How to Get Treatment for an Alcoholic Family Member

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Alcoholism ruins families. The disease not only destroys its victim but those around him or her as well. For this reason, if there is to be any hope at all, the alcoholic needs to get treatment.

Forced or not?

As much as we might believe what we see on television about interventions, forcing someone to get treatment is not usually possible. The exceptions are if the alcoholic is a minor or if this person is ordered by a court to get treatment. In the latter case, it’s almost not worth the trouble if the alcoholic doesn’t wish to participate. This person will do his “time” in treatment to please the court, but as soon as he is free, he will slide right back into the same behaviors.

It’s a sad truth that many problem drinkers don’t want to stop. If anything, they would prefer to find a way to keep drinking and avoid all the problems that come with it. If forcing is out, what’s left?

An advocate or an adversary?

Real interventions come in many forms. They can be formal with a therapist or counselor present or less formal, but the resolve that makes an intervention work has to be in play all of the time. Here’s what you can do to advocate for treatment without being an enemy.

  • Support the person, not the disease. You can set firm boundaries by not giving money or support that facilitates drinking. Stick to your guns, but make it clear that you aren’t rejecting the person, only the behavior. Do not provide resources that enable drinking. Besides money, alcoholics need a safe place to drink, transportation, bail and someone to cover for them. Don’t be an enabler.
  • Have options at hand. This means clear choices the alcoholic can make when he is ready. Is there a treatment facility available that he can afford? How would it work, and what specifically do you want the alcoholic to do? Don’t just say, “You have to stop drinking.” That may be impossible. Rather, offer a real treatment option, one you’ve already investigated.
  • Stick to your guns. Addicts learn to be liars and manipulators. Don’t allow an alcoholic to play you. Stick to your decisions, and do not allow him to use your emotions or sense of fair play against you. He is sick, and it’s up to you to keep a clear head, be mature, and be resolute.
  • Realize you may lose. While we can do a lot to help an alcoholic choose treatment, we cannot choose for this person. You have to understand that it may come down to a choice on your side – allow the toxic behavior to continue, or break things off. Be prepared to end the relationship, not permanently, but at least until this person gets real help and you see real change. Without this in play, the alcoholic can just call your bluff and nothing changes. You have to be strong.
  • Finally, base your conditions on results, not efforts. It is common for an alcoholic to agree to attend AA or another program in the hope of getting someone off his back. Formal or informal treatment is good, but it isn’t enough. The bottom line, the only thing that really matters, is that the behavior stops.

At the first sign of relapse, you have to immediately go into “get help” mode again. Permanent change is difficult, but it’s possible. Remember, one of the greatest resources an alcoholic has is someone who cares about him and is strong when he is weak. Be that person; it's worth it.

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