More than 1.5 million people received treatment for alcoholism in 2014. What does that mean for you? You’re not alone. Read on to learn more about alcohol use disorder and how you can free yourself from the chains of your addiction with help from our seven treatment centers across the United States.
When a person is dependent on alcohol to relax or enjoy life, there’s a problem. There are many layers to alcohol dependence, including alcohol abuse and alcoholism, now called alcohol use disorder.
Problem drinking carries with it several indicators, including being unable to control how much you drink, experiencing blackouts where you can’t remember events from a certain time period, building up a tolerance that causes you to drink more in order to get drunk, being unable to quit drinking, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms —nausea, headaches, sweating, anxiety — when you don’t drink for a period of time.
Alcohol use disorder occurs when these indicators become long-term, chronic issues. Because other factors, such as life situation and genetics, determine whether a person will become an alcoholic, doctors and researchers have identified a well-defined course of the disease, from early to late stage. This means there’s hope.
Treatment programs have been developed to provide the tools you need to deal with your alcohol addiction in healthy and constructive ways that can follow you through the rest of your life.
For those struggling with addiction to the world’s most popular mood-altering substance, alcohol, the journey through the peaks and valleys of addiction and recovery can seem lonely.
The great news: You’re not alone.
According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a quarter of adults aged 18 and up say they have engaged in binge drinking (imbibing more than 5 alcoholic beverages at a single event in a day), including 10.6 million men and 5.7 million women. And of the 50 United States, 17 have a prevalence of binge drinking above 18.2%, including:
Of the 17.6 million alcoholics in the United States (that’s one in every 12 adults), more than 1.5 million sought treatment for an alcohol use disorder through a structured rehabilitation program in 2014. There are millions of people just like you who felt helpless and hopeless when confronted with the realities of this disease. These people now live happy, productive lives with the help of doctors, therapists and supportive families and friends.
Doctors and researchers at the National Institutes of Health have identified five subtypes of alcoholics. These subtypes allow clinicians better understand the type of treatment to offer their clients and can help them and their families discover the tools that will be most effective in fighting the disease.
Young Adult Subtype (32% of U.S. alcoholics): These alcoholics, who start drinking in their teen years, generally become alcoholics by age 20. They rarely seek treatment for their drinking problem. They tend to drink less frequently but consume more when they do drink.
Young Antisocial Subtype (21% of U.S. alcoholics): Often, these young people turn to alcohol early on as self-medication for depression, social anxiety or bipolar disorder. About half of them have the concurrent diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. They’re also more likely to smoke marijuana or cigarettes and to have used cocaine or opioids.
Functional Subtype (19.5% of U.S. alcoholics): Those dependent on alcohol who also have a well-paying job, a home, a family and other responsibilities are called high-functioning or functional alcoholics. About one-third of this population have a multigenerational history of alcoholism, one-third also have co-occurring depressive disorders, and half of them also smoke cigarettes.
Intermediate Familial Subtype (19% of U.S. alcoholics): Usually middle-aged and with a co-occurring depressive or anxiety disorder, this subtype generally also has a family history of alcoholism. Nearly one in five of these people has also had cocaine or opioid problems in the past. Only one-quarter have sought treatment for their drinking problems.
Chronic Severe Subtype (9% of U.S. alcoholics): Those who start drinking early in life and continue to have drinking problems throughout middle age, with high rates of antisocial personality disorder and criminal records, including DUI, make up the chronic severe subtype. This group also has the highest rates of concurrent opioid, cocaine, marijuana and smoking dependence. Two-thirds of chronic severe alcoholics seek treatment for their disease.
Just as there is no one-size-fits all treatment for alcoholism, there is also no blanket reason why individuals become alcoholics. Alcoholism is not a sign of weakness, nor is the inability to curb alcohol consumption indicative of a lack of willpower. Alcohol use disorder is a disease, and its causes are as varied as the bottles on the liquor shelf — from genetic factors to environmental variables.
While no “addiction gene” has been discovered by modern science, there is little dispute in the medical community that some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, genetically and biologically.
Researchers have identified numerous genes in twins that can affect a person’s risk of developing a dependence on or addiction to alcohol and drugs. These genes include those that affect our sense of pleasure and reward, behavioral control, resilience and response to stress.
Genes alone do not play a part in whether or not someone will be an addict. Environmental factors, such as stress level and support system, play a major part as well.
Children who grow up with alcoholic parents are four times more likely to become alcoholics. They also have a higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems.
However, there is no rule that says that children of alcoholic parents will become addicted to alcohol themselves. Many familial factors that can affect a person’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic come into play, including:
Beyond familial connections to drinking, other environmental factors determine the development of an alcohol use disorder. These include stress levels, social and cultural environment, and support systems.
Biological triggers somewhat control how we respond to stress as individuals. Either we are able to deal with stress levels in healthy ways or we find self-destructive ways to separate ourselves from a situation involving stress.
Alcohol is one of those ways by which people find relief or escape from stressful situations. Often, dissatisfaction with life can be a trigger for alcoholism. People sometimes use alcohol to escape and cope with the disappointment of not achieving their goals. Relatedly, individuals who find themselves in very high-stress, demanding familial or professional situations can also find a release of pressure in alcohol’s calming effects.
There’s no denying the power of alcohol to lower inhibitions and make socializing — especially for natural introverts or those with anxiety — easier. It becomes destructive when the person’s dependence on alcohol is the only way they are able to socialize naturally.
If a person’s social circle gravitates toward bars and clubs where alcohol is present, alcohol becomes a part of that person’s life as much as his or her friends are. Socializing with those who binge drink or drink heavily can increase the likelihood that a person might become addicted to alcohol. From there, social drinking may lead to deeper, more chronic forms of alcohol abuse.
Exposure to alcohol abuse and encouragement to partake in alcoholic habits will depend largely on a person’s cultural background as well. Some cultures glamorize and normalize heavy drinking, while others forbid consumption of alcohol as a cultural and religious tenet.
Wondering whether you or a loved one might have a problem with alcohol? Here are some of the warning signs:
When a patient is diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, often there is an underlying mental health disorder as well, such as anxiety or depression. This is also called dual diagnosis. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, tobacco dependence and schizophrenia are some of the most common co-occurring disorders in alcoholics.
Of the 23 million Americans struggling with an addiction, more than half of them, nearly 14 million people, also suffer from some form of mental illness. A co-occurring disorder could either be the root cause of or could have led to the addiction to alcohol.
Specially designed programs are necessary to successfully treat individuals who have an addiction or dependency in conjunction with a co-occurring mental health disorder.
Some of the consequences of alcohol use disorder are immediate, while others take some time to surface. There are both long-term and short-term effects of alcoholism, and those consequences aren’t always immediately apparent to the individual. Whether or not the penalties of addiction are enough to elicit a change from a person, medical and psychological treatment can help mitigate the effects of alcohol use disorder.
Individuals who are dependent on or addicted to alcohol can experience both short- and long-term mental, emotional and psychological effects of heavy alcohol use. In some cases, psychological problems like dementia, delirium and hallucinations can be brought about by continued, heavy use of alcohol. Alcoholics also have an increased risk of suicide, depression and anxiety.
While brain shrinkage is normal at the rate of about 1.9 percent every 10 years, chronic alcohol abuse speeds the shrinkage of certain areas of the brain, which can result in memory loss and other dementia symptoms.
Drinking excessively can also increase the natural symptoms of anxiety, and can induce panic attacks because of alcohol’s ability to wreak havoc on the body’s physical and mental processing function. As drinking increases, individuals may feel additional anxiety about their drinking as well, such as where their next drink will come from, if there will be enough alcohol and how their drinking is affecting their families, their work or their lives.
Of all the organs that alcohol affects, the liver is the one that takes the biggest beating. Because the liver is the organ that filters the body’s blood to remove toxins, including alcohol, the harder the liver has to work, the more likely that problems will occur.
Typical alcohol-related liver problems might include cirrhosis, liver disease and liver cancer. In 2013, of the more than 72,000 deaths related to liver disease, 45.8 percent involved alcohol. Among deaths in 2011 from cirrhosis, 48 percent were alcohol related.
Drinking alcohol also increases the risk of certain types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast. Other physical maladies, such as arthritis, heart disease, unhealthy fluctuations of blood sugar levels, kidney disease, obesity, malnutrition and nervous disorders, can also be increased as a result of heavy alcohol consumption and dependency.
Perhaps one of the most immediately apparent physical consequences of alcoholism is the effect on the brain. Alcohol causes both short and long-term brain damage by destroying the communications pathways that affect how we move, speak and process thoughts. This damage can cause changes in mood and behavior, making it more difficult to think clearly and coordinate movement.
Many alcoholics believe that their drinking affects only them or that they’re doing harm only to themselves. Research in the areas of addiction science, sociology and social psychology says otherwise.
According to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, individuals with a history of alcohol abuse are more prone to decreased productivity in the workplace, aggression and violence against others.
Another consequence of alcoholism is withdrawal and disengagement from social situations. This can affect the entire family, such as when a child of a parent who is abusing alcohol no longer receives invitations to their friends’ homes or when fewer people stop by for a visit because of the threat of an unpleasant interaction. There is also emotional disengagement, which is when the family as a whole experiences negative emotions as a reaction to the alcoholism. These might include: anxiety, despair and powerlessness.
In many cases, complete disconnection from social environments, either through loss of job or through divorce, can occur. Among couples in which one spouse drank heavily — six or more drinks or drinking until intoxicated — marriages ended in divorce 50 percent of the time, according to a study conducted by SUNY-Buffalo, compared with a 30 percent divorce rate among couples in which neither spouse drank.
If you feel hopeless, powerless and out of control with your alcohol addiction or dependence, get help now. There are many resources specially designed to help you free yourself from your addiction. Recognizing that you have a problem and that you cannot help yourself because addiction has altered your sense of self-control is the first and best step you can take toward living a better life.
Of the 24 million people living with addiction, only 10 percent seek treatment at a structured rehab facility. However, the multidisciplinary approach and continuum of care offered at these rehab centers means you’ll find your best chances for recovery there.
Once in rehab, you’ll find doctors, nurses, therapists and other clinicians who will help you root out the cause of your addiction and find healthy coping mechanisms that will allow you to eventually return to day-to-day life. According to the NIH, almost one-quarter of all rehab admissions are for alcohol abuse, so you won’t be alone in your journey.
During and after a rehabilitation program, individuals might find themselves grappling with some psychological and physical issues that emerged as the underlying cause of their addiction. It is more important now than ever for family members to provide as much support as possible. Positive attitudes and reinforcement encourage a family member in recovery to overcome any obstacles in communication, self-image or self-esteem they may uncover during their treatment. Adjustment can be tough sometimes, but it is more than possible when there’s a solid support system in place.
You’ll face a lot of challenges during your time in rehab, but one of the best tests of your newfound self-confidence outside of addiction is your return home. With the help of a positive support system, family and friends who have your best interests at heart and an environment that fosters success in sobriety, you’ll be well on your way to maintaining the new start you’ve made.
There are also structured programs that can help you outside of the inpatient rehab. These intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) can keep you in the care of doctors, nurses and therapists even while you’re readjusting to life at home.
If your living situation isn’t the kind of place where the new, sober you can thrive, consider a transition into sober housing, where you’ll be surrounded by other recovering patients. There, you’ll participate in sober activities and discover new hobbies outside of your addiction. By supporting each other throughout your sobriety, you’ll find a support system you can count on when you need it most.
There are many organizations and programs designed specifically to inform and support those struggling with addiction. Here are some you might find helpful.