How to Help an Addict/Alcoholic

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This post is based on my experience as someone who has lived in addiction and hurt the people who tried to help me. It is also written based on my experiencing working with people in addiction, both inside and outside of the drug and alcohol treatment field.

Addiction affects more than just the person abusing drugs. Wives, Parents, and Children are all victims to the wrath of addiction. Perhaps nothing has ruined more marriages and broken more families than drugs and alcohol. When a loved one is struggling with addiction, our natural response is to try our hardest to help them. As parents or spouses, we want to do whatever we can to stop their pain. This desire to help manifests in different ways. Sometimes our efforts to help end up making the situation worse, as in the case of enabling. Sometimes our help seems to be working until disaster strikes again. This article seeks to inform people about the best way to help someone struggling with addiction. Caution: There is no simple or easy solution but you can make a difference.

Perhaps nothing has ruined more marriages and broken more families than drugs and alcohol

Misguided Attempts at Helping

Before explaining the best way to help an addict or alcoholic, it is best to first explain what not to do. A common way that people attempt to help a loved one in addiction is to ‘enable’ them. Enabling, literally, means to “give someone the authority or means to do something”. In the case of addiction, the enabler is giving the addict the money or assistance to continue using drugs. In a misguided attempt at helping, families often give the addict money, saying to themselves “well they are going to get the money anyway, I might as well keep them from stealing or selling drugs to get money”.




When an addict gets arrested or in trouble, the enabler is the one who bails them out of jail and runs to their side. The enabler thinks that their love and kindness will be enough to convince the addict to change. It almost always fails in getting the addict sober.

Another method that many parents and spouses try when dealing with addicts is the ‘tough love’ approach. They believe that if they ignore or shutout the addict that they will be forced to change. However, addiction is a powerful adversary. The feelings of neglect and guilt that the addict feels when their family practices tough love can actually lead to more substance abuse. When the addict feels unwanted or ashamed, their automatic response is often to numb those feelings with more drugs or alcohol. Both the enabling and tough love approach aim to change the addicts’ behavior by either giving or receiving attention and love. In the case of the enabler, the family hopes that their love and kindness will convince the addict to change. Families who practice tough love hope that by withdrawing their attention and care they can cause the addict to change. However, the addict at some point loses the ability to ‘choose’ to use drugs. They become a slave to addiction, both mentally and physically. Even when they want to stop using, they often find that they can’t do it. The family’s influence is not enough to overcome the power of addiction.

How Can You Help?

It is important to understand that you alone can’t get someone sober. The best outcome you can achieve is getting a person to agree to seek outside help. The most successful forms of help are professional treatment and an established 12-step program. Many alcoholics and addicts may require hospitalization or detox to fully get their body clean of the drugs, and without the help of a professional medical staff it can be a painful and dangerous process. However, the goal of the family should only be to get the addict to agree to seek professional help. How do you go about doing this?


Research has shown that the most effective way in getting an addict to seek help is by rewarding good behavior and promoting the idea of getting help without being too assertive. The alcoholic or addict is often unapproachable or not able to think clearly when they are drunk or high. Many people try to reason with an addict while they are high, and it often fails. Doctor Clarke, Addiction Medicine, says “the best time to express yourself to the person [addict/alcoholic] is when they are not using drugs or alcohol”. His reasoning is that during these periods the addict or alcoholic is not under the influence of drugs and will be more able to grasp reality and understand the situation. Robert Myers, designer of the CRAFT Method, encourages families to reward the addict or alcoholic when they are not using. Unlike enabling, this method rewards the addict on a conditional basis and when they begin using drugs again the rewards are stopped.

Experts also encourage loved ones of addicts to provide hope to the addict, perhaps by convincing them of all the benefits of being sober. If a family has the opportunity they may want to research into some local addiction treatment centers, or ‘rehabs’. These facilities have doctors and licensed therapists with years of experience dealing with addiction. Lastly, it is important to remember to take care of yourself when dealing with an addict or alcoholic. Al-Anon, a support group for people affected by alcoholics, emphasizes that it is important to remember that you didn’t cause the problem, you can’t cure the problem, and you can’t control the problem.

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