What is Alcoholism and or Drug Addiction?
The old line is “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just a problem drinker.” There is humor to that statement, but at the same time sadness. Sometimes the line between alcohol abuse and alcoholism is a narrow one, but in either case, alcohol addiction a serious issue.
The narrow line defines a progression from wanting a drink to NEEDING a drink. Exactly where the line is drawn depends on the individual, but in simple terms, alcoholism (alcohol addiction) is when the person craves alcohol and has lost control over how much he/she drinks.
Alcoholism (alcohol addiction) is a chronic condition, a progressive disease that can cause a variety of serious health issues and even death. In most cases, alcoholics experience a physical dependence on alcohol. They need to drink to receive the effect the alcohol gives them.
A definition of alcohol abuse or, alcohol addiction is drinking too much. A person’s drinking may be getting in the way, they might get ticketed for DUI, they might have some troubles at work or home, but they have not necessarily lost total control over their lives. Again, it’s different for each person. It’s a matter of degree. As the condition progresses, the line becomes more evident.
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. At first it may stimulate, but as they continue to drink, they become sedated. The more sedation, the more risk for complications such as heart failure, respiratory failure, etc. As alcohol addiction progresses, it can be life-threatening. If a person goes on a “bender,” they may be in jeopardy of falling into a coma.
Alcoholism (alcohol addiction) is a disease that “sneaks” up on its victim. If a person has another kind of disease, there is a much greater likelihood that they will admit to being sick. Those abusing alcohol, or are already in the grip of alcoholism, do not think they have a problem. That makes the possibility of them receiving treatment more difficult. If I break my arm, I’ll gladly allow a physician to treat it, but an alcoholic doesn’t have a problem. It’s your problem.
What to look for in alcohol addiction
One of the first things to look for is how many times a person wants or needs a drink. Frequency of drinking is a huge contributing factor. Perhaps they are slipping away to “sneak” a drink. They drink alone. They have a small bottle in their desk drawer, or they go into the restroom to have a drink. Another sign is their inability to control how much they drink. For the alcoholic, one drink is too many and all of Lake Michigan isn’t enough.
As drinking becomes a more important activity in their life, a person loses interest in other things, in friendships, or will even create an elaborate ritual for their drinking. Maybe it’s routine for them to hit the bar right after work, or they make a cocktail before dinner, then they continue drinking during the meal and after. If you say anything, they get angry. If they don’t have access to alcohol when they want a drink, or when their drinking ritual is set to begin, they become angry.
Forgetfulness another sign of alcohol addiction
Another sign is the person forgetting conversations, or not remembering tasks at work. You’ve probably heard of someone “blacking out” after drinking. That’s another indicator. They guzzle drinks, like an athlete taking Gatoraide on a hot day. While others in the group might order a regular mixed drink, they order a double. They drink to get drunk, because drunk is what feels “normal” to them. They want to feel good.
DUI a major cause of traffic deaths
We mentioned DUI before. I live in Wisconsin and DUI is huge here. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that nearly half of all traffic deaths in the U.S. are linked to alcohol. You can see that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are not just personal problems; they are serious public health problems. Because alcohol abusers deny they have a problem, their problem becomes everyone’s as soon as they get into the car and turn the key. In Wisconsin, where I live, tens of thousands are convicted of a DUI every year.
In addition to DUI, so many other problems arise for the heavy drinker. Alcohol abuse gets in the way of marriages, work situations, social situations. It causes financial troubles and, of course, legal troubles too.
Drinking takes over and there is no room for reason, no room for relationships and no room for any action other than what the alcoholic brain wants. It’s a cruel, unyielding destroyer of lives.
Alcohol Abuse: Must Drink MORE!
Alcoholics develop a tremendous tolerance to the effects of alcohol. Because of that, in order to experience the same effect they had before, they need to drink more. They have no control over how much they drink, because they “need” more to feel good.
Regardless of what the alcohol is doing to them physically, they continue to drink. Regardless of any personal and social consequences, they drink. They have to drink. In order to help them realize that they have choices, you first need to remove the access to alcohol.
Take away access to alcohol and the alcoholic may experience nausea, vomiting, sweating, the “shakes,” and convulsions. An alcohol abuser, who does not have the physical dependency on drinking, may or may not suffer these types of withdrawal symptoms. They do not experience the same kind of craving for alcohol and the compulsion to drink.
Line between addiction and alcohol abuse varies
Where the line is between abuse and alcoholism varies. It is crossed when, in many cases, a person needs a drink as soon as they get up in the morning.
They may be aware of their drinking and feel guilty about it, so they keep their drinking a secret. They may be aware that they need to cut back or stop altogether, but they don’t. When told they may be having a drinking problem, they get angry.
Any of these situations is a sign that a person might be abusing or already addicted.
One person can enjoy alcoholic beverages and never become addicted, while another has one drink and is already in trouble. How is this so? What causes alcohol addiction?
Alcoholism, like other forms of drug addiction, is a disease of the brain. The Mayo Clinic explains that alcoholism causes a gradual alteration in brain chemistry. For example, the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls impulsiveness, and glutamate, which stimulates the nervous system, are altered by alcohol. You can see how a person can lose control over their drinking because the brain’s reward system is changed. The brain is literally tricked into thinking it needs alcohol to function.
There is also a genetic component to alcohol addiction. If your parents abused alcohol or were alcoholics, the chances are good that you are genetically predisposed to the same condition. The child of an alcoholic is more prone to using other drugs and becoming addicted. If you look at a family history of alcoholism, you’ll probably find generations of the disease.
Low self-esteem may cause alcohol addiction
People with low self esteem or depression have a higher chance of becoming alcoholic. If they are in an environment where their friends drink, or their significant other drinks, they may be at risk for developing addiction.
The person susceptible to alcohol abuse may be impacted by the “enablers” in their life. The enablers aren’t necessarily addicted or in trouble, but the “hurting” person might be swept along and the disease progresses as a result of that action.
Anxiety and stress can play a role in the onset of alcoholism. Many may feel the need to numb their emotional pain and turn to alcohol for the solution. There is evidence that stress hormones play a part in the development of alcoholism. There is a void in the life of the alcoholic and alcohol fills that void.
There are social factors at play. Drinking alcohol is glamorized. Every sporting event has beer commercials. Drinking the right kind of vodka makes you sexy and sophisticated. People drink at parties, at ball games, at social events, and even at church festivals. Drinking is socially acceptable, but as I stated, in Wisconsin, it’s a big problem.
People tailgate at Green Bay Packer games and before Milwaukee Brewers games. They get to the parking lot and start drinking. They get into the ball park and drink more and by the second half or the sixth inning, a surprisingly large percentage are drunk. It’s all acceptable. Beer sales at Miller Park are a huge revenue source. It’s part of the culture and it’s accepted.
Generally speaking there are some numbers to consider when trying defining how much is too much.
Having more than 15 drinks a week for men, or 12 drinks a week for women, can contribute to the development of alcoholism/alcohol addiction.
But there are more risk factors involved, such as drinking at an early age. If parents allow their children under 16 to drink, those children are at greater risk of developing a problem. Men are more likely to become alcoholics than women.
When should I/they seek help?
People who are in need of help because of alcohol abuse or alcoholism are not likely going to ask for it. They are not likely going to admit that they have a problem. As a friend of family member, you are the one to take action. One of the first calls you can make is to your doctor for his/her perspective, but you may also consider calling a local drug and alcohol treatment center. We are body, mind and spirit, so another source of support would be your pastor or rabbi. Hospital chaplains are also good resources.
If a person agrees to treatment, either willingly or as a result of an intervention, it will be important for them to receive a physical examination to determine if other medical issues need to be addressed. There may be medical problems unrelated to alcohol, but often people have problems and do not reveal that alcohol is a contributing factor. If a doctor suspects that alcohol is a contributing factor, he/she will probably ask a series of questions to get a more complete picture. The doctor will do screening to determine alcohol addiction or abuse.
It’s not my problem, it’s your problem
Getting a person with an alcohol addiction into treatment is not an easy task. The person abusing alcohol or already addicted to alcohol will deny any problem, or if they do acknowledge a problem, they will minimize the concern. It might take a group effort to get a recovery plan moving in the right direction. If your doctor is your first consultant, he/she may ask the person for permission to speak to family members. Confidentiality laws prevent the doctor from having that discussion without consent. That might make matters more difficult.
Another route is an intervention. As the concerned person, you call a treatment center for consultation. They will do an assessment of the situation and are best equipped to take the appropriate action. In another section we will discuss interventions in greater detail.
In summary, the first Step of the AA 12-Step process is a good definition for having an alcohol problem or alcohol addiction. “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.” Does alcohol get in the way?
Can a person function without a drink? Do they exhibit any of the signs and symptoms we presented? If so, we encourage you to seek help. Call a drug and alcohol treatment center and help your friend of loved one, or yourself, get on the road to recovery.
Below is a description of how a person descends into drug addiction.
1. Drug/Alcohol sedates value system, which gets indifferent, confused
2. Grandiosity, perfectionism, pride
3. Intolerance of others, suspicion, disgust, argues
4. Religion getting sick, rigid, arrogant, unrealistic, disenchantment with childish idea of God
5. Loses interest in life, “Blues”
6. Guilt feelings, not “at ease” with God
7. Stops daily prayer, attends church out of habit or pretense
8. “Nobodiness” -- feels estranged, alienated, lonely
9. Immaturity, some irresponsibility
10. Life has no meaning
11. Anxiety, indefinable fears
12. Resentments: Angry with God, hostile to mention of religion, projects fear into concept of God as a tyrant
13. Moral deterioration: Dishonest, selfish
14. Loss of faith: Consciously rejects God, unconsciously longs for Him, a “sick love” relation
15. Remorse: Depression, suicidal thoughts, impaired thinking
16. Vague spiritual desires
17. Gropes for spiritual meaning
This is a list of how a person can ASCEND into drug addiction recovery and/or recovery from alcoholism.
1. In spiritual fog
2. Honest desire for help
3. Vague notion of Higher Power
4. New faith: “Came to believe”
5. Hope dawns: Can be restored to sanity
6. Thirst for God examined (hard struggle for some)
7. Second BOTTOM: Existential crisis
8. Acceptance (surrender, turnabout)
9. Conversion: “Let go and let God”
10. Trust: “Thy will be done”
11. Appreciates possibility of new way of life
12. Patience: “One day at a time”
13. Forgiveness: Not “Why did I?” but “forgive me”
14. Reconciliation: personal relationship “at ease” with God just
15. Humbly asks God to remove shortcomings
16. False ego deflated
17. Return of self-esteem (God not a rescuer)
18. Honesty: Makes amends
19. Promptly admits when wrong
20. Courage. Optimism, new freedom
21. Rebirth of ideals
22. Appreciation of spiritual values
24. Increased tolerance of others
25. Serenity, peace of soul, joy
26. Prayer and meditation
27. Growth in proper concept of God
28. Deeper relation to God as a loving God
29. Unselfish: Goes to others because God loves them
30. “Weller than Well” -- higher than believed possible