that is conducive to healing.
Even a Single Drink Can Cause Relapse
Relapse is especially devastating with alcoholics because even a single slip-up can cause alcoholism to resurface in an instant. Within days or even hours, the once-sober alcoholic can return to the same state and seriousness as they were in before recovery, even years down the road into sobriety.
This is why it’s incredibly important for family members to do everything they can not to expose their sober loved one to alcohol or events where alcohol will be present. It’s not worth the risk.
Plus, it’s torture for someone in recovery to be exposed to situations where others are drinking, but they can’t. Because of how prevalent alcohol is in our society, avoiding it completely isn’t always possible, but families can still do much to minimize triggers by organizing alcohol-free family events.
Care for Your Loved One As If They Have a Disease – Because They Do
Severe alcoholism affects the balance of chemicals in the brain and body. And during recovery, many physical, emotional and mental changes will take place. This healing and rebalancing process can take years.
Family members need to be prepared to be supportive and helpful during recovery, just as they would in helping a loved one recover from a major surgery or disease.
Alcoholism Help for Family Members
A family’s role is incredibly important in jumpstarting the recovery process. The alcoholic can’t see what is really going on, and they need your help to understand. But you can help them more by bringing in a professional interventionist rather than trying to do an intervention yourself.
The hard truth is alcoholics don’t take their family members’ opinions about addiction as seriously as they do the words of a professional.
Bringing in an objective professional from outside the family also means that person isn’t tied up in the alcoholic family roles that have been enabling the addiction thus far. The emotional appeals that alcoholics use to subdue and deflect the concerns of family members don’t work on a person who doesn’t know them like you do.
Not only will the professional interventionist be more skilled at getting through to your loved one, it also frees you up to only take responsibility for your relationship with your loved one.
Focus on Your Role in the Family, Not on Trying to Be an Interventionist
You shouldn’t have to be both spouse and interventionist, or father and interventionist, or sister and interventionist, etc. Let a professional counselor be the interventionist so you can focus on your role in the family.
Family members of alcoholics often feel pulled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, they want to be a loving partner/parent/sibling, etc. On the other hand, they want to be the responsible individual who convinces their loved one to get help for alcohol addiction.
The best way to achieve both of these goals is to allow a professional interventionist to do what they do best, which frees you up to be the best-loved one you can be.
Learn How to Help an Alcoholic with Family Intervention Services