If your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, you may be wondering—how can I help? First of all, know that you are not alone in this. In fact, one in three families are impacted by addiction and 17 million people currently suffer from alcohol use disorder (commonly referred to as alcoholism). Even if things seem bleak right now, there are steps you can take to support your friend or family member during this time while helping them get on the road to recovery.
Alcoholism is a Disease
The first step in helping your friend or family member struggling with alcoholism is recognizing that alcoholism, like any drug addiction, is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. What does that mean? For the large majority of people, initial alcohol use is voluntary. However, when a person transitions from moderate alcohol use to alcoholism, the brain becomes affected. Scientists have found that alcoholism creates physical changes in the brain that affect learning, memory, judgment, decision-making, and behavior control. With this altered brain chemistry, it’s no wonder that individuals suffering from alcoholism often exhibit classic addictive behaviors including:
- Compulsive alcohol use
- Losing control around alcohol
- Experiencing a negative emotional state when not drinking
Two words that are important to consider here are chronic and relapsing. Chronic means that alcoholism is a progressive, long-lasting illness where there is currently no cure. Relapsing indicates that some people may have periods of returning to alcohol use after they’ve attempted to quit. However, even with it’s chronic, relapsing nature, there is hope for long-term recovery. Like other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma, alcoholism and its symptoms can be successfully managed with proper treatment.
By treating alcoholism as a disease, you no longer can demand your friend or family member to simply stop using alcohol. In fact, to obtain and maintain sobriety, they will most likely need professional help.
Seeing a loved one struggle with alcoholism is challenging. As a friend or family member, you most likely want to help them in any way you can. However, if your loved one is an alcoholic, what you are doing to help may in fact be enabling their addiction and not giving them any motivation to enter recovery. Examples of enabling behavior include:
- Lying to people to cover up your loved one’s alcoholism.
- Making excuses for their behavior while drunk.
- Helping them with legal fees or bailing them out of jail.
- “Loaning” them money or paying their bills but never being repaid.
- Letting them borrow your car after they’ve had an accident due to drinking.
- Staying in denial that your loved one is, in fact, an alcoholic.
Once you stop enabling, your friend or family member will be forced to see how drinking affects both their life and others and may be more compelled to begin treatment.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Once you’ve accepted that your loved one is an alcoholic and will most likely need proper treatment and support to stop drinking, it’s time to consider treatment options. There are several factors to consider in this process, so give yourself time to gather information before approaching your loved one about treatment. As each situation is unique, professionals who work in the field of medicine and/or addiction can provide guidance as to what treatment options may best serve your loved one. Some professionals to speak with include:
- Primary Care Physicians
- Addiction Medicine Specialists
- Drug and Alcohol Counselors
If you know that your loved one is resistant to getting treatment or is in denial about their addiction, you may need to stage an intervention. To have this be effective, look into enlisting the help of a trained interventionist.
What’s an Interventionist?
An interventionist is a trained addiction specialist that takes full charge of planning and staging an intervention. Although some successful interventions are staged without the assistance of a professional interventionist, there are certain circumstances in which hiring a professional may be the safest and most effective approach. Having an interventionist help plan and be present at the intervention is especially recommended if your loved one has a co-occuring mental health condition, history of violence, or suicidal tendencies. If you’re concerned that your love one may hurt themselves or others during or after the intervention, having a professional interventionist present is crucial.
Inpatient versus Outpatient Treatment
When it comes to treatment for alcoholism, there are two primary treatment options—inpatient and outpatient treatment. In an inpatient treatment program, individuals both reside and receive care at the treatment facility and have 24/7 supervision and support. In outpatient programs, individuals live at home or in sober housing and participate in treatment at the facility anywhere from one to seven days a week.
The type of treatment program that is best for your loved one depends on several factors including:
Severity of addiction
Due to the high level of supervision and controlled environment of an inpatient facility, individuals with long-term, severe alcoholism or those who have a history of relapse may have a greater chance of success in inpatient treatment.
Unlike some other drugs, detoxing from alcohol has the potential to be life-threatening. Consequently, it’s important to speak with a medical professional before your loved one goes “cold turkey” with alcohol. Individuals with long-term alcoholism and/or co-occurring physical or mental health problems may be particularly vulnerable during the withdrawal process. Dangerous withdrawal symptoms that may occur during alcohol detox include:
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
- Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate
- High fever
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Grand mal seizures
If your loved one detoxes in an inpatient treatment center, they will most likely undergo the withdrawal process under medical supervision. Outpatient facilities typically don’t offer on-site detox options; however, they may have medical staff who can prescribe medications, monitor the individual when they come in for treatment, and educate family members on how to care for someone detoxing from alcohol at home. Individuals who cannot stay in inpatient treatment long-term but who need medical supervision during detox may be able to check into a specialized facility where medical staff can monitor them during withdrawal. As mentioned previously, always speak with a medical professional to determine which detox options will be safe for your loved one.
Finances and insurance coverage
Some health insurance plans offer benefits for addiction treatment. Consequently, while looking at treatment options, be sure to discuss coverage with your loved one’s health insurance carrier and note which treatment facilities accept their insurance plan.
If insurance does not cover treatment, or only covers a portion of it, discuss the cost of treatment with various facilities and also ask if they offer any financial assistance such as sliding scale fees, payment plans, or scholarships.
Also keep in mind that inpatient treatment programs tend to be more expensive as the individual is living on-site. Depending on health insurance coverage and your loved one’s financial situation, this may affect the decision of choosing inpatient or outpatient treatment.
Ability to be away from family and/or place of employment
Every person seeking treatment for alcoholism has a unique set of life circumstances. Inpatient treatment programs typically last anywhere from one to three months, but can be longer. Consequently, it’s important to consider if your loved one is able to be away from family or work for an extended period of time (keeping in mind that your loved one may be eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work under the Family Medical Leave Act). If not, outpatient treatment may be the most viable option.
For most alcoholics, completing an addiction treatment program is only the first step on the road to long-term recovery. This is due to the fact that, as mentioned previously, alcoholism is a chronic, recurring disease. While in treatment, your loved one will be learning healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress and their brain will create new neural pathways to help them experience pleasure from activities other than drinking. However, just like with any chronic disease, a lack of symptoms does not mean the disease is cured. Without proper support measures in place, it’s incredibly easy for a recovering alcoholic to relapse, especially in the first year outside of treatment.
This is where aftercare comes in. Aftercare programs and activities provide continued support and accountability for individuals who have completed a drug and alcohol treatment program. As every person is different, aftercare may only be necessary short-term or can be a lifelong endeavor. Either way, it’s important to have an aftercare plan in place before your loved one leaves treatment. Examples of aftercare services include:
- Sober housing
- Sober mentoring
- 12-Step or Non-12-Step groups
- Treatment program alumni groups
- Individual, group, and/or family therapy
When researching treatment options, be sure to talk to each facility about aftercare planning and if they offer any aftercare services.
Practice Self Care
Finally, even though it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways to help an alcoholic is to be sure you’re taking care of yourself. Dealing with a loved one’s addiction can be stressful, and like any chronic disease, recovering from alcoholism may take time and can be a bumpy road. Consequently, if your friend or family member is suffering from alcoholism, try to exercise patience while also making time to practice your own self-care.
Support groups for friends and family members of alcoholics, such as Al-Anon or SMART Recovery Friends & Family, may be beneficial during this time. While researching treatment programs for your friend or family member, also ask if they offer services such as family therapy or group therapy for loved ones of alcoholics. These groups and services will not only give you support and guidance while your loved one is in recovery, but can also help you learn ways to best support your friend or family member during and after treatment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 310.403.1032 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.