How to Help An Alcoholic: Part 3 of 3

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How to Help An Alcoholic

Part 3 of 3

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What can you do to help someone who has a drinking problem?

The barrier of denial

Unfortunately, a major roadblock stands in the way of help for most sufferers. It is called denial. Difficulty of admitting our problems is intrinsic to human nature (Proverbs 16:2; Proverbs 21:2). The stigma connected with out-of-control drinking stands in the way for many. No one wants to admit to what he or she is ashamed of.

The dynamics of chemical addiction drive denial far beyond the normal degree of human nature. The desperate craving for alcohol leads the deceitful mind (Jeremiah 17:9) to employ a wide range of "defense mechanisms" such as rationalization, justification, minimization, and blame-shifting in order to continue drinking. What results is saying guilt trips, provoking incidents of anger to justify drinking, lying and many other forms of improper behavior. An alcoholic eventually develops a world of illusion that becomes a dangerous mirage of reality.

Somehow this nightmarish world of denial must be invaded and destroyed.

Don't be an enabler

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that family members, especially the husband or wife of the alcoholic, often find themselves hooked into the bizarre world of denial. Making excuses for missed work becomes commonplace, spawned by the fear of loss of job, desire to avoid rejection of friends and family, and misguided concern for the drinking family member. A mate can prolong an alcoholic's drinking behavior by becoming an "enabler."

The alcoholic must be allowed to face the consequences of his inappropriate behavior. This may involve suffering and sacrifice by other family members. But as long as someone shields his drinking behavior, the problem will continue and may intensify.

Do not make the calls to an alcoholic’s employer. Let him make the call himself. If he staggers home, vomits and passes out on the living room floor or front lawn, the natural tendency would be to clean him up, put him to bed and then let him have the full force of your anger and resentment in the morning when his head is pounding with a hangover and he is already ashamed of his behavior the evening before—unless he was in a blackout, in which case he will remember nothing.

Allowing him to wake up in the residue of the night before can provide a powerful dose of reality. Especially if he wakes up in full sight of his neighbors as they begin their day. An alcoholic needs this kind of tough love to help him face the consequences of his drinking problem. The morning after may also be the time to calmly and lovingly encourage him to consider getting help.

Motivation for seeking treatment

But what if the alcoholic still refuses to acknowledge the need for help? For many years the belief persisted that an alcoholic has to "hit bottom" before seeking treatment. Sooner or later some crisis will force the alcoholic to face up to reality or suffer tragic consequences: loss of family, financial ruin, imprisonment, even death.

Must family members sit by helplessly and wait for tragedy to strike? What if you or someone else in the family is at the end of the rope emotionally and feel you cannot take any more? What if you feel you cannot ride out this dizzying spiral to oblivion? Is a better alternative available?

Dynamics of intervention

Thankfully, yes. It's called intervention. Intervention is a carefully planned, frank but loving confrontation session by as many family and other meaningful persons as are willing and able to participate. Former U.S. President Gerald Ford’s wife Betty is a well-known example of successful intervention.

Each participant clearly states facts and feelings about how the drinking pattern has affected their life. This information is conveyed after sincerely affirming love and concern to the problem drinker. A combination of support and confrontation is important to let the person know that the others in the room love him or her but cannot and will not continue to tolerate the drinking problem. Alternatives and consequences should be spelled out. Everyone must be prepared to follow through on whatever actions they spell out. No bluffing, no threats. These only hurt credibility and prolong suffering of all concerned.

This course of action must be supported by professional help. It is advisable to have a trained facilitator lead and monitor the discussion.

The object of intervention is to secure the alcoholic's agreement to enter treatment at the conclusion of the session. A plan of action should already be in place so treatment may begin immediately. Treatment should be considered with the same sense of urgency and gravity as a medical emergency such as appendicitis or a heart attack.

Where to find help

Where can you find help? What type of treatment is available? Of course this should be investigated long before the intervention is scheduled so you are ready to proceed quickly with your preconceived plan of action.

An Internet search or the yellow pages of your phone book are good places to begin. Look under "Alcoholism Information and Treatment" to find a list of treatment centers in your area. Some are privately operated. Some are non-profit, usually supported by government funds. If insurance coverage is available, private centers may be a better option. If not, treatment at a public facility is available on a "sliding scale" basis, which means the cost is adjusted according to the family income. Doctors and governmental agencies can also provide referral information.

Treatment options

What happens in treatment? First an assessment interview is set up with the patient to determine the nature and duration of treatment. Detoxification is usually the next procedure, to help remove alcohol from the system and to treat side effects such as withdrawal symptoms. The patient then enters a period of inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Treatment modalities have been standardized in recent years by government regulations and insurance company requirements. Most programs consist of group therapy, individual counseling, lectures and nutritional support.

Family involvement is also critically important, since alcoholism affects the entire family. Participation in treatment also reinforces their love for the alcoholic. Special family group sessions are planned to help families communicate facts and feelings openly and honestly with support from other patients and their families. People help people, and learn about themselves in the process.

Then for long-term success at maintaining sobriety, a recovering alcoholic needs to participate regularly—at least weekly—in an alcoholics’ support group. The largest no-cost support group in the world is Alcoholics Anonymous.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

AA is a widely respected international fellowship of recovering alcoholics who meet together to help each other maintain sobriety. The only requirement for joining or attending AA is a desire to stop drinking. There is no cost other than optional contributions for refreshments and cost of meeting facilities.

AA is not a religion. It is simply a support group devoted to helping people maintain their abstinence from drinking. Similar support groups exist for many other causes, such as eating disorders.

AA’s primary approach is its 12-step program, which teaches that it is essential to look to "a Higher Power" for help in maintaining sobriety. "God as you understand Him" is another term used in AA to accommodate people of all religious faiths. "Higher Power" as a generic term for God is used especially to help agnostic and atheist alcoholics get started in the direction of seeking help beyond their own efforts. This terminology should present no problem to people with biblical understanding. On the contrary, they can appreciate the twelve step program more than others because of their understanding of God.

Of course, when any person sincerely turns to God, determines to obey His commandments, repents of his sins and seeks God’s forgiveness, and perseveres in praying earnestly, God will begin to answer his prayers and help him (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:22-26; 1 John 5:14-15). It’s great if you can steer an alcoholic in that direction.

Two common objections to AA meetings are the potential foul language and profuse smoking. Neither of these problems are insurmountable. The key is finding the right AA group. The local AA office can steer you to a non-smoking AA group. An AA group meeting in a church is not as likely to smoke or use foul language, simply because of the location.

AA meetings are chaired by member volunteers on a rotating basis. They lead informal discussions geared toward maintaining sobriety. Discussions sometimes center on a theme, such as one of the 12 steps and how it applies.

Meetings end with reciting "the Lord's Prayer." Some people feel uncomfortable about this, thinking of these prayers as "vain repetitions" (Matthew 6:7-8). But the Bible does not prohibit reciting this or any other part of scripture. Vain repetition is repetition that serves no worthwhile purpose. Repetition for emphasis and other valid reasons is supported by scripture. Even though Jesus taught the words of the "Lord's Prayer" as an outline, praying the exact words of Jesus Christ with heartfelt meaning can certainly be a profitable experience.

AA has many booklets for little or no cost to help explain the organization in much greater detail than is possible within the scope of this article.

The Twelve Step program

The twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is central to the recovery philosophy of treatment. It was developed years ago by recovering alcoholics who analyzed what they did to attain sobriety.

This program has a longstanding track record of success. So much so that adapted versions are used for many other types of addictive behavior. The success rate can be attributed to the fact that all twelve steps are in harmony with biblical principles, a fact that is explained in another article on—A.A.’s Twelve Steps in Scripture. The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, available from AA, expounds the value of the step program to recovering alcoholics.

Remember that treatment centers cannot promise to "cure" alcoholism. They offer treatment and programs to follow to obtain and maintain sobriety. Gaining and maintaining sobriety is the personal responsibility of each patient. An ongoing "maintenance program" is generally discussed with the patient prior to discharge from inpatient treatment. The maintenance program usually involves periodic follow-up group therapy sessions and a strong recommendation to become involved in a support group such as AA.

Breaking Free is part of United Church of God’s commitment to helping families suffering from alcoholism and other addictions. We appreciate your prayers for our efforts and the efforts of all those who are trying to bring hope, help and healing to those in need.


  • annie.ross

    what a beautiful article. i so appreciate your description of how 'Higher Power' and 'God of your own understanding' need not be feared as disrespect in our Lord. I belong to 12 step recovery & this was - and still IS at times - an obstacle for me to accept in others. i want to shout from the table tops - G O D!!!! it's GOOOOOOOOOD!! i must remind myself that I am not in charge. this program, i believe, was divinely inspired to reach out to billions in creation as a stepping stone, a bridge, a path to the only Higher Power we need to be reaching out for. God knows the drill. He knows what He allowed them to put in the Big Book. and God has all the best reasons for doing so!
    today there are many many on-line and phone meetings and even recorded ones that can be listened to at one's convenience. this could be especially important if the 'activities' at f2f (face to face) meetings are unacceptable, or one just isn't ready to be exposed.
    my personal experience is that the first few months of program i just knew i was there to help everyone else. i thank God for holding my hand through my own process, which was in His time, not mine.
    One Moment at a Time
    we can all recover

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