Alcohol seems to have fallen into its own category of drug. Alcohol is accepted by society, is legal, and for many is not a problem when used responsibly. The reality, of course, is that alcohol is indeed a drug. When we look at all the cases, calls, and interventions we have been part of, alcohol is often the most devastating. The physical and mental deterioration alcohol use causes far exceed what we see from all other drugs combined. Alcohol, along with benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium, can cause death during the detox period. The medical attention necessary for an alcoholic during detox far exceeds that of the detox from all other drugs. Due to its availability, costs, and the right to drink legally when one comes of age, interventions for alcoholics are among the most challenging.
Intervention for an Alcoholic Compared to Drug Addiction
How an alcoholic behaves and how a family is affected by alcohol is described in our drug addiction intervention section.
Additional challenges with alcoholic interventions are the entitlement concerns. When one is using illegal drugs, there is little to debate. Because alcohol is also socially acceptable, alcoholics are able to justify their drug of choice more easily than a street drug user. Although accepted, most alcoholics are not found in bars. They are found withering away in their homes, concealing alcohol throughout the house. Physically, alcohol proves to be the harshest drug, and mentally, just as with drug users, it is not about the substance being used, it’s about the user’s behavior. Many families of alcoholics spend too much time listening to alcoholics’ promises and too little time gauging change based on actions. Our suggestion is: stop watching their lips; keep an eye on their actions because alcohol is not the problem; the alcoholic is.
If we had the opportunity to change the meaning of one word in the dictionary, it would be “selfishness.” The definition would be changed to “see alcoholic.”
If we had the opportunity to change the meaning of one word in the dictionary, it would be “selfishness.” The definition would be changed to “see alcoholic.” It becomes the only priority of those who excessively use alcohol, and when challenged, they often have a “get over it mentality” toward the family. The spouse or others connected to the alcoholic become almost neurotic trying to maintain their sanity in the face of the alcoholic’s volatility. The situation seems to go on far longer than that of a drug user because the families often cling to the illusion that the alcoholic can stop drinking because most people who drink can. When they think of drugs, it is often assumed that one is hooked, an addict who can’t stop without help.
People often hear of alcoholics who just gave up drinking one day. And it is true that this can happen. There is a difference, however, between someone with an alcohol use disorder and a heavy drinker. A heavy drinker can and will stop when faced with a consequence whereas an alcoholic will just keep consuming the drink. For families researching intervention for an alcoholic, we can say with near certainty that an alcoholic is not a heavy drinker who can just put it down. In other words, if you need to step in and intervene, then consequences are not enough to cause them to stop. We suggested not comparing the alcoholic in your life to other situations that may offer only false hope. Step back and try to focus on what the alcohol is doing to you and members of your family.
Related Resource: A Complete Guide to Addiction Recovery for Your Loved One
Inquiries about an alcoholic intervention come from various family members. At some point in the discussion and assessment, we see one of the biggest challenges coming from the alcoholic’s spouse. Unlike drug users, many alcoholics are still employed and have resources. They often provide the majority of the family’s income. Spouses of alcoholics over time become martyrs and frequently try to prevent interventions from happening. They are more concerned with what will happen to them if sobriety is achieved than the wellbeing of their spouse or children living in the home with the alcoholic. This does not make them bad or evil; it is just what the situation is. Oftentimes, the spouse marries the alcoholic knowing about the drinking problem. This is not always the case but oftentimes is. Either way, the mindset of both the alcoholic and the spouse have to be taken into consideration early on.
Research and seasoned professionals suggest that when two emotionally unhealthy people meet, they fulfill each other’s unwholesome needs. This could be the non-alcoholic spouse needing to be a codependent caretaker, or it could be the alcoholic needing someone to walk all over, someone who will provide comfort while he or she acts out those rebellious teenage years. The reasons unhealthy people come together are endless. In most cases, it can be explained by both sides either consciously or subconsciously following the model of their family of origin.
Here are some of the reasons disclosed to us by those who were willing to explain their reluctance to do an intervention.
- If he or she leaves for treatment, who will help with the kids and how will we pay our bills
- If he or she leaves for treatment, I lose the control I think I have, although I know I don’t really have any
- What if after getting sober, my partner realizes he doesn’t love me anymore and leaves
- What if I realize I don’t love my partner anymore and want to leave
- I was afraid to be the villain daughter- or son-in-law and needed approval from my in-laws. I didn’t want them mad at me
- The chaos and drama are my new normal, and I was consumed with the alcoholism
- I was afraid that if I tried to do an intervention, the kids and I would be thrown out of the house
- I was afraid if I did an intervention, my life would become even worse
- If the intervention results in our loved one accepting help, that tells us that everything we did was wrong
- I had a purpose in being the caretaker and didn’t know what I would do if he or she became independent
- Allowing a professional to guide us would make us feel like we could not fix the problem ourselves
- My father or mother was an alcoholic growing up, and I wanted to fix my spouse myself
- My family experience suggests that I need to be needed like my mom or dad was
- Our culture prevented me from standing up to my spouse
- Some family members feared intervention would expose family secrets
Whether some, all, or none of the remarks above apply to you, families’ biggest fears of alcohol interventions are how the alcoholic will react and what the consequences will be for those intervening. Keep in mind that interventions are intended to benefit both sides. The primary focus is helping the family stop protecting the alcoholic’s feelings and start thinking about what the family needs. Whenever we protect someone else’s feelings, we are really protecting our own.
An intervention is not about how to control the substance user; it is about how to let go of believing you can.
People often hear of alcoholics who just gave up drinking one day. And it is true that this can happen. There is a difference, however, between someone with an alcohol use disorder and a heavy drinker.
A heavy drinker can and will stop when faced with a consequence whereas an alcoholic will just keep consuming the drink. For families researching interventions for an alcoholic, we can say with near certainty that an alcoholic is not a heavy drinker who can just put it down. In other words, if you need to step in and intervene, then consequences are not enough to cause them to stop. We suggested not comparing the alcoholic in your life to other situations that may offer only false hope. Step back and try to focus on what the alcohol is doing to you and members of your family.
How an Intervention for an Alcoholic can Bring about Closure
Be it a spouse, a son, a daughter, or any other family member, alcohol is the priority for the person using it. All other relationships take a back seat to the relationship with alcohol. A family affected by the alcoholic has but few options. One path is to believe the stories about those who just swore off alcohol forever. In that scenario, you wait at your own expense, not the loved one’s. The second option is to do nothing and just live with it, but for most, this is not a viable option in the long run. At some point, those connected to the alcoholic take action. The third option is finding closure through an intervention. If the loved one is not going to stop in spite of the many societal consequences he or she has suffered, then you can take charge and initiate a family intervention.
At some point, you need to ask yourself: “Am I OK playing second fiddle to alcohol?” If the answer is no, then it may be time to consider putting your needs first and offering the alcoholic help with a professional present. For many, it is a difficult undertaking because the thought of standing up for oneself is terrifying. For most people involved with an active alcoholic, pushing back is something that has not happened in years, if ever. But remember this: family and loved ones are allowed to say no to the alcoholic’s lifestyle and choices. It is not OK to light yourself on fire to keep your loved one warm. When a family has had enough, and the alcoholic is not showing signs of changing, you can take the first step and provide closure for yourself, knowing you did everything you could to help all concerned, including your loved one.