There it is. The "A" word. You knew we'd get to it sooner or later. Of course, we had to. This web site is about alcohol, and you can't have any kind of serious discussion of that subject without taking an honest look at its most insidious consequence, alcoholism.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is easy to define: it's a chronic, progressive disease that causes a person to lose control over his or her drinking. If you're an alcoholic, you may be aware of the negative effects drinking is having on your life, but you're still unable to stop. The alcoholic can't control how much alcohol is consumed or how often. If left untreated, alcoholism's effects on the body can shorten one's life span by as many as 12 to 15 years.
What's the Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism?
When drinking begins to interfere with any aspect of a person's life - social, emotional, professional, financial, legal, or physical - it's considered alcohol abuse. When drinking becomes addictive, either psychologically or physically, it's considered alcoholism. Alcohol abuse, if left untreated, can progress into alcoholism.
Some Common Misconceptions about Alcoholism
- Myth #1. Only people who are morally weak or have emotional problems can become alcoholics.
Fact: Studies show there are no particular abnormal personality traits that cause alcoholism to occur. In most cases, emotional problems are the result of alcoholism rather than the cause. What's important is how much and how often someone drinks, not what kind of person they are.
- Myth #2. Alcoholics do it to themselves. Nobody forces them to drink. They could stop if they wanted to.
Fact: Different people respond to alcohol in different ways. Again, we can choose how much and how often we drink, but we can't choose how our bodies will react to the alcohol. Some individuals can drink more than most people and never become alcoholic. Others, with a higher level of biological risk, can become addicted much more easily, even though they consume less alcohol, less often.
- Myth #3. Alcoholism is in your genes; if you're not born alcoholic, you'll never become alcoholic.
Fact: Research with identical twins indicates that alcoholism is not genetically controlled - as is, for example, eye color. (Identical twins always have the same eye color; however, when one identical twin had alcoholism the other twin had it only 50% of the time. If alcoholism were genetically controlled, the ratio, as with eye color, would be 100%.) On the other hand, the research does reveal that people have different levels of biological risk, or trigger levels, for alcoholism. This means that if you drink enough alcohol often enough to reach your trigger level, you run the risk of developing alcoholism.
Who Can Become an Alcoholic?
Anyone can develop alcoholism. There is no single characteristic shared by everyone who abuses alcohol. An alcoholic can be any age, profession, ethnic group or social class.
What Are Some Signs of Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol abuse can appear in several patterns. The four most common are:
- Regular daily drinking of large amounts of alcohol
- Heavy social drinking
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol at certain times, such as weekends
- Long periods of not drinking followed by periods of heavy drinking lasting days, weeks or months.
HOW CAN I TELL IF I'M AN ALCOHOL ABUSER?
If you behave in any one or more of the following ways, it could be an indication that your drinking may be progressing into alcohol abuse:
- You need alcohol to cope with strong feelings, either positive or negative
- You drive a car while under the influence of alcohol
- You gulp drinks to feel the effects more quickly
- You become angry or depressed while drinking
- You can't remember what took place while you were drinking ("blackout")
- You neglect people and events that don't involve drinking
- You use alcohol to relieve stress or sleeplessness.
What Are the Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse?
Since alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, it decreases one's judgment, control over impulses, and coordination. This makes drinkers more likely to be involved in arguments, violence, and auto accidents. In fact, alcohol is involved in half of all traffic deaths and one-third of traffic injuries, suicides, and crimes. Roughly 200,000 deaths each year are related to alcohol use. Long-term heavy drinking can also cause serious damage to the heart, liver and brain.
How is Alcoholism Treated?
Alcoholism can be treated very effectively, particularly when treatment is sought early. Although there is no known cure, many alcoholics can return to fully productive lives through complete abstinence from alcohol and other addictive drugs. More than 1.5 million Americans are currently in recovery.
Among the most effective ways to treat alcoholism are self-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Rational Recovery Systems, and Women for Sobriety. Other treatment options include education and counseling services for individuals, groups, and families.