Alcohol Awareness Month: How to help a loved one with a drinking problem

Tuesday , April 18, 2017 - 6:00 AM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

How do you help a loved one who has an alcohol problem?

Simple. Help yourself first.

RELATED: 'It's an everyday deal': N. Utah families learn to manage alcohol addiction

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and the experts have one overriding piece of advice for those who have a loved one dealing with an addiction: Above all else, take care of yourself.

Justin Hatch, behavior health director for Ogden Regional Medical Center, says family and friends often want to help alcoholics and addicts, but they just don’t know where to begin.

“I think we want to help people that may have a problem with alcoholism, but we don’t know how to do it,” Hatch said. “And we often do it in ways that are counterproductive.”

Here are a few tips — gleaned from talking with the experts — for helping a loved one dealing with an addiction:

1. Put yourself first

Wendi Davis-Cox, program director for addiction and recovery services with Weber Human Services, says those with an addiction can cause a lot of stress and problems for those around them. She says loved ones should make sure their own needs are met.

“Taking care of yourself is important,” Davis-Cox said. “And find out what resources are available and use them.”

Hatch says it’s also important not to allow yourself to be placed in a dangerous situation by the addict.

“You need to take care of your own needs, first and foremost,” he said.

2. Speak up

“The biggest thing is just being able to talk with them about their drinking — knowing they’ll probably deny or minimize it,” Davis-Cox said. “That’s typical of an addiction.”

Hatch says it’s important to be supportive, not judgmental, in all conversations with an addict. Avoid being combative. And he says arguing with someone who is intoxicated or high doesn’t work.

“It’s always best if you put it back on yourself,” Hatch said. “Say, ‘This is concerning to me, is there something I can do to help?’ or ‘What can I do to help? We’re happy to help you look for resources.’ Just keep being supportive. Keep being nonjudgmental.”

Adds Davis-Cox: “It’s important not confronting or attacking or shaming or building defenses up. Bring defenses down and join with them to help.”

3. Realize what you’re up against

Alcoholism is a disease — a brain disorder — not a choice, according to the experts.

“Knowing it’s a brain disorder is important,” Davis-Cox says, “because it’s not as simple as, ‘You should be able to quit because I told you to.’”

Hatch says there needs to be a better awareness that it’s a disease and that people aren’t choosing these behaviors.

4. Don’t forget the medical community.

It’s only been in recent years that we’ve really begun tapping into the medical community to help with alcoholism, according to Davis-Cox. Having a talk with a doctor can sometimes make a bigger impression on the alcoholic.

“When it comes from a physician, they can talk about how much the person may be drinking, and it can carry more weight,” she said. “And there are medications available, depending on how serious the alcoholism is.”

5. Stop shaming

Davis-Cox says we need to stop being ashamed of talking about alcoholism.

“We’re trying to get recovery out of the shadows and let people know that it really is a brain addiction, not a moral issue,” Davis-Cox said. “We’ve had that myth for decades, and we need to switch to education. It’s like any other disease we deal with — heart disease, or diabetes — or even a broken arm.”

Alcoholism is a family disease, and the solution should involve the whole family, according to the experts.

6. Don’t force it

While it’s important to get a dialogue going with an alcoholic, we shouldn’t issue ultimatums, or try to punish or threaten or bribe or preach. Hatch says research has shown that getting in an alcoholic’s face or being confrontational usually doesn’t work.

“That often gets them into treatment, but they’re just going through the motions,” Hatch said. “You might be able to force someone (into rehab), but we’ve found it doesn’t lead to ultimate success. I rarely, rarely see someone forced to be here that does well. People’s behavior doesn’t change because we tell them to.”

Davis-Cox says the old way of thinking — tough love, confrontational interventions — is gone.

“What we’re finding effective is being able to have these conversations, and let them know you care about them,” she said. “It’s not about giving ultimatums or kicking them out of our lives.”

Hatch said there may be a point where you have to leave a relationship with an alcoholic.

“But that threat is not a bargaining chip,” he said.

7. Don’t enable them

Loved ones often feel the need to “cover” for an alcoholic. Don’t do it, Hatch says.

“There’s a term we use a lot in alcohol treatment,” he says. “Co-dependency. A lot of times people don’t realize they’re actually supporting the behavior they’re trying to eliminate. But in a way we are, if we cover up for people, or make excuses for them, or shield them from negative consequences.”

8. Be patient

“It’s called recovery because it’s an ongoing process,” Hatch said.

The statistic he hears bandied about is that it take alcoholics seven tries at sobriety before it takes. So it’s important to celebrate the little victories.

“We really need to recognize the small steps that people are taking,” he said. “I don’t think we give people enough credit for saying ‘I’ve got a problem.’ It really is a process, not just a one-time thing.”

9. Don’t own it

A person’s alcoholism is not your responsibility, the experts say. So, avoid self-blame.

“You can be supportive, but it’s up to the person to make the change,” Hatch said. “At the end of the day, when you’ve done all you can — offered a listening ear, and support, and they still haven’t accepted help — at the end of the day you can’t blame yourself.”

And it’s not your place or responsibility to “fix” the situation.

“One mistake friends and family make is … hiding the alcohol, or throwing out the alcohol,” Hatch said. “I think we have the perception that we’re sheltering them and keeping them from it. But all that does is get them angry, defensive and upset, and they’ll find it eventually.”

10. Don’t go it alone

There is no shortage of resources available for alcoholics and their loved ones. Here’s just a sampling:

— The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a number of publications on alcoholism and addiction. Many are available online, at http://store.samhsa.gov/. Or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP, or visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.

— Weber Human Services has a 24/7 crisis line, at 801-625-3700. https://www.weberhs.org/home/AboutUs.htm.

— Weber-Morgan Health Department, http://www.webermorganhealth.org/, 801-399-7200.

— Davis Behavioral Health substance abuse, http://www.dbhprevention.org/substance-abuse, 801-773-7060.

— Bear River Health Department, http://www.brhd.org/, 435-792-6420 (Cache County), 435-734-0845 (Brigham City), 435-257-3318 (Tremonton).

— Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, https://dsamh.utah.gov/, 801-538-9892.

— Al-Anon and Alateen offer recovery programs for families and friends of alcoholics, http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/.

— Alcoholics Anonymous, http://www.aa.org/.

— Adult Children of Alcoholics, http://www.adultchildren.org/.

— National Association for Children of Alcoholics, http://nacoa.org/.

— National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, https://www.ncadd.org/.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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