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The Challenges of Dealing with an Alcoholic Loved One

Am I helping or hurting the alcoholic in my life?

Everyone knows of a family that has struggled to cope with a loved one who is alcoholic. Friends and observers may try to understand the experience of the family and may watch, sometimes with judgment, as family members try to navigate this stressful situation. Years may pass and despite the family's best efforts to address the unhealthy family patterns and facilitate change, somehow the alcoholic seems to control the family and in a sense "call the shots". As a therapist in the addiction field, I have watched in amazement as families have given unlimited access to finances, rewards, repeated chances and unconditional love - but the alcoholic still remains sick.

I have had the honor of working with addiction specialists who focus on the treatment of the families of those with addictions. They have a really difficult job in terms of helping families to see that the way that they have been relating to and loving the active alcoholic has actually been feeding the addiction and not helping their loved one. This can be confusing, scary and counterintuitive in that the way that a family would demonstrate caring towards a healthy member of their family is NOT the way that they should towards an active alcoholic.

Diana Clark, JD, MA, of Family Healing Strategies ( has written and recorded an audio book called "What Love Looks Like: When Your Adult Child Struggles with Addiction" that talks about this exact issue, and provides clarity, hope and suggestions for how families can find a new way to love a family member suffering from active alcoholism or drug addiction. One quote from a family who had attended one of her workshops demonstrates the confusion that families face:
"We all want our kids to be so happy-especially my generation. I never realized until I went to your seminar how much I felt responsible for making my son "happy" so he wouldn't use. ...Big mistake. It has been so freeing for me personally to let go of this." - R.B.

Many parents show love through trying to help their child to have a "happy" life. This may work well for those without addictions, but parenting those with addictions required a different skill set and often involves a new road map. Families often struggle to find this map, and that is why therapy, family education programs at addiction rehab centers, educational books and programs such as Al-Anon and Al-Ateen can help families to learn about new ways to deal with their addicted loved one as well as finding a starting point towards their own healing. Some books that have been helpful resources for families include "Co-Dependent No More" by Melody Beattie, "Get Your Loved One Sober" by William Meyers, Al-Anon literature ( and many more.

I have often observed that fear is a driving force in the way that families relate to a loved one's active alcoholism: fear of loss, fear of causing pain and discomfort, fear of illness and death, fear for safety, fears of opinions, fear of the unknown and fear of guilt. These fears are real - and legitimate, for any number of them could come true. However, the "alcoholic" part of the individual may count on their loved ones being ruled by these fears and may try to capitalize on that reality. When families are taking a stand and setting limits with the active alcoholic, they are targeting the addiction, not their loved one. By allowing the active alcoholic to experience negative consequences as a result of their addiction, they are helping to speed up the "cause and effect" connection for that individual. This is imperative in helping this person to reach some type of bottom (ie, emotional, physical, situational) and leading to a better chance that they may seek help. In the case of the high-functioning alcoholic (HFAs), there may not be as much tangible evidence of the negative consequences, and therefore, there is more of a need for loved ones to address how their drinking effects them, to set limits and to offer resources. HFAs not only have family enabling their drinking habits, but if they are successful professionally, colleagues and supervisors may overlook their alcoholism for selfish reasons.

Many have seen the show "A&E Intervention" or movies that depict these dramatic addiction intervention scenes. There is a reason that families find it necessary to hire a skilled interventionist to conduct an intervention - to raise the bottom for their loved one so that they can see how their addiction is affecting everyone in their life. The addict's family and friends care enough about them to face their fears, make themselves uncomfortable and to hold the line to target the addicted and sick part of their loved one - so that the healthy person that they once knew has a chance at a productive life again. To find a Board Registered Interventionist near you feel free to contact or to email me at for referral suggestions.

No one expects a family to instinctually know how to appropriately care for a loved one with an addiction, but there are resources out there to help with this process. Families can role model asking for help just as they would want for the alcoholic in their family - because it truly takes a village to help individuals and families to heal from addiction.

For more information and resources about high-functioning alcoholics, please visit