Alcoholism is a unique problem in, drinking is a social activity. It's easy to get your hands on alcohol, and so many of us receive the messaging that drinking is a requirement for having fun with others. We invite our friends to bars, kick off first dates with a cocktail, and buy beer on our way to a barbecue.

What's more is, most of us can go to the market and get alcohol for ourselves. There's no need to involve a dealer or worry about the legalities of the whole transaction. Even young adults and teens who are not yet of age can easily find someone to purchase alcohol for them.

So, with that in mind, it's important to understand that alcoholism and alcohol use disorder are both extremely common. Here is a little more about drinking problems and how to know what you should be looking out for.

Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

An addiction to alcohol is a bit hard to pin down. Addiction isn't necessarily the same as drinking too much or binging when you're at a party. These days, problem drinking (but not necessarily addiction) is now referred to by "alcohol use disorder." Alcoholism, by contrast, is a situation where someone has become both psychologically and physically dependent on consuming alcohol.

In any case, the two terms are closely linked. And if you or someone you know cannot stop or cut back on their drinking, there's likely an addiction at play.

The American Medical Association, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration classify alcoholism as a progressive disorder. Meaning, it gets worse over time, without intervention.

While it's a chronic disease, the nature of alcoholism and alcohol use disorder are often debated, as compulsive drinking is technically a self-inflicted behavior. However, it fits all the criteria of the disease model of being chronic. There is a significant risk of relapse, physical symptoms, and a path toward recovery.

Alcoholism, over time, leads to high tolerances to drinking, and one must drink increasingly larger amounts to get drunk. The second part of the dependency is, withdrawal symptoms emerge when a person doesn't have the right amount of alcohol in their system. Withdrawal symptoms vary considerably, ranging from minor ailments to significant and life-threatening issues.

Some of the more minor symptoms include:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Migraines / Headaches

At the more severe end of the spectrum, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Elevated blood pressure

How Do You Know if Someone Has a Drinking Problem?

For most people, moderate drinking is relatively harmless. That said, not everyone understands the difference between moderate and "too much." Moderate, from a clinical standpoint, means consuming fewer than two drinks per day for men, and just one for women and elderly adults.

And, as a quick refresher, a "drink" refers to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits--all are equivalent to .05 ounces of alcohol.

While moderate drinking lies on one end of the spectrum, it can slide into abuse. Here are some signs that alcohol abuse is interfering with one's life.

  • It's affecting your obligations--people who abuse alcohol may have trouble keeping up with their responsibilities like school, family, and work.
  • Additionally, drinking may be putting them in some legal hot water, like driving while drunk or repeated arrests.
  • Family problems--These individuals may have relationship issues stemming from their drinking or or have trouble being an attentive, responsible parent.
  • You can't control your consumption— technically known as alcohol dependence, this means you have lost control over how much alcohol you drink. This doesn't necessarily mean that a person drinks x amount of alcohol, rather, alcohol-dependent usually are unable to stop drinking once they get started.

While very serious alcohol problems tend to get the most attention, mild and moderate alcohol problems still present their own difficulties. The condition may cause problems at work or within a marriage, and put children at risk while in the care of a parent who is drinking.

Alcohol Abuse is Widespread

The National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has found that roughly 17 million adults in the US, 18+ have alcohol use disorder, and one in 10 children live with a parent suffering from this condition.

The NIAAA also states that 1 in 12 adults is an alcoholic, and younger adults aged 18 to 29 are most likely to experience alcohol-related problems.

Finally, government survey found that 8% of adolescents (aged 12 to 17) and about 40% of 18 to 25 year-olds indulge in binge drinking. As a point of reference, binge drinking means consuming five or more drinks in one sitting at least one time during a one-month period.

What Causes Alcoholism?

The root cause of alcoholism, unfortunately, remains something of an unknown. Alcoholism develops when you drink so often that chemical changes in your brain start to take place. Once that brain chemistry changes, the body can no longer produce the neurotransmitters like dopamine that make us, well, feel good. Instead, when alcoholics aren't drinking, they may experience negative feelings like stress, sadness, or physical ailments.

Things that factor into whether or not someone will develop an alcohol problem fall into both nature and nurture categories.

Effective Ways to Help

If you’ve noticed your family member or friend is abusing alcohol, you don’t have to stand around waiting for the worst to happen. Instead, there are some ways you can help them get the help they need.

For starters, try your best to broach the subject in a non-judgmental way:

  • Express concern and caring
  • Don’t expect someone to stop drinking
  • Understand that recovery is an ongoing process
  • Don’t blame yourself

Take Care of Yourself

It’s hard to witness someone you love throw their life away, but you need to protect yourself first. In some cases, a loved one’s drinking problem can put you and your family at risk. Stay away from dangerous situations and look for backup if you need assistance.

Even if your loved one is non-violent, their problem can take an emotional toll. Consider joining a support group like Al-Anon. This is a spin-off of Alcoholics Anonymous geared toward helping family and friends of alcoholics. You’re not alone and sometimes, it can be comforting to talk with others in a similar situation.

Things to Avoid

Now, here’s the part where we tell you all the “don’ts”. Loving an alcoholic is hard, and what’s harder is knowing how you can be supportive. It’s tempting to be an enabler because you want to avoid conflict, as is going the

  • Don’t preach
  • Don’t cover for them
  • Don’t take it personally
  • Don’t try to control their problem
  • Don’t avoid getting them help
  • Don’t think it’s up to you to provide a cure
  • Don’t enable
  • Don’t drink with this person

Getting help for your loved one

An alcohol abuse problem is undeniably hard for everyone involved. It's important to understand that your loved one isn't making bad choices because of some moral failing, rather alcoholism is a legitimate disease that requires professional treatment.

Beyond adopting a method of compassion and understanding for your loved one, you should be aware of the various treatment options available. As a loved one, doing the administrative legwork can be a real help. Try researching what their insurance will cover, costs, and admission requirements, as well as making the appointments. When someone is suffering, it can be difficult to muster the clarity to navigate through the process.

Here are some of the options for treating alcohol addiction or dependency:

Inpatient treatment

Inpatient treatment requires that the patient live at the treatment facility for the duration of the program. These centers will provide both medical and psychiatric care, and will help the patient work through the detox process safely.

Additionally, patients will attend group and individual therapy, as well as planning for life after rehab. While this type of treatment can be expensive, it is ideal for someone who is suffering from a severe addiction. Inpatient care provides a structured environment and a hands-on approach, aimed at changing a patient’s habits and setting them on the road to better health.

Partial Hospitalization Treatment

Here, patients attend treatment in a hospital setting during the day and go home at night. Like inpatient care, patients will receive counseling, drug education, and medical care. In some cases, patients attend partial hospitalization programs after completing inpatient rehab, but that depends on the severity of the addiction.

In the end, if you recognize some of these symptoms in yourself, it may be time to look into getting treatment. If you're trying to support a loved one with alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, arm yourself with the information needed to get them help--whether that's compiling a list of treatment facilities or driving them to their first appointment.

Outpatient Care

Outpatient programs are designed for those who may not have a severe alcohol problem. These programs allow people to seek treatment while attending work, school, and other obligations. Again, these programs provide drug education and counseling, but they allow you to keep your life intact.

Consider Staging an Intervention

Having the discussion with an alcoholic loved one is daunting, to say the least. The loved one may not be ready to seek treatment, but if the problem is affecting their life and relationships, it’s time to intervene.

Put together a group and work with a professional interventionist to make sure things go as planned. While the intervention is at its core, about the person with a substance abuse issue, it can be a good way for friends and family to support one another.

Some key steps for those trying to stage an intervention:

  • Coordinate the details. The group needs to out up a united front and stick to the plan.
  • Be prepared. Hire a professional, if needed, and be sure to learn more about the disease. Additionally, you need to have rehabilitation options at the ready.
  • Form a core group—your intervention team.
  • Decide what you’ll do if the loved one refuses to seek treatment.
  • Come up with a loose script, so everyone knows what they’re going to say.
  • Hold the meeting.
  • Set a time to follow up with the alcoholic.

In the end, we know holding an intervention is a terrifying prospect, but you’re not alone. Roughly one in five Americans has lived with an alcoholic at one point or another.

If someone you care about is dealing with an alcohol problem, don’t wait until they hit rock bottom to do something. The health problems and social implications are far too costly to allow things to get out of hand.

Sources:
  • https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/default/files/media-browser/public/about-ama/councils/Council%20Reports/council-on-science-public-health/a08-csaph-substance-use-disorders.pdf

  • https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/What-counts-as-a-drink/Whats-A-Standard-Drink.aspx

  • https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

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