Our society is starting to understand alcohol use disorder and its health impacts. But when I was a child, the only thing I knew about alcohol was that it was bad… and so were the people who used it.

My family are Protestant Christians who are originally from El Salvador. We all came to the United States because we were fleeing from a Civil War and wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t there. With so many dreams, difficulties, and hardships attached to life as a new immigrant in the United States, it’s important that you at least appear to live a good, stable, and happy life. 

I grew up in a family that believed in complete abstention from alcohol. There was no tolerance even for social drinkers or a celebratory toast. Now that I’m older and have met sober and non-sober people from all walks of life, I’ve realized that drinking affects everyone differently — and the stigma of drinking and substance use disorder can be especially difficult for those of us who are Latinx.

Cultural Barriers 

Numerous articles and studies discuss the cultural and economic reasons why so many Latinxs don’t seek treatment for everything from health issues, sexually transmitted infections, mental health issues, and substance use disorders (SUD). But I didn’t have a personal connection to any of this until after my uncle’s death when I first started to think a lot about the importance of compassion for people who struggle with drug or alcohol misuse.

My uncle was funny, loved to play guitar, and made friends easily. He taught me to love tacos and appreciate my local L.A. neighborhood after my mother and I moved to the country. But even as a child, I sensed there was a problem and I noticed that some of my relatives looked down on him for it.

He eventually made bad decisions because of his alcohol misuse but I’m old enough today to know that when you truly love someone, there’s always something that can be done. 

There are cultural and economic reasons why so many Latinxs don’t seek treatment for everything from health issues, sexually transmitted infections, mental health issues, and substance use disorders.

Do you ever walk into a room with people and just know they were just talking about you in a negative light? I remember hearing negative comments about my uncle when I was growing up. I was about 12 years old when I realized he misused alcohol — old enough to understand but too young to advise him of what to do. My mother explained that she tried to talk to him about his problems with drinking, and he occasionally came to us explaining that he didn’t know what to do. As far as I knew, no one else tried to help.

And Then He Quit

My uncle eventually stopped drinking after his health began to fail. He eventually reconnected with his faith in the last years of his life. The last few times I saw him was in 2010. He seemed to be getting by, but he also tried not to trouble the family with excess information about the state of his health.

I think often about how, eventually, I picked up my relatives’ biases about alcohol and drug misuse as well, but I was one of the lucky ones.

By the time I started challenging these notions, my uncle had stopped drinking completely. Unfortunately, sobriety didn’t mean his problems went away. He passed away in 2017 after he had been evicted from his apartment. His health made it hard to hold down a steady job, which meant that he lived on a fixed income and was eventually was unable to pay rent.

What I Learned Later

My uncle was thankfully never a violent drunk, and it’s definitely important to consider your personal safety if your loved one becomes aggressive or abusive under the influence. But in an effort to learn more after my uncle passed, I explored what loved ones can do to help those in our lives who suffer from SUD.

You can start devising a plan for yourself by recognizing the signs that someone might need help. Common things to look out for include:

  • Missing school, work, or personal appointments because of their alcohol use.
  • Drinking more than they plan to.
  • Difficulty cutting how much they drink.
  • Negative changes in personal and professional relationships because of alcohol use.

It’s also important to watch out for potentially risky behavior, such as driving under the influence, blackouts or overdose. Get medical help if you notice changes such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Depressed breathing
  • Seizures

Healthline recommends the following steps for people who identify that a loved one is having issues with alcohol:

  • Learn about alcohol use disorder. Government websites provide free information, and there are support groups that can help you find common ground with others who are going through the same thing.
  • Let the person know you are there for them. Try to use “I” statements to minimize the chances of coming across as accusatory, and prepare yourself for the possibility that things might not go the way you want them to.
  • Choose a quiet place to have the conversation, and make sure your loved one is not under the influence.
  • Don’t take their response personally. Admitting to a problem is the hardest part, and you should be prepared for a negative reply, or for denial of a problem.
  • Let your loved one know you have their back, but gently mention that they should talk to a qualified individual who can help them.
  • Plan an intervention. If the problem is serious, you’ll need to enlist support from friends, family, and other trusted individuals. 

But the biggest lesson came from my own experience with how my family handled my uncle’s SUD. Studies show that gossip can become a form of human bonding but judging a loved one who faces substance use disorder is no substitute for a loving intervention or a more structured plan to help them. I was a child when my uncle was dealing with alcohol misuse, and I know now that this wasn’t my fault, but I also learned a valuable lesson about what not to do. 

There’s nothing I can do for my uncle now but I hope that sharing this story can be of assistance to people who want to exchange their judgment for the possibility of real results. Remember: If you or a loved one are struggling with SUD, you can reach out to your doctor, therapist, or other health professional. You can also seek support from a sober community or local Al-Anon meeting.