Brief Guide to Alcohol Addiction
All of the phrases below, and many more, have been used for decades to normalize alcohol drinking in American society. While many people can engage in social drinking from time to time, bellowing these phrases at one another while they enjoy their beverages, other people develop alcoholism as a result of alcohol use. In fact, according to an article published by the National Library of Medicine, 17.6 million Americans have alcohol-related problems. This number can seem frightening, especially considering the health problems that alcoholism can cause, but there is good news: Alcoholism is a treatable condition. The alcoholic might require encouragement to accept treatment, of course, but therapies can make a world of difference.
“It’s happy hour!”
“Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.”
“Here’s a toast to your health.”
Wine, beer and hard liquor all contain the same active ingredient: alcohol. This is considered a drug, a depressant, and it’s made through the process of fermentation. Yeast particles feed on the sugars in fruits, vegetables or grains, and the yeast excretes ethanol as a byproduct. The raw materials used account for the difference in taste between the different drinks.
When a person ingests alcohol, the drug enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. The liver considers alcohol a toxin and works hard to remove it, but until it is removed, the drinker will feel a variety of symptoms, including:
- Reduced coordination
- Slow reflexes
- Slurred speech
- Slow breathing
In most cases, the alcohol will be cleared from the system in a few hours, but its effects can be felt for months. People who drink a large amount of alcohol put their livers through an extreme workload, and they can do irreparable liver damage as a result. In addition, drinking alcohol at high levels can cause changes in the brain. According to an article published in Psychology Today, alcoholics may do significant damage to their brains with their alcohol abuse, and they may have difficulty doing basic tasks like remembering someone’s name or recalling an important phone number. The article points out, however, that these deficits in cognitive function do tend to improve when the alcoholic stops drinking.
People who consume large amounts of alcohol begin to undergo physical changes as a result. The body becomes accustomed to being sedated most, or all, of the time. If the alcoholic stops drinking abruptly, the body can go into a sort of shock and the person may develop persistent tremors. People who abuse large amounts of alcohol may feel these withdrawal symptoms between drinking sessions, and they may continue with addiction as a result, to keep those symptoms at bay.
If someone with a serious addiction to alcohol attempts to stop drinking without the help of a medically-supervised detoxification, the results can be deadly. Alcoholics can develop seizures during withdrawal periods, and these seizures can be fatal. For this reason, medical experts rarely ask alcoholic patients to stop drinking without entering a formal detoxification facility, where their withdrawal symptoms can be managed and serious side effects can be avoided.
Who Becomes Addicted?
Alcoholism can happen to anyone at any time, but some people are at higher risk than others. According to an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these risk factors could contribute to alcoholism:
- Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mood disorder or anxiety disorder
- Emotional or physical trauma
- Abuse or neglect
- Low self-esteem
- Easy access to alcohol
- Relationship issues
There is the possibility that the tendency to develop alcoholism could run in families. A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol found that alcoholics were six times more likely than the general population to have at least one parent who was an alcoholic. It could be that these people saw their parents use alcohol, became accustomed to having alcohol in the home, and developed addictions of their own due to these forces of habit. Or, it could be that these people developed alcohol problems of their own due to a genetic marker that’s related to alcohol. Some studies seem to support this theory. For example, a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that genes explained 50 percent of the vulnerabilities that contributed to addiction, including:
- Flushing skin in response to alcohol
- A low tolerance for alcohol
- Impulsive behaviors
- Psychiatric problems
One day, it may be possible to have a blood test to determine susceptibility to alcohol abuse, but for now, it might be safe to assume that if a parent has a history of alcohol abuse, the child is also at greater risk for the same disease, due to a combination of both genetics and environment.
Someone who has a drink every day may not be an alcoholic. Someone who drinks that drink as fast as possible in order to get drunk might be an alcoholic. It’s a fine line, to be sure, but there are a few signals that separate people who drink on a casual basis and people who have a major problem with alcohol. Alcoholics, in general, are driven by their addiction. The vast majority of the decisions they make, each and every day, revolve around where they can get alcohol and what they will do when they get alcohol. These are not people who can have a drink and then abstain for a day or two. They simply must have a daily drink in order to succeed.
In general, men who drink more than 15 drinks per week and women who drink more than 12 drinks per week are considered problem drinkers. People who have clear cases of alcoholism might drink much more than this. In so-called “binge drinking” sessions, they might take in five or more drinks in one sitting. They might consume these drinks alone, and in rapid succession yet they still might not feel drunk.
Alcoholics Anonymous provides a list of questions that can help clarify the issue. According to the organization, answering “yes” to one question indicates that there may be a problem. Answering “yes” to three or more questions indicate there is likely a serious addiction to alcohol:
- Have you tried to stop quitting, but found that you couldn’t?
- Do you wish that people would stop talking to you about your drinking?
- Have you tried switching from one form of alcohol to another, hoping that you won’t get drunk on the new beverage?
- Do you need an alcoholic drink first thing in the morning?
- Do you resent people who can have one drink and stop?
- Has your drinking caused problems at work or at home?
- Do you try to get extra drinks at parties?
- Do you get drunk when you’re not trying to?
- Have you missed work because of your drinking?
- Do you have blackouts?
- Do you think you’d be better off if you didn’t drink alcohol?
Answering these questions for another person can be hard, as the person might go to great lengths to keep the problem hidden. In fact, family members may have no idea that the alcoholism is occurring until the person is arrested for driving under the influence or belligerence in a public place. But, if you or someone you know does have several “yes” answers to these survey questions, it’s time to take action. Your family member needs real help, and we can provide it at Alta Mira. Our counselors can develop a program to help the person live without alcohol for a lifetime. Please call us today and find out more about how we can help.
Living With Alcoholism
While family members may be able to spot a drinking problem in the people they love, the alcoholic may not be able to come to the same realization. It’s important to remember that the alcoholic is in the grips of a brain disease, and it can be difficult for him or her to see beyond that disease and realize that recovery is both possible and necessary. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that family members follow these steps if the alcoholic refuses to enter a top treatment program:
- Stop covering up. Families who make excuses for the alcoholic’s drinking only make it easier for the alcoholic to continue the pattern.
- Have a talk with the alcoholic when he or she is sober, explaining why treatment is important.
- Research alcohol treatment programs in the area, and share that information with the alcoholic.
- Ask the alcoholic’s friends to have these same conversations at different times.
- Get support. Joining a support group for family members of alcoholics, such as Al-Anon, can help families deal with the stress of living with alcoholism.
Some families choose a different route and they hire a professional to stage interventions for the alcoholic. Here, the families surprise the alcoholic or addict with a group conversation in which they outline the addiction, the treatment options available, and the consequences that will befall the addict if he or she doesn’t get treatment. This can be a difficult conversation to have, and usually, families hire trained specialists to help them hold the talks in a constructive manner. These intervention specialists can be a great help for families struggling with an alcoholic in denial.
About Drew Paxton