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How to Support an Alcoholic in Recovery

By Gillian Tietz, Jon McKenna
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Carol Anderson, LMSW, ACSW on January 27, 2021
Here are some key ways that you can help your loved one have a successful recovery.

Treatment for alcohol addiction is just the first step in a long journey to recovery for someone who has stopped drinking. If someone you care about has begun treatment for alcohol use disorder, you could play an important role while they build a life without alcohol. Read on to learn more about key steps you can take to support a loved one who has begun treatment and is in recovery for alcohol addiction.

How Can You Support a Person With Alcohol Use Disorder?

The loved one of someone struggling with alcohol may experience feelings of sadness/depression and anxiety,” Tomanika Perry-Witherspoon, LMSW at Growing Counseling Services, LLC, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Oftentimes the loved ones are worried about the person's health, drinking and driving, explosive episodes (if they display aggression related to alcohol use), etc. Those who don't understand the disease model, may feel that the person is choosing alcohol over them and their family, jobs, and other things at risk.” 

And what is the brain disease model of addiction? This important and widely-accepted theory of addiction has many key principles, including:

  • Addiction is a compulsion that is beyond conscious control. It therefore can manifest without regard for rational judgment. 
  • Scientific research has demonstrated that genetic and neurophysiological factors are contributors to addiction. These factors can therefore be said to "hijack the brain". 
  • The fact that medications can be used to treat addiction and withdrawal provide strong evidence that the condition is a disease. 

Doing your own research about the neurological aspects of addiction and its treatment could help you really understand what is going on with your loved one and move beyond stigmas in order to provide true support. 

Understanding that alcohol addiction is defined as a disease in the DSM-5 and not simply a choice, is the first step in being empathic to your loved one struggling with this issue.” Cali Estes, ICADC, MCAP, MAC at The Addictions Coach, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Alcohol addiction is the most difficult to treat, because someone struggling from alcohol addiction will constantly be inundated with alcohol products. Alcohol is legal and easily obtainable. Most events are surrounded by alcohol, including weddings, parties, holidays, even eating out at restaurants, where alcohol is at the forefront of the experience,” Estes adds.

It is also important to understand the difference between helping and enabling. According to American Addiction Centers, examples of enabling could be financially supporting your loved one or lying to help them hide the problem. Being mindful to help, but not enable, your loved one allows them to see the consequences of their drinking. There are some steps you can take to both help your loved one and help yourself. These include:

  • Remember that addiction can result in irrational behavior
  • But you can and should still set boundaries and uphold those boundaries
  • Encourage your loved one to seek help and seek out resources for them
  • Be supportive, but do not cover up the problems caused by their addiction. Your loved one needs to learn to deal with the consequences of their drinking.

How Do You Help Someone in Recovery?

1) Learn more about alcohol use disorder. Educate yourself on the nature of the disease and understand how to talk to your loved one about their drinking problem. “You will learn the impacts of addiction on the brain and body and the recovery process, among other valuable skills,” Aaron Sternlicht, a New York-based family addiction specialist, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

2) Show interest. Don’t assume your part is over once your loved one has completed treatment and is attending therapy sessions. Offer to attend meetings or sessions with them. Ask them what they’re learning about managing the disease.

3) Give them space, though. You don’t want to become so involved in their daily life that it becomes an obsession. Your role is to be a supportive loved one or friend, not a professional counselor.

4) Be consistent.You always want to be positive, supportive, and inquisitive. Avoid being judgmental about alcohol use disorder or the demands of therapy.

“Check in on your loved one to see how they are doing, but remember that they probably already feel enough pressure and stress maintaining sobriety, especially in early recovery,” Sternlicht says. “As such, don’t make this about their alcohol or drug use, but rather about genuine concern for their mental state and wanting to connect with them on a deeper level.  Listen with an open mind [to] what they have to say, and even if you may not agree with them, affirm their feelings.”

5) Be a role model. “You can show support to your loved one in recovery by living a healthy lifestyle yourself,” Sternlicht says.

Some good habits to practice are:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat healthy. 
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Communicate openly. 

6) Help them keep up their routine.Offer to assist with household and family tasks when they get in the way of your friend’s or loved one’s therapy sessions. Avoid going to places serving alcohol when you are out together, and don’t drink around them.

7) Stay patient. Remember how difficult alcohol dependency is for someone to overcome. Relapses are common.

8) Don’t neglect yourself.Helping a loved one stay sober can take a toll. The Al-Anon/Ala-Teen organization is designed to support family members and friends of alcoholics. Also, don’t hesitate to seek therapy yourself if the stress becomes too much.

What Do You Say to Someone in Recovery?

Your words matter. Using respectful and non-judgmental language when describing your loved one’s struggles with addiction is recommended to reduce stigma. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, feeling stigmatized can reduce the willingness of people struggling with substances to seek out treatment. NIDA recommends using person-first language and letting your loved one choose how they want to be described. Person-first language has a neutral tone where stigmatizing language has negative associations and implies individual blame. Examples include:

  • “Addict” versus “Person with substance use disorder/alcohol use disorder”
  • “Alcoholic” versus “Person with alcohol use disorder”
  • “Former addict” versus “Person in recovery”

Being mindful of your language when talking to your loved one reduces the stigma and shame they may feel and shows your understanding that the person “has” a problem, not that they “are” the problem. According to a 2018 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, implicit bias testing has shown  that commonly used terms such as “substance abuser”, “addict”, and “alcoholic” result in a strong negative bias.

Ask your loved one, ‘How can I best support you in your recovery?’ This important question makes the person dealing with addiction feel empowered that they can tell a loved one how to support them. And then the help is an invitation rather than an imposition,” Nelson says.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.

Understanding Alcohol Addiction