how to help a friend with alcoholism

Feeling a friend may be drinking too much can be complicated. While you want to help them, it can be tricky to know how in the first place. You also don’t want to make the wrong assumption. Thinking your friend is an alcoholic can really affect your mental health. 

If you’re worried your friend is an alcoholic, you first need to learn more about alcoholism. More than having a bit too many drinks, alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease that affects someone’s brain, lifestyle, and overall health. 

Keep reading to learn more about the five steps you need to know about how to help a friend that’s struggling with alcohol abuse. 

1. Educate Yourself About Alcoholism

Since alcohol is such a common substance in our society, we often don’t jump to the conclusion that someone’s an alcoholic. But, if you find yourself thinking, “my friend is drinking too much” or “could so-and-so be an alcoholic?” This could be a sign that your friend is dealing with alcohol abuse. 

Having the occasional cocktail at a party or a glass of wine over dinner is not a problem. But, if your friend is constantly drinking heavily or can’t control how much they drink, these are early signs of alcohol abuse. 

Of course, your friend could be a “high-functioning” alcoholic. So, they can easily keep up with relationships, their physical health, and work and school responsibilities without a problem. It will be more difficult to recognize alcoholism signs in friends like this. 

But, if your friend is constantly preoccupied with drinking, keeps drinking despite negative consequences, has become isolated due to their drinking habits, and is always dealing with withdrawal symptoms (aka hangovers) – these are all signs of alcoholism. 

Sometimes alcohol abuse is the response to mental health issues. Talking about these could also help recognize the underlying problem.

2. Choose a Time to Talk

If you believe your friend is dealing with alcohol abuse, talking to them might help. But, starting a conversation with a confrontational or aggressive tone won’t help your friend. Before talking to your friend about their alcohol use, you might want to consider learning more about interventions. 

One way to address the conversation is to tell your friend that you read about interventions because you’re worried about their alcohol use. This gives your friend time to think about the problem and realize why it might be affecting those around them. 

Make sure you bring up the subject in a compassionate way. Please don’t talk about the issue when they’re under the influence or recovering from heavy drinking. 

Focus on behaviors that you have personally witnessed and issues that are specific to you. Make sure to mention your deepest concerns and willingness to help. Try to plan what you’ll say to remember to say everything you wanted to share. 

Pro Tip: When you’re talking, avoid using words like always or never when referring to their behaviors. Using absolute terms like these will put them in a situation where they feel they need to defend themselves. 

3. Setting Healthy Boundaries

Believe it or not, an important part of helping an alcoholic friend is setting boundaries. If you let your friend’s alcohol abuse impact your life and mental health, you will suffer too. Ignoring the problem will also lead you to make excuses for your friend’s drinking. Because of this, your friend may be less likely to recognize the problem and seek help. 

Depending on your situation, you need to find the limits you need to protect your mental health and stick to them. Even if your friend gets mad at you and cuts you from their life, it would help you protect yourself. 

Reasonable limits to set include:

  • Refusing to lie for your friend about their drinking
  • Refusing to supply your friend with alcohol
  • Refusing to engage in arguments when your friend is under the influence
  • No longer “saving” or helping your friend if they get in trouble for their drinking

4. Talk to a Professional

You don’t need to feel like you have to handle this situation by yourself. It might be a good idea to talk to a professional such as a primary care physician or an alcohol addiction specialist who can help you discuss the situation with your friend. 

A professional can help you organize a formal intervention if your previous discussions have led nowhere. Even though there are no guarantees that an intervention will get your friend to seek treatment, it will at least let them know that there are people who care about them. 

A professional can also help you learn more ways to protect your mental health. When a close friend is suffering from addiction, it can really take a toll on your mental health. In some cases, you may even develop anxiety or depression as you might feel hopeless about the whole situation. 

Another option is to attend a group meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous. In an AA meeting, you’ll be able to speak with other people about alcoholism and ask for advice on the best way to help your friend. 

5. Provide Options for Help

When you decide to talk to a friend, it’s a good idea to have information about alcohol and drug addiction treatment centers in your area. The more you know about how treatment options for alcoholism work, the more you’ll be able to explain how the process works. 

This can involve driving your friend to a treatment center to talk to a specialist or an AA meeting or support group. The more you can be there to support them, the more likely they’ll think about getting treatment. These are free, confidential meetings that can show them how their drinking habits affect their lives and the lives of those around them.

In many cases, people choose not to seek treatment because they feel they won’t support those around them. Providing more help and options and walking with them through the process will show them that you’re with them for the long haul. 

How to Protect Your Mental Health

When you’re friends with an alcoholic, you might fall for self-sabotaging behaviors without realizing it. As you try to help them, you might end up hurting yourself instead. So try your best to protect yourself by avoiding these behaviors:

  • Taking it personally. Remember that alcoholism changes the brain chemistry of a person. They may not be in control of their decision-making process. Nothing that you do or say is impacting them to continue their drinking habits. 
  • Trying to cure it. Make no mistake about it, alcohol dependence is a progressive disease, and you can’t fix a disease. Regardless of your background, you need outside help to help your loved one genuinely. Don’t believe they’ll will stop drinking overnight; this takes time.
  • Having unreasonable expectations. As you try to negotiate your boundaries, you might set unreasonable expectations like expecting them won’t drink ever again. But with alcoholics they’re not honest with themselves, and they can’t control their actions, so how can you expect them to abide by these expectations?
  • Living in the past. Most people don’t know that alcoholism is a progressive disease, meaning it will continue to worsen unless they seek help. It’s vital to deal with alcoholism in the family by focusing on the disease’s state today. 

Next Steps

It can feel stressful, scary, and heartbreaking to realize a friend is dealing with alcoholism. Recovery from substance abuse is a long-term journey and can often feel like a rollercoaster. But, with your support and the right treatment program, they’ll make it through. 

If you think your friend is addicted to alcohol, try to get them to speak with a therapist about their alcohol abuse. Or try to accompany them to an AA meeting to hear first-hand from others struggling with alcoholism. If none of this works, consider speaking with other family members and professionals to schedule a professional intervention. 

Also, just because all your efforts don’t work the first time doesn’t mean you should give up on your friend. Give them time and revisit your strategy in a few months. It might work then. 

Don’t forget to practice self-care and set healthy boundaries to protect your mental health throughout this process.