How to help someone you love with a drink problem.

The most distressing thing about having a drink problem isn’t the impact it has on you personally, but the shockwaves that it has on those around you.  As someone who lived with a ‘functioning alcoholic’ for several years before he turned his life around, I identify with the stomach-churning combination of anxiety, fear and despair that comes with watching someone you love hurt themselves.  Here are some things I learned on the journey that I hope can help you understand what you can and can’t do, if you are love someone with a drink problem 

You can’t save them from themselves, but you can support them when they choose a better life

My partner was everything you would hope for.  Funny, kind, clever, successful and a problem drinker.  Not in a shouty, aggressive, out of control way, but in a quietly desperate, relentless every-single-evening way.  And every morning he would get up and go to the gym and pretend it wasn’t happening.  He was a lovely person and he knew he was in trouble.  But no amount of shouting and pleading from me could change his behaviour.  He only sobered up when he got to the point that he knew he needed to take action.  Drinkers need to get to that point themselves and our job as the people who love them is to support them when they get there.  I hear stories of people spiriting their loved ones to rehab, or creating interventions and in some cases, perhaps  it helps.  But the hard truth is that until the person involved takes responsibility for owning the change, the change won’t come.  You can’t love them until they choose to love themselves. 

What you can do is be ready.  Have resources in place to show them.  Books, online programmes, groups,  encourage them to find whatever avenue that works for them.  Then try and take a deep breath and step back.  They need to own their decision or it just won't stick.

They can love you desperately and still drink

Drinkers don’t love their families any less than non drinkers.  They don't choose to be more in love with the bottle than you,  it’s an addiction and it’s not a fight you can win. There will come a moment when they look in the mirror and choose a different path.  As their loved one. you will be a major reason for choosing that path.  But you won’t be the main reason - that has to come from inside.  Andy didn’t stop drinking for me, or the kids.  He stopped drinking for himself. It might sound selfish but as humans, to effect permanent change we need to change how we feel about ourselves and our futures.  He needed to be able to visualise a better future for himself, before he could live it. 

Don’t enable or shame them.  They must be responsible for their choices

Nobody feels worse about the situation than the addict - even if they can't acknowledge it

Part of love is trying to make things ok.  But drinkers know perfectly well that they are NOT ok  They might not want to admit it - to you or to themselves, but they aren’t stupid.  So try and walk a line where you don’t cover for them, but you don’t punish them either. Don’t make excuses for them and don’t feel that you need to make everything ok.  It’s only when drinkers accept just how NOT OK life is, that they can make the change.  

Equally,try not to shame them either.  Shame is an incredibly powerful emotion and it kills progress by creating panic and fear which are counter-productive. It might be hard to believe, but the drinker is more ashamed of their problem than you are of them. Yes you can’t change your life without a little commitment and discipline, but shame has only negative consequences for everyone. 

Be supportive but don’t take it on your own shoulders.

It is incredibly hard to love someone who is hurting themselves and part of their journey needs to be finding people to support them as they build a better life. So if someone you love is making progress do try and be a non-judgemental supporter.  IF they make a mistake, encourage them to reflect on what went wrong and to get back at it.  Try and help them focus on the better life they envision for themselves instead of obsessing about the problem. But remember that you can’t solve it for them.  Point them to community groups and programmes that could support them.  You can be part of the journey back, but you can’t carry them.  They must walk alone, even if you are cheering from the sidelines. 

It’s OK to walk away.

It’s brutal but it’s true.  It’s also not easy if you have kids, or the person is your child. But just as a drinker must have ownership over their actions, so must you be able to have ownership over yours.  If  living with a problem drinker is too much for you, then you need to put your needs first.  It maybe that in doing so, the situation crystallises for the drinker.  But it may not.  Don’t rely on a grand gesture to create change.  Leaving someone doesn't mean you love them any less, but you need to love yourself. 
It was the impotence I found difficult, the inability to change something that was damaging our whole family.  In my situation, Andy was able to find a way back and now he helps thousands of others do the same.  If you want to find out more about how he does it then click here.  I now see example after example of drinkers who find the way to transform their lives and I see many families survive a drink problem and go on to flourish.  There is a path back from problem drinking, but it needs to be the drinker who leads the way.

Written by Louise, Andy's partner

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Further reading & resources:

Al-Anon - help for families of addicts

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