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What is Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), which many call alcoholism, is a disorder that occurs when someone struggles to control their alcohol consumption. They tend to be preoccupied with drinking and they allow alcohol to control their lives. They might also experience physical withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

Some people with AUD binge drink, drink when it puts their safety at risk, or continue to drink despite it causing problems in their lives. This disorder can be mild or severe and short- or long-term.

Alcohol abuse harms other people, too. Anyone who cares about someone with AUD has likely struggled with whether to do or say something about the issue. Dealing with an alcoholic is always challenging.

How to Talk to an Alcoholic

If you are dealing with an alcoholic, there are several things you can do to make it easier to speak to the person about the problem. For example:

Get Support and Education

The more you learn about alcoholism the better. Speak to a counselor or healthcare professional about the disorder and get tips for what you can do to help the person you care about. You might consider attending an Al-anon meeting. There are many resources available to help people who care about someone with AUD.

Prioritize Self-Care

Dealing with an alcoholic drains you emotionally and physically. The strain is similar to coping with any other mental health issue. It’s important to take care of yourself and make sure you are getting the things you need to feel healthy. It’s also important to understand that your loved one’s disorder is not your fault. The only way you can help someone you care about long-term is to provide for your needs first.

Know What Treatment Options are Available for Alcohol Addiction

If you choose to confront the person you care about who has AUD, you must prepare several treatment options. You’ll want to suggest a few different treatment programs. Sometimes people who struggle with drinking don’t realize there are options available. They might assume treatment means a 30-day stint at an inpatient rehab facility or attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. These are options, but treatment facilities tend to offer variety and have programs that suit many different scenarios.

Stage an Intervention

If information suggestions to enter treatment are unsuccessful, consider staging an intervention if someone you love has a drinking problem. At an intervention, the loved ones of someone with AUD confront the person about their drinking and share their thoughts and feelings on the disorder and getting treatment.

Participate in Treatment with Your Alcoholic Family Member

If your loved one decides to enter treatment for their alcohol problem, it’s important to support and encourage them. In many cases, you’ll enter counseling, too, which is another way of showing support. Battling AUD together is much easier than dealing with it alone.

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How to Deal With an Alcoholic Spouse

It’s especially difficult dealing with a spouse or partner who is an alcoholic or has another substance abuse problems. A romantic relationship with someone with AUD is one of the most challenging experiences you can have in life. Ending a relationship with an alcoholic partner or spouse might even seem impossible, but sadly, it’s sometimes the only solution. 

Chances are if you’re in a relationship with someone with AUD, you’ve already spoken to the person about their drinking. Regardless of whether your partner has entered treatment or is nowhere near committing to recovery, you need to get support. Speaking to a counselor and/or attending Al-anon meetings are great places to learn more about the disorder and get the help you need to deal with the situation. 

You should never feel as if you are to blame for your partner’s disorder. You should also not “cover” for your partner or enable them to live in denial. 

Never let yourself be victimized, emotionally, physically, or in any other way by a loved one with AUD.

How to Deal With an Alcoholic Friend

Helping a friend with AUD is challenging because the boundaries of the relationship are usually much different than they are with a close family member. But this doesn’t mean you cannot offer encouragement and support to close friends who struggle with drinking.

Some of the things you can do to help an alcoholic friend include:

  • Inviting them to participate in activities that don’t involve drinking. You can stop asking your friend if they want to go to the bar or out for cocktails, but you shouldn’t shut them out of your life. Plan non-drinking activities the two of you can enjoy together.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings about your friend’s drinking, even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation. You shouldn’t be afraid to let your friend know you are concerned about their well-being. Be prepared for a defensive reaction, but an honest and compassionate approach might be what your friend needs. You might be the first person to bring up the issue with alcohol and by pointing it out, your friend might realize they are headed down a rough road.
  • Know when enough is enough. Deciding to end a relationship with an alcoholic is difficult, but you should never tolerate abuse or mistreatment in a friendship. 

How to Deal With an Alcoholic Partner or Spouse

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How to Confront an Alcoholic 

Often, confronting an alcoholic is the best way to help that person. If you decide to confront someone with a substance use problem, either alone or during an intervention, it’s important to:

  • Seek the help of an addiction recovery specialist
  • Carefully choose your timing and avoid stressful or other inopportune times
  • Have a clear idea of how you feel and refuse to be manipulated by the person with AUD
  • Know when to step away from the confrontation if things get heated. No amount of lecturing, arguing, nagging, or begging will make an addicted person stop using.
  • Trust that your loved one will see reason and choose to stop hurting those he or she loves
  • Practice self-care and get the help you need to heal

Addiction Treatment Options for Alcoholic Loved Ones

There are many treatment options available to people who care about someone with AUD. For example:

  • Al-anon — helps people understand they are not alone and discuss their situations with peers — support groups offers support, guidance, education, and camaraderie.
  • Alateen — age-appropriate support for young people who care about someone with AUD
  • Family therapy: — brings everyone together to discuss various issues, offer support, and understand their role in helping the person with AUD
  • Alcoholism education — the more you know about alcoholism the more confidence you’ll have in your decisions
  • Individual therapy for help with issues such as codependency and enabling: Most people living with alcoholics have issues they are dealing with. Therapy helps them work through their challenges and better manage their lives.

When to Walk Away 

If you care about someone with AUD, there might come a point at which your only option is to walk away from the relationship. It’s a difficult decision, but it is not impossible. It might even be what ultimately helps your loved one recover. 

If you are thinking about walking away, you should not feel alone. Nearly everyone who cares about someone with AUD has considered it and many have done it. Your feelings are normal and your decision is justified. You can continue to seek counseling even if you have decided to walk away from your loved one.

When to walk away is a personal decision. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, if you are dealing with any of the following, it’s time to think about distancing yourself and getting help with your situation:

  • You’re being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
  • Children are being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused - children of alcoholics have a higher risk of abuse
  • Your loved one has put you or other people in danger because of their drinking
  • Your spouse is habitually unfaithful because of his or her alcoholism
  • Your loved one’s drinking has caused serious financial problems for you

Walking away is different for everyone but if abuse is involved, you must get yourself and your other family members to a safe place. You can make long-term decisions later, but you need to escape the abusive situation immediately before anyone is seriously harmed. If necessary, contact law enforcement, the domestic violence support hotline, the child abuse and neglect hotline, or the AUD hotline.

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Resources

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Mayo Clinic. “Alcohol Use Disorder - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243.

“Help for Women Living with a Problem Drinker.” Stop Spinning My Wheels, ubwp.buffalo.edu/ssmw/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.

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