If you’re close to a person with alcohol use disorder (AUD), it’s natural to want to help them make a change both for their own health and for the sake of your relationship. In my over 25 years working with families affected by substance use disorders, I often hear the question: How can I get someone to stop drinking?” While you cannot make a person stop drinking alcohol, you can be there to encourage, support, and facilitate change.
So if you’re wondering how to help someone stop drinking, here are a few ways that you can play an important role in your loved one’s journey.
Arm yourself with information
Education goes a long way. A great starting point is learning more about alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder is a three-pronged medical condition, as outlined by the American Medical Association. Acknowledging this is the first step in being able to help someone. An individual with alcohol use disorder is facing a condition that impacts them in biological, psychological and social dimensions. Their ability to cut back on drinking is not a matter of willpower, strength, or how much they love you. There are great resources for understanding the neuroscience of substance use disorders such as this talk by Dr. Judith Grisel and this article about the science of alcohol cravings. Learning more about the “chemical romance” between an individual and alcohol can help illuminate how alcohol can change someone’s brain chemistry. It can also be helpful to understand the difference between alcohol use disorder and alcohol dependence, which you can read about here. Your knowledge of what alcohol use disorder is, and is not, will go far in understanding how to help someone quit drinking and supporting the person you love.
Another important aspect of alcohol use disorder is that it exists on a spectrum, and impacts people across all demographics and stages of life. People do not have to appear like the stereotypical “alcoholic” seen on television in order to get help and change their relationship with alcohol. In fact, at Monument, we don’t assign stigma-carrying labels like “alcoholic” or “addict. We opt for clinical language like “alcohol use disorder” instead of “addiction” or “alcohol abuse.” (check out our official Monument glossary to learn more). Hitting “rock bottom” is also not a necessity in order to benefit from treatment. Experts agree that the earlier the intervention, the better. Shedding any preconceived notions and educating yourself is a meaningful way to really understand your loved one’s drinking and what they’re going through.
Initiate a compassionate conversation about alcohol use disorder
It can be intimidating to navigate how to talk to a loved one about their drinking, and there are steps you can take to help facilitate the conversation. First, find a good time for both of you to have the conversation when they aren’t under the influence and when you aren’t in a heightened emotional state. Although it’s natural for frustration to arise, remember that guilting, threatening, yelling, or name-calling will not get someone to stop drinking alcohol.
Avoid Labels or Stigma-Carrying Terms
We also recommend that you avoid addressing their drinking as a(n):
- alcohol addiction
- drinking problem
- alcohol problem or alcohol issue
- substance abuse issue
These terms can carry stigma, and may cause your loved one to become defensive. Instead of applying labels yourself, you can encourage your loved one to sign up for Monument to assess their drinking habits and understand if and where they fall on the alcohol use disorder spectrum. The Monument medical intake process can also uncover signs of alcohol dependence and risks of alcohol withdrawal. Based on their medical intake, your loved one’s physician on the Monument platform can help them safely and effectively cut back.
Address your feelings & boundaries
Try to stay focused on your own feelings, the ways in which their drinking impacts you, and how you are willing to support them in getting help and reducing their alcohol use. Setting boundaries and limits related to what you are and aren’t willing to tolerate is also essential for both you and your loved one. Whether they are binge drinking every so often or heavy drinking every day, be honest with how it makes you feel.
When discussing treatment, remind your loved one that AUD is a medical condition and that there’s no shame in needing additional help. In fact, like getting treatment for any other medical condition, it’s a responsible act of self-care. You can encourage them to enroll in a treatment program and see an online alcohol treatment provider to get the expert guidance they deserve. You can also motivate them by discussing all of the benefits of drinking less, such as improved mental health, increased energy, and better sleep.
Listen & acknowledge
Try to really listen, and not formulate what you’re going to say next when discussing a loved one’s drinking. In my therapy practice, I call this listening with ‘ears to hear.’ Changing your drinking habits can be scary. Your loved one may need their feelings validated and to know that you understand this will not be an easy process.
Many of my patients share that they have known inside that they need to change long before they can say it aloud. Simply creating a space where your loved one can speak openly is an incredible service. If they’ve had unsuccessful attempts at changing their relationship with alcohol in the past, try to remind them that setbacks are a part of the process. You can play an important role in their perseverance by telling them that they are capable and that you believe in them.
Help your loved one understand the risks
A new concept in substance use treatment is called “peaking out.” This is where loved ones and/or medical providers help a person see potential consequences of their drinking and motivate change before more severe outcomes arise. This approach is especially helpful for a person who identifies as a “high-functioning drinker.”
One example of this is encouraging your loved one to have their liver checked by a physician who can show them the beginning impacts of alcohol use, rather than waiting until cirrhosis has caused more permanent damage. For young adults, this could mean helping them see where they are starting to slip in their grades prior to being put on academic probation.
Another example is encouraging a loved one to evaluate how their drinking is straining their romantic relationship in hopes of preventing a partnership or marriage from ending. As I mentioned, early intervention is always best, and the “peaking out” method can help your loved one gain a clearer picture of what they would gain by changing their relationship with alcohol.
Addressing anxiety while managing your drinking
Familiarize yourself with new treatment options
Gone are the days of alcohol rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous being the only options. The treatment landscape is now moving from program-based clients towards client-based programs. And care doesn’t have to take place exclusively in a treatment facility. That means new treatment platforms, such as Monument, are much more personalized and meet the individual where they are. Monument connects members to therapists (such as myself) and to physicians who can prescribe medication to stop drinking if safe and appropriate. It’s best to assess what treatment program is a fit for your loved one ahead of time if possible. When someone agrees to treatment, it’s important to act upon that motivation quickly to ensure they initiate and engage in treatment.
Include moderation as a possibility
In the past, abstinence has been the predominant model for treatment and recovery. However, sobriety is not the only option for someone who is considering changing their relationship with alcohol. Today, the concept of harm reduction is more widely accepted. According to the National Harm Reduction Coalition, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug or alcohol use.
There is a segment of the population for which a harm reduction-focused treatment plan can help them successfully drink in moderation. For others, allowing them to attempt moderation under the care of licensed clinicians may bring the insight that they are unable to manage controlled use and need to work towards sobriety.
Either way, exploring moderation holds the potential for positive outcomes and discovery. Working with a therapist and/or physician in this process can help illuminate which path is appropriate for each individual, and what steps can be taken to get there.
Support them in their treatment and recovery
Recovery is a process, not an event. It’s also not just for the person with alcohol use disorder. Once a person is trying to change their drinking habit, the entire system around them starts to learn how to support someone in recovery. For the person in recovery, their journey is about more than quitting alcohol or moderating alcohol consumption. It’s also a process of experiencing mental and physical change, and learning how to manage life without the use of substances. Learning more about the alcohol recovery timeline can help you and your loved one gain a better understanding what to expect.
Early recovery can be an emotional rollercoaster. Enjoy the thrills of the highs and know that the lows won’t last forever. Find your own way to be a part of that process while still honoring your own needs. That might look like attending alcohol support groups with your loved one, spending time identifying potential triggers together, or working on a plan for how to stop alcohol cravings managing cravings. Also recognize that you don’t have to support them alone. There are expert clinicians eager to help create a personalized treatment program for your loved one. A physicians can help them navigate challenges such as alcohol withdrawal symptoms (due to physical alcohol dependency), and a specialized therapist can empower long-lasting behavioral change.
There will also be opportunities for you to share in the many joys of early sobriety. Engaging your loved one in alcohol-free activities and new rituals that you can enjoy together is one of the greatest benefits of collective healing. This is a learning process for everyone. With time and support, your loved one will gain confidence in their own ability to achieve their goals.
Remember that self-care is essential
There is a reason why flight attendants instruct you to put your oxygen mask on first in case of an emergency. You cannot help someone if you are burnt out yourself. Self-care doesn’t just describe massages and weekends away. Take inventory of your sleep schedule, eating habits, exercise routines, and time for relaxing.
Then, consider what aspects of your life have been impacted by your concern over your loved one. Make sure to address any areas where you are not meeting your own needs. Do you have a support system that you can talk to? Are you noticing any signs of codependency? There is no shame in needing to reach out to a therapist or other additional support for yourself. In the process, you are role-modeling for your loved one that it’s okay to get help and make changes.
Helping someone find a new, healthier relationship with alcohol is an amazing act of love. Remember that your needs are important too and shouldn’t come second to your loved one. Recovery is a non-linear journey, and it’s important to celebrate the small wins. Seeking additional resources, such as reading this very article, and offering your support to someone is something to be incredibly proud of.