Contents: UU World Back Issue

You Can Help

By Anne M. Fletcher

Contrary to the notion that there's little or nothing others can do to change the behavior of a serious problem drinker, my research—including surveys and interviews with 222 former problem drinkers and some family members—suggests there are things family and friends can do that could make a difference.

For every problem drinker, there are others who suffer. Many of these other people feel helpless. The idea that you can't do much to change a loved one with a drinking problem is in part perpetuated by Al-Anon, the widely available support program. The group suggests in its literature that the only way to motivate the problem drinker is to allow the drinking (and its consequences) to become “so painful in itself that the alcoholic will seek escape from the intolerable pain caused by drinking.”

Although it's certainly true that alcohol abusers have to make the decision to quit for themselves, that doesn't mean you can't do anything to move the process along. Indeed, the bulk of the responses in my interviews suggests that there are many things you can try which might make it easier for you to deal with the situation. Other research also suggests that family members can play a major role in getting unmotivated loved ones to seek help.

When I asked, “When you were finally successful at taking hold of your drinking problem, what approaches did you use?” frequent responses had to do with the importance of support from friends and family, a counselor, or other sober people.

The respondents repeatedly mentioned the importance of putting the responsibility for dealing with the alcohol problem squarely on the drinker while continuing to love him or her. Their advice suggests that what works depends on the individual. As such, they offer many different—and sometimes conflicting—strategies.

Certainly no one expects you to become an expert, and getting professional help is advised. But about the worst thing you can do is nothing. When asked what didn't help, Herbert Z.'s wife responded, “Inertia. Not doing anything will not help, nor will the problem go away.”

As the alcohol expert Dr. Marc Schuckit says in Educating Yourself About Alcohol and Drugs, the goal is not to “rescue” a loved one with a drinking problem. “If you care,” he writes, “your job is to do everything possible to maximize the chances that he or she will seek help. . . .”

Here are the nine most common suggestions in response to my request to “list three things friends and family members can do to help a loved one still struggling with a serious drinking problem.”

Don't make it easy for the drinker to keep on drinking

“Enabling” includes protecting the problem drinker from the negative consequences of alcohol use. Discontinue enabling and put the onus for the drinker's behavior and its consequences on the drinker. “Do not cover up for them,” says Betty B. “Let them be responsible for their actions.” Here's how Herb N. puts it: “Accept your responsibility, if any, for enabling, and then transfer 100 percent of the responsibility back to the alcoholic after talking it over. He or she is then unable to use you as an excuse.”

Don't stop loving them

Continue to love the problem drinker unconditionally—be supportive, offer encouragement, and don't abandon him or her. Calvin A. advises, “Work with them to recognize that you care for them but that their behavior is harmful to themselves and others.” Says Clay R.: “Love from family can be crucial to the alcoholic's recovery. It does not necessarily include acceptance of the alcoholic's drinking. Make it clear that it is the drinking and not the person that you do not accept.”

Don't nag, criticize, preach, or complain

Many said nagging, begging, or confiscating liquor are to little or no avail. Thomas V. attests, “The more I was urged to cut back or quit, the more I denied I had a problem.” Betty B. says, “Long before I walked through the doors of AA, suggestions had been offered to me about my drinking. But the help was always from people who looked at me as though I was a bad person.” AA appealed to her because instead of hearing “This is what you should do,” she heard, “This is what I did.”

In working with families of problem drinkers, Robert J. Meyers, director and developer of the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) intervention program for problem drinkers, finds that it is far more constructive to identify specific problem behaviors when the person is sober than to nag and complain.

Address the drinking problem directly

Although nagging and complaining are certainly ineffective, so is the contrary tack of ignoring a drinking problem. “When I called my sister two nights in a row telling her the exact same thing, I wish she had confronted me,” Amy P. laments. “She knew I was drunk but didn't mention it. Several other people spent lots of time on the phone with me and knew I was drunk. I believe it would have brought reality to me sooner if these people refused to talk with me and said something like ‘Call me back when you haven't been drinking.'”

Seek help

When someone you care about has a drinking problem, not going it alone is important. Zoe A. says, “Join a support group to keep your own life buoyant and prosperous and to analyze your own negative coping strategies.” Herbert Z.'s wife says, “Going to both Al-Anon and counseling not only helped me but also provided Herb with another reality check about his drinking.” A number of studies suggest that marriage and family counseling can motivate a problem drinker to make a commitment to change. If physical violence or abuse is involved, professional help should definitely be sought.

Detach, separate, walk away

Many suggest “tough love.” A more compassionate approach may be in order in the beginning, but a time may come, particularly after you've tried to help repeatedly and failed, when you need to walk away from the situation. Kerry G. suggests, “It's hard to do, but sometimes losing the people you love is what it takes for the message to sink in.”

Billy R. advises, “Decide how much you are willing to put up with. Let the person know what will happen if he doesn't stop. And whatever you decide, stick to it.” It's essential, as Clay R. emphasizes, for loved ones to “firmly withdraw from the alcoholic if he threatens the family's or any family member's security or well-being.”

Set a good example

A number stressed being a good role model. They said to avoid drinking around people you'd like to stop and not to bring alcohol into the house. Elena G. says, “Don't let your good times revolve around drinking.” She recalls how many of the things she and her husband did together used to involve alcohol: “Every event I perceived as a good time revolved around booze. And Brett just went along with me.”

If a major focus of your relationship with a problem drinker has been alcohol—say, you go to a lot of parties with friends who drink, or you're in the habit of having nightly cocktails together—it's wise to reexamine how you spend time together and then try to find sober alternatives, such as going for walks in the evening or attending cultural events.

Take care of yourself

“Live a full life of your own.”

“Carry on with your life after you've let the alcoholic know you aren't babysitting anymore.”

“Let them go, and focus on your own health and peace of mind.”

In an attempt to hide a family member's alcohol abuse from others, spouses often isolate themselves from friends and other family members. Taking care of yourself might mean signing up for a class in the evenings, getting together with buddies from the past, or going away by yourself for a weekend.

Be there for them when they're ready

Most of the comments on this subject went like this: “Be available when the alcoholic reaches out.” “When they hold out their hand for help, grab it.” “Help as many times as you are asked. Be there.”

When I asked Elena G. why she thinks her husband stayed with her through her drinking days, she responded, “His parents taught him that if you care about someone, you never give up on them. I think he always thought I'd come out of it. He just didn't know it would take twenty years!” She feels that one of the most important messages for friends and family is to “encourage the problem drinker to try again and again.” Calvin A. adds, “Be loving but firm, and understand that they may need a number of tries to get and stay sober.”


Alcoholics Anonymous: (212) 870-3400; www.
Al-Anon/Alateen: (757) 563-1600;
CRAFT: (515) 925-2361.
LifeRing Secular Recovery: (510) 763-0779;
SMART Recovery: (440) 951-5357;
Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves/SOS: (323) 666-4295;
Women for Sobriety: (215) 536-8026;

From Sober for Good by Anne M. Fletcher, © 2001. Excerpted and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
: 32-33

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