How to Help Someone with Alcohol Addiction
Most adults can moderately drink alcohol with little to no harm, with 86.3% of people 19 and older reporting they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, 70% drinking in the past year, and 55.3% drinking in the past month.1
But, there are many American who struggle with their alcohol use, and abuse of alcohol has risen in recent years—around 18 million have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).2
What is Alcohol Addiction
Drinking that becomes a severe problem is medically classified as an AUD. An AUD is a disease that is identified by compulsive use of alcohol, an inability to control drinking of alcohol, and being in a negative emotional condition when alcohol is not in use.3
Unhealthy alcohol use includes drinking that puts your health and safety at risk.4 It can also include binge drinking, which is excessive drinking that, during a single occasion, involves 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more for men.4,5
Causes of alcohol addiction may include genetic, environmental, social, and psychological factors.4 For some people, drinking may have different or more intense impact that may lead to AUD.4
How to Approach an Alcoholic
It can be scary to think about approaching a loved one about their addiction to alcohol—especially if their alcohol use has affected you on a personal level. As difficult as it may be, try to focus on the present, and ask yourself how you can best support your loved one from this point on.
Before approaching your loved one, consider how they may be feeling and how they will receive your support. Try your best to remain calm and caring and never begin any conversation about treatment when your loved one is drunk. Use “I” statements, such as, “I noticed,” or “I have been concerned,” and avoid placing blame.
It is not easy for someone to admit they have a problem with alcohol use, so take time to prepare beforehand. You may want to consult with a counselor or a physician prior to the conversation or take advantage of the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) model. CRAFT is a holistic approach centered on positive reinforcement that teaches family and friends how to effectively motivate and talk to a loved one about treatment. Other approaches you may want to consider using include:
As a concerned family member, friend, or coworker, you are in a position to positively affect change in your loved one’s life. The statistics of alcohol use are grim—the CDC estimated that alcohol consumption shortened the lives of those who died due to excessive alcohol use between 2006 and 2010 by an average of 30 years.5
Getting into treatment early is important, and the sooner you can begin the conversation around treatment with your loved one, the better. Remember that although your goal might be to help your loved one seek treatment, it is important to meet you loved one “where they are” and allow them the space to come to this decision themselves.6
As a concerned family member, friend, or coworker, you are in a position to positively affect change in your loved one’s life.
Also, remember that supporting doesn't mean enabling. The line between supporting and enabling is often a difficult one for family members and friends to discern.
Loving someone with an addiction can bring ongoing stress and confusion. Getting support for yourself can help you to more effectively handle the stress of the situation. This support can come in the form of:7
Find additional caretaker support resources here.
Getting Help and Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
If you or someone you love has an addiction to alcohol, it is very important to seek medical help because of possible severe medical complications arising from withdrawal.7 Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable all the way to life threatening.
Medically supervised detox can make the experience of withdrawal more comfortable and help the user manage cravings. Sedative medication may be required to help with certain symptoms of withdrawal. These may be administered for a few days and, after the dangerous withdrawal period has passed, the patient will gradually taper off them as their physical health improves.
After detox, in which the alcohol and its effects on the body are eliminated, the patient can begin a treatment program. There are different types of treatment programs for alcohol addiction, including residential programs and outpatient treatment.
Treatment programs usually consist of:
- Group and individual counseling or therapy.
- Education on addiction and its consequences.
- Relapse prevention strategies.
- Aftercare planning.
Since family and significant others are also affected, treatment programs often offer family programs to help support the entire family as the recovering alcoholic transitions to wellness and recovery. Other activities may address proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation.
What Are the Signs of Addiction?
Those with an alcohol problem often experience ongoing troubles, such as arrests, a loss of friends, employment issues, and problems at home. They may find themselves drinking on the job and or making reckless choices.
Here is a partial list of the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for an AUD. This list is used for diagnosis and outlines some characteristic signs and symptoms of addiction:9
- Consuming alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer time span than originally intended.
- Trying numerous times to quit using alcohol unsuccessfully.
- Spending an excessive amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol.
- Craving or having an overwhelming desire to drink alcohol.
- Failing to fulfill work and family obligations as a result of continued use.
- Continuing to drink alcohol despite knowledge that certain physical or psychological problems are caused or worsened by alcohol.
- Needing increased amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect.
Another sign of addiction is the presence of a withdrawal syndrome, which may include symptoms such as:2,9
Ethanol is abused at a higher rate than any other drug among treatment program attendees, as reported by a 2017 survey from Recovery Brands. Nearly 70% of people who took the survey went to treatment to get help with a drinking problem, and a surprising 52.87% of those who responded reported seeking treatment for a problem with alcohol more than any other substance. No matter how many substances of abuse there are, the one that causes the most extensive harm is ethanol.
Is My Loved One Addicted to Alcohol?
It takes a lot of courage to ask the question, "Am I addicted to alcohol?" Many alcohol users who suffer from addiction to this substance also deal with denial, often asserting that the problem is not that bad, or lying about the use and consequences of alcohol.
The first step to helping your loved one understand their alcohol addiction is to help them be honest with themselves and evaluate their symptoms without bias. Take note of how much they are drinking, and talk to other loved ones about how they feel about the drinking.
A simple questionnaire known as the CAGE questionnaire (an instrument for identifying alcoholics) may help you and your physician to answer the question "Am I addicted to alcohol?" It is made up of 4 very simple questions:
- C. Do I frequently try to cut down on my use of alcohol without success?
- A. Do I ever get angry when someone confronts me about my use of alcohol?
- G. Do I ever feel guilty about how much I drink or how I behave when I drink?
- E. Do I ever take an eye-opener early in the morning to help deal with the hangover?
These are just some questions to help you answer the question. They are not meant to induce shame or guilt, only to indicate whether you need help to stop abusing alcohol.
Looking for Rehab: What to Consider
If you're thinking about getting help for an AUD, there are some things to consider when looking for treatment:
- Medical detox. The withdrawal syndrome from alcohol can be very dangerous, sometimes inducing seizures and/or delirium tremens. If you're thinking of quitting alcohol, you need to line up a detox program. Some rehabs will include medical detox as part of the program.
- Qualifications of staff. When searching for programs, ask about staff credentials. This will help you to determine the quality of care you'll receive and may help you feel confident about receiving treatment.
- Cost. First, start by asking if the program takes your insurance, if you have it. Have your insurance card with you when you call so that you have the necessary information at hand. You might also ask about options like financing, loans, and sliding scales (where your cost is adjusted based on your income).
- Amenities. When you're going to live at a rehab for 1-3 months or more, your comfort is important. If there are amenities that you know are must-haves, such as a private room, ask any potential programs if they offer them. However, do remember that your sobriety is priority #1, and benefits like pools, gourmet meals, and more are secondary.
How to Help Someone with Alcohol or Illicit Drug Addiction
Help for Prescription Drug Abuse
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). MedlinePlus: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder.
- Mayo Clinic. (2018). Alcohol use disorder.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1999). TIP 35: Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Caretaker Support Resources.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). MedlinePlus: Alcohol withdrawal.