By Ben Kaneaiakala, C.E.O. and Founder, Phoenix Rising Behavioral Healthcare
No one sets out to become an alcoholic. No one graduates from high school and, when asked about his or her goals, gleefully states, “I am gonna become the best alcoholic ever.” Nope, alcoholism is nothing anyone in their right mind would ever choose. It is a chronic, relapsing disease with a devastating trajectory if left unchecked or untreated.
It may be difficult for many to understand alcohol addiction. Our culture is steeped in alcohol as the centerpiece of our celebrations and traditions. Most people manage to imbibe recreationally without incident, so to them they are mystified about the potent ramifications that alcohol abuse and addiction can cause in someone’s life.
In fact, alcohol use disorder is pervasive, affecting over 15 million adults in the U.S., according to statistics provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Each year about 88,000 Americans lose their lives to alcohol-related deaths, and a third of fatal automobile accidents involve alcohol.
Unfortunately, too many people who have developed a problem with alcohol do not get the help they need. The NIAAA states that only a small percentage, about 6.7%, of those who need treatment for alcohol use disorder actually get treatment, allowing the problem to escalate and consequences to compound.
What Causes Alcoholism?
The cause of alcoholism is still not fully identified. Why does one person become addicted to it while another, consuming alcohol at the same levels and frequency, does not remains a mystery. There are some factors that have been identified, including:
- Individuals with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to have inherited the gene themselves.
- People from households where alcohol consumption is prevalent have a greater chance of emulating this behavior.
- Early exposure. Having the first alcoholic drink before age 15 can increase the likelihood of later having a drinking problem by five times.
- Mental health disorders. Individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder often lean on alcohol as a means of self-medicating the symptoms.
- Life events. Those who have experienced trauma, have a history of abuse or neglect, or have suffered many losses may be more likely to turn to alcohol.
Related reading: How To Detox Your Liver After Too Much Alcohol
Regardless of the cause or causes that underlie the disease of alcoholism, it develops due to increased tolerance. The body will begin to tolerate the effects of the alcohol, and adapt to it. Early on, the brain’s reward system remembers that alcohol has a pleasant effect, such as loss of inhibition, increased confidence, and a relaxed state. That dopamine hit motivates the brain to relive the experience, as alcohol equals pleasant effects.
However, the body begins to demand increased consumption to be able to experience the same buzz as originally felt, so the individual drinks more and more to continue to enjoy those early effects. Over time, heavy exposure to alcohol alters brain chemistry, and eventually drinking no longer offers the buzz. In fact, the body has now adapted to the consistent alcohol consumption and now demands it. If the individual attempts to cut back or stop drinking, the body rebels, initiating highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. This keeps the person trapped in a cycle, just to avoid feeling sick.
Related reading: 10 Reasons You Should Give Up Alcohol For Good
What Are The Signs of Alcoholism?
Alcohol dependency or addiction sneaks up on the person. What may have begun as a casual use of the substance, such as a beer or two after work, can, in certain individuals lead to a serious alcohol problem over time. The signs of alcohol addiction include:
- Memory lapses or blackouts
- Drinking more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effects
- Beginning to obsess over drinking, how to get alcohol, looking forward to drinking
- Lying to loved ones about how much one drinks
- Looking for any reason to engage in drinking
- Losing control of consumption, not able to stop once one begins drinking
- Alcohol-related sickness, waking up sick, vomiting
- Hand tremors in the morning
- Attempt to cut back or stop drinking but cannot
- Withdrawal symptoms commence when alcohol is withheld
What are the Consequences of Alcoholism?
Alcohol addiction can have profound consequences in someone’s life. Alcoholism impacts physical health, mental health, and relationships. Left untreated, alcoholism is a fatal disease.
Some of the consequences of alcohol addiction include:
- Loss of a job, financial hardship
- Disruption in relationships, break-ups, divorce
- Ill health due to lowered immune system
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Cognitive issues, unable to concentrate or think clearly
- Co-occurring mood disorders, such as depression, can develop due to the negative effects of alcohol abuse
- Legal problems, DUI
- Serious or fatal traffic accidents
- Liver damage
- Increased risk of some cancers
- Heart disease
- Mental instability, abusive or violent behaviors
- Suicide attempts
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Even with mounting consequences, too many people in need of help for an alcohol use disorder don’t seek it. Some may still be in denial about the severity of their drinking problem, some may worry about the stigma associated with going to rehab, some may assume treatment is too costly, some may assume rehab always means months spent in an inpatient program and can’t leave work, and some may think it makes them appear weak if they need treatment. Every one of these excuses not to get help can be rebutted with the simple but hard truth that untreated alcohol addiction is always deadly. Instead of leaning on false assumptions or prideful concerns, it is always prudent to get professional help to overcome alcoholism.
For individuals with a long history of heavy alcohol consumption and chemical dependency, an inpatient rehab program is the appropriate level of care. In an inpatient setting these individuals will receive 24-hour support, oversight, and treatment interventions. However, for people with mild to moderate alcohol use disorder, an intensive outpatient program (IOP) is a sound option.
The IOP provides ongoing outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction for individuals who need to continue to work at their jobs or as caregivers for the family. An IOP offers the ability to reside at home or in a sober living setting, as well as providing flexibility in scheduling. The IOP provides individual and group therapy, addiction education and relapse prevention planning, 12-step recovery group participation, essential oils for addiction, family therapy, and adjunctive therapies and activities.
Do not wait until an alcohol use disorder gains serious traction in your life. Seek out professional help to overcome the addictive behaviors and disordered thought patterns that drive alcohol addiction, and get your life back.
About the Author
Benjamin Kaneaiakala has been working in the alcohol and drug addiction industry for over 27 years. He has been mentored to learn and work most positions in the industry. Grateful for the guidance throughout his career, Benjamin owns and operates a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in California. Phoenix Rising Behavioral Health Care Services which offers addiction programs for alcoholism, heroin addiction, opiate addiction, prescription drug addiction services and most other addictive substances. The programs serve men and women suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, and dual diagnosis. Benjamin believes the good is the enemy of the better, and looks to help those struggling rise from their past to a new and brighter future.