If you have a friend or family member who’s addicted to alcohol, you probably want to help, but aren’t sure how. The fact is, most gut reactions to drunkenness, late nights out and loss of interest in life—are all wrong. Here’s our Top Ten list of really effective approaches for convincing people to get alcohol detox treatment and to stay sober for the long term.
1. Understand that alcoholism is an illness and that—even when a person truly wants to get sober—“just stop drinking” is a dangerous idea to press.
Keep an empathetic attitude toward the struggle your loved one is undergoing. Drinking to excess is not simply a matter of irresponsibility that anyone could overcome with the right amount of willpower: the addicted body depends on regular alcohol intake to function “normally,” and serious reactions to cutting off the supply are very real. Depending on how long and how heavily someone has drunk to excess, withdrawal symptoms may include severe vomiting, rising blood pressure, racing heart, fever, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and seizures. No one who is truly addicted should attempt to quit without the aid of a medically qualified alcohol detox program.
2. Use the “I-message” approach.
With any matter of disagreement, phrasing your concerns as “I feel worried/hurt/frustrated when this happens” has a better chance of getting a positive response than “You are just being selfish, you don’t care.” Opening with a focus on the other party’s behavior puts them instantly on the defensive, which usually leads into an argument neither side can win. When you focus on your own feelings (which are the only ones you really know, anyway) without being accusatory, your loved one is more likely to empathize and be willing to contribute toward a solution.
3. Avoid “protecting” your loved one from the consequences of drinking.
Of course, if they’re actually endangering themselves or others—becoming physically violent or determined to drive drunk—do whatever it takes, including calling the police, to stop them. But if they’re in bed with a severe hangover, you aren’t doing them any favors by calling their office claiming they have the flu. If they’ve thrown up on the kitchen floor, it’s better you leave the mess there until they get a good look at it. Making it easier for them to pretend the drinking isn’t that bad is called “enabling,” and it only reduces motivation to admit they need alcohol detox treatment.
4. Be a good listener.
Don’t accept excuses that amount to pure rationalization, but do pay attention when your loved one complains about what’s “driving them to drink.” By taking your focus off your own hurt and trying to see things from the other’s point of view, you’ll pick up valuable insights on what besides the drinking needs to change (your own habits may be contributing more to the problem than you think) and what might motivate your loved one to enter alcohol detox.
5. Get therapy and a support group for yourself.
The best alcohol detox programs involve the whole family in self-examination and long-term group therapy. Even if your loved one isn’t yet willing to get treatment, talking with professionals who understand alcohol (and relationship) problems, and with peers who have alcohol problems in their own families, will better equip you to cope effectively and to eventually influence your loved one toward detox.
6. Research available detox programs.
Work on pinpointing one or two of the best alcohol detox programs convenient to your area, so you’ll have an instant recommendation ready whenever your loved one is in a mindset to consider “this has got to stop.” (If you approve the idea without specific suggestions on what the next move should be, the opportunity will likely slip by.) Besides checking each center’s credentials and reputation in advance, pay a personal visit, interview the staff, and find out if they’ll be able to admit your loved one on short notice.
7. Consider whether a formal intervention might work.
“Intervention”—the act of several loved ones confronting a person in denial with unmistakable evidence that the problem is real—is often highly effective in convincing the addicted party to accept professional help. If poorly managed, however, it can leave the person deeper in denial, and set up lasting animosity between them and the other parties. An intervention has the best chance of success when:
- You plan it with the help of a professional intervention counselor.
- You rehearse exactly what you’ll say.
- Everyone involved is committed to sticking to the facts and not becoming emotional or argumentative.
- You conclude by recommending a specific alcohol detox program for your loved one to enter immediately.
8. Once your loved one is in alcohol detox treatment, stay closely involved—and stay busy preparing yourself to be supportive after treatment is officially completed.
Don’t just breathe a sigh of relief and expect the treatment center to take everything from there. Keep in touch with your loved one throughout, acknowledging whatever new insights and concerns they express. Start family therapy immediately if the center provides it, or make arrangements to begin as soon as your loved one is released. Work with their treatment counselors and/or your own therapist to begin planning ways you can be an effective source of long-term support.
9. After treatment is completed, be willing to do what it takes to help your loved one stay sober for the long run.
In nearly every case, this includes giving up alcohol yourself, or at least keeping it out of your house and never consuming it in your loved one’s presence. It also includes changing any other habits of yours that may have contributed to the problem, having a listening ear ready when needed, holding your loved one accountable in firm but kind ways (your counselors will advise on specifics) and never complaining that the “new them” is inconveniencing you.
10. Encourage them to stay interested in what else life has to offer—and enjoy it with them.
Encourage your loved one to rediscover neglected hobbies or goals, without worrying about whether these are “practical.” Schedule time each week to do something fun together or just enjoy each other’s presence. Workaholism and the drive to always be achieving are major stress factors driving many an addiction: by taking these out of the center of your loved one’s life (and your own), you’ll take alcohol out of the center as well.
Above all else, never stop believing in your loved one! Confidence in oneself and having the confidence of others are the best defense against seeking solace in addiction.