Get Help: Family Members

“I sought help. What I found was that alcoholism is a disease, a family disease. We were all affected by it. I learned that I did not cause the alcoholism, I can not control it and I can not cure it! What I had to realize is that I couldn’t change him. The only person I could change was myself. I wanted to live a better life. I have learned to live a life of peace and serenity. I have learned to take care of myself both mentally, physically, and spiritually. My family has been affected by the disease of alcoholism and we are now all seeking help to live a better life, one that we can all be proud of. We are now a family in recovery.”

Quote from NCADD Publication, “We realized we couldn’t control it.”

Alcohol and Other Drugs

Are you worried about a family member's drinking? Or want to know how to tell if someone you love has a problem with alcohol or other drugs?

Alcoholism and other addictions is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with the alcoholic or addict. Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic's or user’s behavior. We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We are always looking for signs of use or hidden drugs. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker or addict. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic or user, as the alcoholic is to alcohol or the addict to the drug. We, too, can become ill.

Having a family member—a son, daughter, spouse, parent, brother or sister—who is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction can be frightening, frustrating, depressing and all-consuming as you join them in a virtual roller coaster ride of highs and lows. We want to help them but sometimes we just don't know where to turn or what to do.

It is often said that the addict/alcoholic has to “hit bottom” before he/she will go for help, and there is some truth to that statement. Think about it. We rarely ask for help with anything unless it is really causing us problems. We don't usually go to the doctor or take our car to the mechanic unless there is an obvious problem, often one that has been present for some time. When you think about the nature of addiction, which is characterized by such great denial and delusion, it is clear why a person with an alcohol or other drug problem doesn't just wake up one day and decide to get help. There is usually some crisis - one that makes the discomfort of using drugs or alcohol greater than the discomfort of quitting - which sends him or her to get help.

When trying to spot a drinking or other drug problem, it is more useful to focus on what has changed (their behavior, habits, appearance, etc.) rather than whether or not they are an ‘alcoholic’ or addict.

Warning Signs

  • Is drinking or drug use affecting their physical or mental health?
  • Is drinking or drug use causing problems with their friendships and relationships?
  • Is drinking or drug use affecting their work, education or finances?
  • Is drinking or drug use leading the person to be in trouble with the law or their job?
  • Is the person becoming angry when you try and discuss their drinking or drug use?
  • Is the person having accidents or injuries because of their drinking or drug use ?
  • Is the person needing to have alcohol or a drug nearby in order to function normally?
  • Is the person feeling sick, irritable, having the shakes, sweating in the morning or in the middle of the night?

Finding Help

People often do not know how best to help someone with a drinking or drug use problem. If you are close to a problem drinker it can be hard because you and your family may be putting up with difficult behavior while the drinker does not recognize or admit they have a problem. Even when they do, it can be very difficult for them to stop drinking or cut down and this in itself is a source of tension for partners and friends. How you approach the problem and respond to it is important, but it may have got beyond what you can deal with, leading to distress and guilt as family and friends try, but fail, to help. The wisest thing to do in these circumstances is to get some independent advice and support.

If an alcoholic or addict is unwilling to get help, what can you do about it?

An alcoholic or addict can't be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as a traffic violation or arrest that results in court-ordered treatment. But you don't have to wait for someone to “hit rock bottom” to act. Many alcoholism treatment specialists suggest the following steps to help an alcoholic get treatment:

  • Stop all “cover ups.” Family members often make excuses to others or try to protect the alcoholic or addict from the results of his or her drinking or using. It is important to stop covering for the user so that he or she experiences the full consequences of their use.
  • Time your intervention. The best time to talk to the user is shortly after an alcohol or other drug-related problem has occurred—like a serious family argument or an accident. Choose a time when he or she is sober, both of you are fairly calm, and you have a chance to talk in private.
  • Be specific. Tell the family member that you are worried about his or her drinking. Use examples of the ways in which the drinking has caused problems, including the most recent incident.
  • State the results. Explain to the drinker what you will do if he or she doesn't go for help—not to punish the drinker, but to protect yourself from his or her problems. What you say may range from refusing to go with the person to any social activity where alcohol will be served, to moving out of the house. Do not make any threats you are not prepared to carry out.
  • Get help. Gather information in advance about treatment options in your community. If the person is willing to get help, call immediately for an appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program and/or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
  • Call on a friend. If the family member still refuses to get help, ask a friend to talk with him or her using the steps just described. A friend who is a recovering alcoholic or addict may be particularly persuasive, but any person who is caring and nonjudgmental may help. The intervention of more than one person, more than one time, is often necessary to coax an alcoholic to seek help.
  • Find strength in numbers. With the help of a health care professional, some families join with other relatives and friends to confront an alcoholic as a group. This approach should only be tried under the guidance of a health care professional who is experienced in this kind of group intervention.
  • Get support. It is important to remember that you are not alone. Support groups offered in most communities include Al-Anon, which holds regular meetings for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic's life, and Alateen, which is geared to children of alcoholics.
  • It is important for family members to understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic's drinking or an addict’s use, and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of whether the alcoholic or addict chooses to get help.

Call the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for information about treatment programs in your local community and to speak to someone about an alcohol problem.

Prevention Works staff are available to talk to friends and family members confidentially either on the telephone or by appointment. Call (716) 664-3608 or (716) 366-4623, email, or use our confidential contact form.

Additional Information

Contact the following organizations if you or someone you know needs help or more information about alcoholism or alcohol related problems.

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters
(888) 4AL-ANON (425-2666)

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) World Services
(212) 870-3400

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA)
(888) 55-4COAS or (301) 468-0985

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)
(800) 622-2255

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
(301) 443–3860

Call the New York State HOPE line at 877-8-HOPE-NY (877-846-7369) for support and referrals for problems related to alcohol, other drugs and gambling.