Help an Alcoholic Stop Drinking
After several messages of friends online asking “How do I help an alcoholic stop drinking?” I was impelled to share this. Therefore, I am going to offer some suggestions. But before you take off with these suggestions, I am sure to have some people (Al-Anons or Codependents) who’ve arrived at this page with the thought, ” I knew I could get him to stop drinking!” Yeah, no. You can’t. BUT you can be the seed-planter and do not underestimate that.
Rest assured. These tips are coming only from me; Being a double winner of Al-Anon recovery [by way of Alateen in High School] and later, when alcohol proved more successful than alateen recovery and then finally to Alcoholics Anonymous and then back to Al-Anon I went onto Codie Recovery.
This is part of my alcoholic and codependent recovery experience from both sides merged into one.
And if Alcoholics Anonymous and Codependent (by way of Al-Anon) recovery has taught me anything, it’s that I can only share my experience, strength, and hope. I will not offer suggestions or advice or any other thing that I did not do or that did not work for me to first, get sober and then next, get sane. Everything I share played a part in turning this former self-loathing, helpless, daily drinking and suicide-attempting alcoholic life into a joyous, happy, whole, serene, and sober existence.
So let’s get to it.
How to Help an Alcoholic Quit Drinking
1. Don’t let it remain a secret. Secrets have no light. Under the cloak of darkness and hiding is where dis-ease flourishes and they best flourish as secrets. It encourages shame and as long as shame by way of secrecy is an aspect of any dis-ease, healing cannot begin. Remove the secrecy; remove the shame and stigma. Then we can start.
Examples of not allowing the suspected alcoholism remain a secret: “You’re drinking a lot. This worries me.” or “Have you ever thought about trying to quit drinking?” or “I don’t know but it seems like you’re drinking an awful lot these days.”
2. Don’t judge or label. The trick with not letting the potential victim of alcoholism maintain the secrecy and shame is an attitude of tolerance and non-judgement.
Trust me. Believe me. If you pass judgement on an alcoholic or potential alcoholic, or shame them, this will feed their alcoholism and provide a great excuse to keep going. Alcoholics deal with their emotions by drinking and if you’re trying to help them, this would be counter-productive to your ultimate goal. [If you need help with learning how to communicate please read my Words can Harm. Words can Heal series.]
If you are the spouse, significant other, or romantic partner of an alcoholic: Yes, I know you may be angry. Yes, I know you may feel betrayed. Yes, I even know what feeling like you’re in 2nd or last place feels like. I realize you want what you used to have with your loved one. Maybe you’re numb already and maybe you are here by accident. Maybe you’re still care-taking her or him somehow feeling if you could just “take care of things for him” that he would not have to drink. I get it. I do. But holding that anger, betrayal inside yourself is a heavy burden isn’t it? Read this first and then come back here. [Bookmark this page if you need to.]
If you have a difficult time believing that alcoholism is more than a matter of sheer willpower and you somehow think that shaming might work, think about this truth. I am a typical alcoholic. I did not have any tools other than alcohol in which to deal with myself. If I had a bad memory, I drank. If I felt sad, I drank. If I felt happy, I drank. If I had something to celebrate, I drank. Something to mourn, I drank. I did not know what else to do in the face of emotions; particularly fear and shame. You shame an alcoholic and what have you just done? You have just shamed an alcoholic. That’s it. Just given another excuse to need to drink. It is not about willpower. It is about a real live deficiency in their emotional and mental toolkit. Would you shame schizophrenic or even a diabetic or cancer victim? The American Medical Association does classify alcoholism as a disease. Therefore, this is not a matter of “just stopping” for the alcoholic by way of shaming, blaming or belittling. It is a disease.
3. Don’t force but do make the offer to help. Timing, however, is critical. In the life of an alcoholic there are often presented many small to large windows of opportunity in which s/he would be receptive to alcoholism assistance. These windows are usually after some episode in which one could characterize as an unusual experience.
Some times I was receptive to assistance were plenty: When I threw up on myself after passing out on my bed (naked). When I’d been arrested for underage drinking. When I was taken to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning and black-out as a teenager. When I was again at the emergency room after another drunken suicide attempt getting myself filled up with charcoal. After yet another regrettable night of using bad judgement in sexual behaviors I would normally engage in. When I drove drunk to pick up a kid. When I flipped my Mimi’s car on its side. When I destroyed my sister’s living room furniture because I felt violent. When police was called on me because I was having fun with a butcher knife. [Need a laugh? Read my Top 7 Drunk Episodes as a kid.]
The reason for this timing should be clear; Alcoholics are more receptive to assistance when they have just suffered a negative consequence due to their drinking. It would not be advisable to approach an alcoholic who is drunk, however and begin wasting your time with how to help them if they look like they need no help. If a drunk alcoholic approaches you or begins crying for help while drunk or under the influence it may be appropriate to leave the following suggested information with her/him. Sure you can listen with sympathy and compassion – of course you can. But if you’re at the end of your rope in watching your potentially alcoholic loved one cycle through drunken remorse to drunken debauchery and back to drunken remorse, it is also appropriate to set a boundary if you need to take care of yourself. [See Codependency articles for information on Al-Anon/Codependency].
Call your local Alcoholics Anonymous and get their meeting information to give to your friend or email the local meeting schedule to your friend. [Meeting areas can be found at the AA website.]
Or call another alcoholic you may know who has quit drinking.
Or visit your local A.A. and buy a copy of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to offer your friend or relative as a gift. [Buying it from an A.A. meeting place will be at cost – which is usually $6 to $9 – depending upon where you are in the world; if you buy it elsewhere you may pay a higher price but if you click the image to your left, there are usually people on Amazon who will sell their *used* book rather cheaply!]
4. Remember that you are ‘just’ the seed planter. But your role is vital! It is true that you cannot get an alcoholic sober. It is not true that you are powerless. You have many options depending upon your relationship with the one you suspect of alcoholism. Do not feel discouraged if your “help” has not been acted upon or you see nothing “good” coming from it yet. Too often we’re eager to see the fruits of our work take hold but when an addiction like alcoholism is involved, the victim of it must seek the actual help herself and must do the work in getting and staying sober I do not care what anyone else tells you. [Please see the end of these suggestions for more general information of the mind of an active alcoholic.]
If we can think of ourselves as doing the good work, for the right reason, then the results are really none of our business is how I look at it. Now, I fully realize that that’s a harsh pill to swallow if you’re the parent, the child, or the spouse or relative of an alcoholic who is killing herself. I know this. I know how hard it is to accept. So, until they’re ready, continue to love them but no need to love or enable their disease. [See #5.]
Seeds that were planted within me that eventually took hold were many! I am very glad that the seeds that were planted -from my teenage years on – eventually did root and grow! I am also glad that the people who took time with me didn’t say, “She is not ready yet! We should withhold our efforts for someone who is ready!” Solid A.A.’s remember this when a newcomer comes in.
5. Get help for yourself if necessary. (See: Codependents Guide to the 12 Steps) Alcoholism or alcoholic family members or relatives do not live in a vacuum separate from the alcoholic, even though it may feel like you’re on different planets! Chances are that if you’re currently living with an alcoholic, you are living according to what I call “Alcoholic Rules.” These rules are usually generational, meaning that if you never even pick up a drink and your Dad is currently “the alcoholic” in the household, you are going to adopt these rules, function within these rules and then pass these rules to your own children or household:
- Anticipate. Anticipate the alcoholics needs so they need not do anything! After all, if you meet their needs, they may not *want* to drink! Turn into a people-pleaser and a mind-reader!
- Beg. Beg the alcoholic to change! Add some nagging for good measure.
- Control. Make sure to try to control the alcoholic. Manipulating is good too. In fact, why stop there? Make sure to control every situation and even the non-alcoholics in the family! If you can exert more control, surely things will change!
- Deny. Denial is necessary! Don’t think about it. Don’t talk on it. Don’t tell on it. Tell yourself there is no problem.
- Enable. Enable the disease. Don’t allow the victim to feel the consequences. Bail out of jail. Give money. Call in sick for the victim. Make plenty of excuses.
- Fret. Walk on eggshells. Feel hopeless and helpless but only when no one is looking.
- Gag Order. Make sure you gag order the family so they cannot get help! See #3 & #4.
- Hero. Be the hero of the family. Everyone loves a martyr!
- Isolate. Make sure to isolate. Alcoholism loves this one and tries to get everyone doing it. Remember that dis-ease loves secrecy! See #7 so everyone does it!
- Justify. Justify why all of the above are necessary and work for your way of living and repeat. These rules will then infiltrate every aspect of your life enabling the progression of your own dis-ease! [Codependency, raging, workaholism, over-eating, pills, and even the beginning of your drinking career!]
The above rules are often ALSO seen even in households in which there is no alcoholism due to the nature of how we pass along what we know down generational lines. But if these rules are exhibited in a household with no alcoholic, you may still seek help in order to stop these rules from destroying you. See here for Codependent Recovery Articles or see here for suggested Codependent Books.]
If these rules seem familiar to you and you think you need help, Al-Anon and Alateen may be options. They understand the secrecy, the pain, the powerlessness, the anger… Both helped me to understand the effects of alcoholism and how to choose a different way of living that led to serenity despite and while living in the midst of a person whose solution was to stay lit.
I went for a more all-encompassing solution in the form of Codependent Recovery after I got sober. I realized that after trying to stop drinking many times in my life what continued bringing me back to alcohol as my solution was the ineffective way at how I managed myself in relationships; Often putting others first or selling myself out for the sake of peacekeeping. Unable to live in the area of un-integrity, my solution would revert back to alcohol.
More about Alcoholism for the Non-Alcoholic
The Mind of an Alcoholic – An alcoholic’s mind can be perfectly well-balanced except as it pertains to alcohol. A normally honest spouse will lie if he has to regarding his alcohol. Normally smart about money-matters, if you have a relative you suspect of drinking [or doing drugs for that matter] and it becomes coupled with not having enough money and the punchline is ‘can they borrow some?’ it may very well be related to their drinking.
Alcoholics are funny, too, in that – although they may not be completely aware of it [I wasn’t] – they think they have a secret. The entire world can witness the barrage of trouble they seem to find themselves in or take note [as was my case] how they would shut the door and unplug the phone and not emerge for weeks, but they really think as if it will go unnoticed. Alcoholism is a very twisted disease this way, often hiding from the one who has it just as much as it hides from the person who is concerned.
Drinking is only a Symptom – I know it is strange for non-alcoholic people to even begin to understand this disease called alcoholism, and to tell you the truth, even alcoholics in recovery frequently refer to the disease as it’s relayed in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, “cunning, baffling, powerful!” What we do know is that over-drinking or dependence on drinking or drinking despite negative consequences is only a symptom. Where recovery comes in, is equipping the alcoholic with more productive tools than the drinking that has turned damaging.
Alcohol was my Friend until it Wasn’t - Alcohol did not judge me. Alcohol gave me confidence for my otherwise introverted nature. Alcohol eased my discomfort at being around other people. Alcohol eased my emotional turbulence. Alcohol was always there for me. This is my truth and this is how it started. But, not even getting started good as a teenager, it began turning on me.
I could never seem to just stick with any limit I would impose upon myself. I remember begging my sister, as a teenager, before I began drinking for the night, to not let me drink more than three. [Three happened to be my magic number when the *feel really good* kicked in.] I remember how she tried, my poor sister. But in the end, my manipulation, my lies of “Oh I didn’t mean it” worked. It always worked. But in case I sensed it wouldn’t, there was always the threat of physical violence or ruining the good time we were having. Nothing was off limits when it came to feeding the brain crave of King Alcohol.
So what does an alcoholic do when her only solution turns into her biggest problem? She looks for another solution. Some alcoholics choose suicide and still, others choose to continue drinking [sometimes being directly or indirectly responsible for leading them to jails, institutions, and/or an alcohol-related death]. I chose a different route. I finally had that moment of clarity and due to synchronicity of some events in rapid succession is how I got sober. I did not get here because relatives loved me enough to help me. My relatives loved me, yes. But they were fighting their own battles, fighting for their own survival. So yeah, I got to A.A. alone and did it alone EXCEPT for the goodly sober people I found in A.A. who selflessly helped me.
Solutions for Alcohol Dependence
My solution was to learn other tools so I would not have to drink for my solution and that is what I did. There are a few ways to get into this solution. Alcoholics Anonymous [I did this one] Rational Recovery [this too!], a spiritual awakening [like I had] …
There is no monopoly on solutions to stop drinking although some solutions may try to claim as such. Even the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous concedes this point. The main point for you, as the person who wants to help a potential alcoholic, is that for every personality of alcoholic, there is a solution. However, if you start throwing 500 different alternatives to an alcoholic hoping one of them will stick, you may frustrate them so go slow, easy does it, don’t force. Simply be available.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Cult? Yes, maybe and no, not at all. Confusion right?
First of all, if you read the first 164 pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous Book [as well as the Traditions] – and you can read it online here – you will see that A.A. is almost anarchy in it’s approach. There are no rules, no mandates, no lectures to be endured… And those are facts. That is Alcoholics Anonymous at the core. But.
Then we have the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and meetings are only as good as the Traditions of A.A. they follow. [The Traditions are in the Big Book also, that suggest to A.A. how to “order” itself.] This means that some people have, indeed, suffered some bad A.A. meetings [myself included]. But like any social organization it is prone to the indulgences of ego. The good news is that there are many meetings and some, even online.
Feb 20, 2013 Update: I still do attend A.A. meetings but I want to stress that MY program of recovery is NOT going to AA meetings. MY program of recovery was STARTED by going to A.A.; Doing 90 meetings in 90 days and getting a friend [or in A.A. terms, a ‘sponsor’] who WAS happily sober and could help me. Until I had a different toolkit in my ‘arsenal’ I went a couple to 5 times a week. This enabled me to connect with others like me; Others who wanted to stay sober. It allowed me to see I was not alone. It allowed me to see that being a drunk didn’t mean I need to stay that way. It allowed me to connect with others like me. And THEN I went to Al-Anon and into Codependent Recovery but that’s another story. These days I mostly just stay connected with people who are sober and sane despite where I meet them.
So can you be an Al-Anon target as well as an Alcoholic? Absolutely. I was. I am. I was in Alateen while I was using drinking. Eventually I went full fledged over to drinking in order to deal with every problem I had. When I got sober is when I went back to Al-Anon because although I was now sober and developing new tools in which to deal with life in general, I still wasn’t at ease with family members and friends who continued drinking or living within alcoholic rules. Going around them or talking to them made me feel scared, angry, and powerless; All the reasons I drank to start with.
Final Word about Alcoholism
Alcoholism is treatable. Although it manifests as a physical affliction, the disease (or dis-ease) centers around the mind. No one can force an alcoholic to seek treatment or force an alcoholic into sobriety or make an alcoholic quit drinking short of trying to lose your mind in the process.
However, as a friend or family member who cares for and loves an alcoholic we can help the alcoholic stop drinking. Our only responsibility is to carry the message that there is hope. If we judge or label the drinker, insultingly, or as an alcoholic in a demeaning fashion, or try to manipulate situations in which to force outcomes or enable their disease an easy time of continuing to ruin our beloved’s life, we can be almost assured that the disease will win every time.
I like to look at it as a battle. The disease of alcoholism will use everything it can to isolate the drinker from help. It will manipulate, lie, ruin relationships, and everything else it can think of in order to win the soul of our beloved. If we do the same thing – given that we are not as powerful as this insidious disease – who does it seem will logically win? Let’s get rid of the fight fire with fire mentality and, instead, engage the mentality of “fighting fire with water.”
We continue to love our friends and relatives who are harming themselves. We listen with compassion at their plight when they want to talk. We do not allow, however, the disease to lie to us or to remain activated in secrecy. We are honest with our loved ones and strong in the face of their sickness. We do not enable, make excuses, or agree to the alcoholic rules. And at the same time, we are loving, kind, and patient. But sometimes this means getting well, ourselves, first – before we can help our loved ones who may be under the influence of alcohol.
If you are currently living in hell with an alcoholic I pray and encourage you to seek health and serenity for yourself first. Because when you are balanced, you have a better shot. We cannot transmit hope for another until we have realized hope for ourselves.
If I can help in any other way, please let me know.
Take care of yourself.
Alcoholic Recovery Resources
- My Alcoholic Recovery Articles
- Alcoholics Anonymous Website
- Find an A.A. Meeting @ the AA website
- Read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous Online
- Alcohol Recovery Books [New and Used]
Al-Anon, Alateen, Codependent Recovery Resources
- My Codie Recovery Articles
- Codie Recovery on Facebook
- Al-Anon and Alateen Family Services Website
- Al-Anon Recovery Books [New and Used]
- Codependent Recovery Books [New and Used]
Originally published February 01, 2008
Updated February 20, 2013 • Updated December 19, 2014