Giving up alcohol can be a massive challenge – but also brings many benefits. So, what can you do to help a friend or loved one on the journey?
When my husband decided to stop drinking alcohol, I wanted to do all I could to help him. But worries about what to say – or what not to say – and the supportive actions I should take, made it a challenge to know how I could best be there for him.
There are many reasons why someone may cut back, or stop drinking alcohol altogether. For some, challenges like Dry January and Sober October give us the chance to rethink our relationship with alcohol, while others may be experiencing alcohol addiction.
Whatever the reason, when someone we care about tells us they are going to stop drinking, it’s important that we respond in a supportive way.
“Making changes in relation to problematic alcohol drinking, for some, can be extremely challenging and difficult,” says Andrew Harvey, a psychotherapeutic counsellor and addictions specialist. “Support from people around the person making changes can be extremely helpful, but has the potential to be difficult to do.
“Problematic drinking can be devastating for people affected by it, the drinker and those around them,” Andrew adds. “There is help, there is support, not only for the drinker but also for affected others. Depending upon the severity of the issue, recovery with additional support might be the best option.”
Harmful drinking can often impact the people around them, says Andrew. “This can range from negatively affecting people’s mental health, emotional wellbeing, and can be devastating to relationships. Equally, recovery and positive change in people’s relationship with alcohol can enable stability, hope, and a strengthening of relationships for those around them.”
Support from the start
When our loved one tells us they are going to stop drinking, we need to show them empathy and compassion. “Patience is also often important, as change doesn’t always happen in a straight line or at a pace we would like,” says Andrew. “Sometimes people’s motivations and desire for change wavers. Often asking someone how they would like to be supported in making the change is helpful to them, and then following through on that, when we can.”
Try to have an open conversation with them, letting them lead, to help you understand how you can best be there for them. While you can gently ask about their reasons for deciding to stop drinking, avoid being pushy with this, as some people may not want to go into a lot of detail about why they have made this decision. Respect that they are making this change.
And, for many, it’s a hugely positive change to make. “The benefits to people making changes to their relationship with alcohol are often in proportion to the damage that the drinking is doing,” says Andrew. “It can range from marginal health gains to saving their lives.”
It can be dangerous for some people to stop or reduce their alcohol consumption too quickly, so they should speak to their GP before they go ahead, to make sure they can get the right treatment and support. If they’re anxious about doing this, you could offer to go to the appointment with them.
There are many ways we can support someone on this journey. Andrew advises checking in with them, if they find that helpful, and that we can help them realise and acknowledge their progress. He suggests taking time to do enjoyable, non-drinking-related activities with them, too.
A lot of socialising in our society is based around alcohol. When my husband stopped drinking, we talked about whether it would be OK to go to places that serve alcohol, especially in the first year. Communication is important, as everyone will have different needs.
“Ask the person concerned what they feel they need,” says Andrew. “For some, being around alcohol will be very difficult, and potentially cause cravings.”
Perhaps going to a place like a coffee shop is a better option. But also, be aware of unintentionally excluding the person from social events. If you regularly go to the pub together for a quiz night, don’t assume that you should no longer invite them.
For my husband, finding non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy when we’re out has been helpful. Increasing numbers of pubs, bars, and restaurants serve these – it’s rare these days that he’s stuck with a pint of lemonade as the only option. In the first year after he stopped drinking, I avoided having alcohol when we were out. Instead, we’d enjoy trying out mocktail menus together. Small things, like serving non-alcoholic wine in a wine glass, can help the person feel more included.
Not everyone finds alcohol-free versions of traditionally alcoholic drinks a good option. They may find it triggers a craving for alcohol, or simply prefer other soft drinks. This is where communication is key.
Although it’s not meant with bad intentions, we’ve had occasions where someone will say, “Oh, just have a small one!” when offering a drink at Christmas. Comments like this can make things harder for the person. It’s important to respect their decision not to drink.
Sometimes they may struggle, and that’s OK. “It’s important to note that change is often not straightforward, and lapse or relapse occurs. This can be a learning opportunity,” says Andrew. “It might point to needing to do things differently, it might indicate that more support is required.
“It can be helpful to think about the difference between lapse and relapse. A lapse is a setback, a drinking episode. A relapse is when someone is stuck in that lapse. Reacting to a lapse in a helpful way can help the drinker to move back into moving forward.”
Looking after yourself is important, too. Setting boundaries is a key part of this. Andrew says it’s about knowing you can’t do the change for the person – you can be their compassionate coach, but you can’t play the match for them. If you’re finding things hard, reach out for support.
The Drink Aware website (drinkaware.co.uk) is a really useful resource for both the person who’s stopping drinking, and yourself. Here you can find helplines, advice, and search for support available where you live.
I’m very proud of my husband for dealing with his drinking. It’s more than eight years since he last drank alcohol, and we’ve learnt so much on the way. He tells me how he feels healthier for it, and how his mental health has benefited.
Supporting someone who has stopped drinking is a really worthwhile thing to do, for both of you.
If you know someone who could benefit from support, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.