So, this last week, a friend-of-a-friend contacted me because she’d been following the progress of my sobriety both here and on my personal blog, and she had a problem: a person close to her had just revealed to her that he suspects he has a drinking problem, and she wanted advice about how best to support him.
I don’t doubt that some people might disagree with the advice I gave her, and I give it with the grain of salt that it’s what I found most effective in the support I’ve received from others. I thought I’d share it with you all, too, because I know some of you are considering the role of drinking in your lives, and I know some of you have people in your lives whom you love deeply but who have drinking problems.
1: Don’t support a person’s problem drinking. Don’t coddle them about it. Don’t be tolerant of it. You wouldn’t be friendly about it if they were drinking Drano every night, would you? An alcoholic is committing very slow suicide. They probably need to hear that from at least one person. What anyone with a destructive habit doesn’t need is someone to say, “Oh, you’ll have my love and support no matter what you do.” That’s called codependency, and it’s unhealthy for both of you.
2: Tell them that when they are ready to make the decision to stop drinking, you will fully support them and their sobriety. Gather information for them about different sobriety programs in their area. AA can be a really great choice for many people, which has been discussed elsewhere here, but if someone feels turned off by AA, there are other programs available, too. Mine, Women for Sobriety, has a brother program called (you’ll love how creative they were) Men for Sobriety.
3: Encourage them, once they have quit drinking, with positive thinking, and with understanding – even if it’s challenging for you – any major or minor life changes he needs to make. Sometimes in order to make sobriety an effective and total shift, alcoholics have to make major changes in their social lives, living situations, and even careers.
4: Don’t take it personally. Any of it. It’s not. I know that’s extremely difficult, but someone else’s drinking problem is neither your responsibility nor a response to you in any way.
5: Try to understand that as they recover, A: they may slip up and cave to their addiction from time to time. This can be a normal part of the process, and I know some alcoholics who’ve been sober for years who say that their post-quitting slip ups have been some of the most instructive reminders of why they sobered up in the first place. Not that we encourage that kind of mistake, but it can be informative, so try not to judge – just positively encourage them back toward sobriety. If they choose not to embrace sobriety in the long run, remember step one again. Also understand, B: they are going to have to focus a lot on themselves – part of any effective sobriety program is a lot of internal self-assessment and work on the psyche. This may look like selfishness or like they are blithely ignoring the impact their drinking (and stressful lifestyle in general) have had on you and everyone else, but they’re really just trying to lay a foundation of strength, rational thought, and positive thinking so they can deal with both the responsibility of taking ownership of this big thing, and also so they can deal with the negative feedback they’ll get from a lot of people. You’d be surprised how many people would rather alcoholics remain problem drinkers, and how few people support an alcoholic’s total recovery.
6: They will probably have to end a lot of friendships – because they’re based around drinking or because people can’t forgive them for drinking. You can be a good friend for them then.
7: It may be really difficult for them to accept or recognize that alcoholism is not an isolated problem in their lives, but that it both affects and is affected by everything else in their lives, too. For me, only a complete overhaul of my worldview is what is standing between me and being drunk off my ass at 11:00 every morning.
8: Finally, get the help you need, too. Being supportive of a recovering alcoholic is stressful, uncertain, and nerve-wracking sometimes. There are support groups, great therapists, and hopefully healthy, understanding friends whom you can call on to be a listening ear, a voice of reason, and a set of good resources. Especially in the early days of a loved one’s recovery, you’re going to feel a lot of surprising emotions – not just relief and happiness, definitely, but also anger, resentment, and fatigue. Don’t wander down that path with your alcoholic alone.
It all may sound a little hard-assed, but this is one of those times when flexibility isn’t really a virtue. Until a person decides to take their problem drinking – and thus, their recovery – seriously, it’s difficult to separate supporting the alcoholic versus supporting the alcoholism.