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How to Help an Alcoholic

By Robin J Foote

An alcoholic can be helped to find freedom from alcohol. And, anyone can help who has some counseling or interviewing ability.

There are two main signs of alcoholism: alcoholics suffer from an illness that stops them seeing their real condition (denial); and a tolerance to alcohol that keeps them drinking beyond safe levels (loss of control).

Denial of the Effect of Alcohol
Everyone uses denial. It is a normal subconscious way to carry out day to day activities without annoying interference. To illustrate, stop for a minute and listen to the sounds around you. More than likely you will hear sounds that you were not aware of previously. If you listened to these sounds constantly you would probably get an overload of noise and may not be able to carry out your normal duties.

But denial does not just occur. It grows over time and may be so deeply ingrained in the subconscious that it is no longer a decision to deny anything. In the noise example above, denial begins as simple avoidance and minimizing of noises around you. You build up a resistance, a second nature of denial of interfering noises, by blocking out more and more. After a while you are not aware that you are blocking out anything.

Alcoholics are no different. They just block out another form of annoyance: the amount they drink and the effect of their drinking. And, again it starts out in small ways and builds over time. Unfortunately for alcoholics their denial is contributing to the damage done by alcohol.

The Urge to Drink More
Recent research suggests that alcoholics may be born with a genetic variation that encourages them to drink. Males with alcoholic fathers need more alcohol to satisfy them than their non-afflicted peers. They need to drink more to get the same affect as males without an alcoholic father.

Additionally, alcoholics develop changes at the cellular level in the brain. These changes actually demand more alcohol be consumed and fed through these altered cells. In a similar way that we all experience hunger for food and our bodies demand more food, alcoholics have an extra demand for alcohol.

One would imagine that in these circumstances an alcoholic is doomed to oblivion. Many do continue to the ultimate oblivion. But alcoholics can be helped, in the right circumstances. And they can be helped - especially early in the progression of the disease - to avoid serious trouble, or the ultimate oblivion.

A Window of Opportunity
Problem drinkers and alcoholics will eventually create a problem for themselves, or with other people, or a legal problem, or problems at work - or sometimes affecting all these areas at the same time. When this happens the drinker may be feeling emotional pain and may be in a window of opportunity for listening to someone who cares, who really wants to help, and who can help.

If you care and can see the suffering of the drinker, you have what it takes to help a problem drinker. You may be a loved one, a family member, a friend, a work mate or a healthcare professional. With a little help from experienced people you will learn the particular action needed to enable anyone to see the reality of their problem and help them take action to solve the problem.

Helping Plan
Over the past 65 years healthcare workers have been trying out many types of counseling and helping plans for alcohol abuse. Some action programs have stood out as being consistently successful in getting alcoholics into recovery. In these programs alcoholics are taken through a specific set of steps to highlight the effects that alcohol is having on their lives. This process disturbs alcoholic denial and motivates the person to want to take action.

But more than motivation is needed. The alcoholic needs to know what to do and also needs support to carry out an action plan. A successful plan includes putting the alcoholic in touch with other recovering people, immediately they make a decision that they have a real problem.

The same principles may also be applied to family and friends who may be suffering from the effects of a loved one's drinking. They too may need disturbance of their own denial and a workable action plan.

The person applying such a program needs to have compassion and empathy for the alcoholic. An understanding of the inner pain and remorse they are suffering is essential.

If you can, try to identify someone who can help. Doctors, counselors and psychologists are a good starting point. Or, if you are so inclined, get the training yourself. Be ready for the next window of opportunity - when you see one approaching, gently offer to put the drinker in touch with the person you feel can help. Or if you have gained the necessary knowledge to help yourself, you will know what to do.

Copyright Robin J Foote 2005.
Robin Foote, BA, NCAC, TSF is a healthcare professional with over 20 years experience helping alcoholics, addicts and compulsive gamblers find freedom from their addictions. He also trains healthcare workers and caregivers in appropriate programs to help alcoholics.

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