When Drinking Becomes a Problem: Alcoholism

Drinking alcohol is a universally-accepted activity in most societies. In some cultures, having a glass of wine daily with dinner is considered commonplace. In North America, alcohol consumption is usually related to a celebration of some sort – for example, a wedding toast or celebratory drinks at a birthday party. But when does “normal” drinking turn into “problem” drinking? Since alcohol is a drug that society has (for the most part) approved for widespread consumption, alcoholism can be more difficult than other drug addictions to identify. Many people with alcohol addictions deem their behavior as normal, as they are not breaking any laws by drinking. Some alcoholics even downplay their addiction by comparing their drinking habits to the use of other drugs by saying things like “alcohol isn’t a real drug anyway”. This is completely untrue. Alcohol is a drug because it affects the body and the brain’s functioning. It alters your physical state as well as your mental state, and compromises your ability to engage in certain activities such as driving a car or even walking in a straight line. If you think that you may have an addiction to alcohol, please give my San Diego counseling office a call at 858-481-0425. I offer a wide variety of addiction counseling services and have treated many people with alcohol addictions.

From “Social Drinking” to “Problem Drinking”:
As previously stated, alcohol problems can be difficult to detect, since alcohol is such a large part of our society and culture. Many people go through their lives just fine, only consuming alcohol on special occasions such as birthdays and weddings. These people are considered “social drinkers”, as they usually partake in drinking only during social events or parties. There are other people who drink everyday without crossing the barrier to becoming an alcoholic. These people may enjoy just one glass of wine or one beer with dinner in the evening. Sometimes this is customary behavior, depending on the individual’s cultural background, but other times it is just a mere routine. So when does drinking go from acceptable to unacceptable? In other words, when does a person’s drinking become problematic and a cause for concern? Perhaps the following will help you to decipher acceptable drinking behavior from problem drinking behavior.

A person with a drinking problem may:

  • Feel as though he/she needs to drink in order to relax or unwind
  • Feel guilty about his/her drinking habits and may attempt to conceal their drinking behavior
  • Lie to others when asked about their drinking habits (i.e. how much, how often, etc.)
  • Drink more alcohol than they originally intended to (i.e. saying they’ll just have one and instead they’ll have six)
  • Experience “black-outs” where they forget what happened during  periods of time while they were drinking/drunk

Another clear way to tell if you have a drinking problem is to examine your life and the effects that alcohol is having on it. For instance, is your drinking causing concern from your close friends and family members? Have people commented on your drinking behavior before? Have you missed work or school because of your drinking? The bottom line is: if drinking is causing disruptions or problems in your life, then your drinking is a problem.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Dependence:

This is kind of a grey area in addictions counseling, because abusing a drug of any kind can lead to an increased tolerance to that substance, which in turn may lead to a dependency (both physical and psychological) on that substance. In this section, I will attempt to distinguish between alcohol abuse and an alcohol addiction/dependence. Keep in mind that there is a fine line between abusing a substance becoming dependent on it to function. Abusing a drug can very quickly turn into being addicted to that drug.

Alcohol Abuse:

A person who abuses alcohol uses the drug for the wrong reasons. By this I mean that he/she may use alcohol alone, or in stressful situations as a form of self-medicating. Unlike the individual who has a few drinks at a wedding reception or a birthday bash, an alcohol abuser often binge drinks (consumes a large quantity of alcohol in a relatively short period of time). A person who is abusing alcohol may have some control over their use of this drug, and may have the ability to limit themselves (whereas a full-fledged alcoholic does not have this control). Don’t be fooled though – abusing a substance of any kind is dangerous and can still adversely affect an individual’s life.

Some signs of alcohol abuse are:

  • Using alcohol as a means to relax or unwind from a stressful day (also known as self-soothing or self-medicating)
  • Getting in trouble with the law for alcohol-related charges (i.e. drink driving or drinking in public)
  • Using alcohol dangerously (i.e. mixing alcohol with other drugs to produce a stronger effect, or operating a vehicle or heavy machinery after drinking alcohol)
  • Neglecting your health, appearance, and personal responsibilities (i.e. feeling sluggish and lethargic a lot of the time, looking disheveled an unkempt, or performing poorly on the job)
  • Continuing to drink despite being asked not to (i.e. perhaps a loved one has shown concern about your drinking habits and asked you to stop, but you haven’t stopped or done anything to change this behavior)

Alcohol Dependence/Addiction:
Similar to alcohol abuse, an addiction to alcohol involved all of the aforementioned signs as well as a physical tolerance to the substance itself. Tolerance means that the individual must consume more of the drug in order to achieve the same desired effect (i.e. feeling drunk), because the body has built up a tolerance to the substance due to the frequent consumption of it. Even non-alcoholics may notice they have built up a tolerance if, for example, they went on a vacation for a week where they were drinking alcohol daily. These people (who generally do not drink very often at home) may find that by day 7 of their vacation, their tolerance to alcohol is higher compared to what it was on day 1 of their vacation. A person who suffers from alcoholism feels the need to drink alcohol daily, and relies on the consumption of alcohol in order to get through the day. Another sign that you have a serious alcohol addiction is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cease drinking. Withdrawal symptoms can include feeling anxious or shaky, sweating, feeling nauseated and/or vomiting, experiencing insomnia, feeling irritable or depressed, and experiencing lots of headaches. Typically, an alcoholic has lost all control over his/her drinking habits. They are drinking daily, and sometimes even multiple times per day, in large quantities. An alcoholic may want to stop drinking, but because of the physical dependency and tolerance that their body has built up, they physically require it in order to function. This becomes a vicious cycle because the alcoholic then begins to drink to avoid the pain and unpleasantness of withdrawal. Another common sign of an alcohol problem is when the user has literally given up on all other aspects of his/her life. Alcohol consumes their thoughts when they’re not drinking and up until the point when they are able to have another drink again. At this point, loved ones are noticing and expressing concern, but the alcoholic feels unable to control the behavior, even if he/she wants to.

Recovering from Alcoholism:

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As with all other types of addictions, recovery is not an easy road. It may be filled with ups and downs, including withdrawal symptoms and even minor relapses. But you should know that total recovery from an alcohol addictionis possible. It often takes the aid of a trained professional or an addictions counselor to help the sufferer through the recovery process. Alcoholism doesn’t just affect the alcoholic – the friends and family members of the sufferer also struggle. Alcohol can tear relationships and families apart if the addiction is not caught early enough and treated accordingly. The effects of alcohol abuse and dependence can include health complications, organ damage, emotional problems, financial issues, and relationship and familial troubles.  Remember that admitting you have a problem and taking that ownership is the first step toward total recovery. Having a problem is nothing to be ashamed of, especially if you’re making a conscious effort to change your behavior. Millions of individuals each year struggle with alcohol addictions, and many are able to recover fully with the help of an addictions counselor. Give me a call today at 858-481-0425 for a consultation so that I can better understand your specific situation and needs. Together, we can help you get your life back and live a happy and fulfilling alcohol-free life.

Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved. http://sandiegotherapistcounselor.com/when-drinking-becomes-a-problem-alcoholism.html

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