Alcohol is by far the most commonly used and accepted drug among adults in America. While most people who drink are mild to moderate drinkers, nearly 16.6 million, or seven percent, of adults in the United States 18 years old and over have an alcohol use disorder. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol-related deaths account for nearly 88,000 deaths each year, making it the third leading cause of preventable deaths.
First, I want to clarify the difference between alcoholism (or alcohol dependency) and alcohol abuse. Alcoholism is a chronic brain disease; just as any other mental health disorder, it is not a moral weakness or a personal shortcoming. Alcohol addiction causes changes in both the body and brain. Long-term alcohol abuse can have devastating effects on your health, your career, and your relationships. Alcoholics go through physical withdrawals when they stop drinking, just like other drug users do when they quit. Some of these withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, tremors, sweating, insomnia, nausea, depression, fatigue, headache, and irritability.
Alcohol abuse is another term for binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks and when women consume four or more drinks within a two hour window. However, most people who binge drink are not alcoholics. The difference between people who abuse alcohol and people with alcoholism will depend on the level of degree and rate of occurrence which one drinks. Since drinking is so common in American culture and the effects vary so widely from person to person, it’s not always easy to figure out where the line is between social drinking and problem drinking.
While some people are able to drink socially and not become dependent, there are several factors that can increase a person’s risk of addiction. Some of these risk factors include trauma, genetics, social environment, early use, and mental illness.
Untreated mental illness, particularly mood disorders and anxiety disorders, can increase the likelihood of abuse. It is not uncommon for people to try and mask the symptoms of these disorders with the use of alcohol. People often drink alcohol for its calming effect. However, alcohol is a depressant so while it may help someone relax temporarily, overtime it can wreak havoc on your mental health and worsen depressive symptoms.
Alcohol causes people to lower and even lose their inhibitions, which can result in people taking greater risks and making poor decisions that they would never make sober. It fosters either/or and all or nothing thinking and lowers concern for the future consequences of one’s actions. Alcohol increases impulsivity and decreases inhibition, increases negative self-image, decreases self-esteem, and deepens depression and social isolation. Those with an alcohol dependency have a 40 times greater risk of attempting suicide.
So how do you know if you or someone you know is an alcoholic? According to HelpGuide.org, you may have alcohol dependency if you:
- Feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking.
- Lie to others or hide your drinking habits.
- Have friends or family members who are worried about your drinking.
- Need to drink in order to relax or feel better.
- “Black out” or forget what you did while you were drinking.
- Regularly drink more than you intended to.
“If substance use is causing problems in a person’s life, they usually have a problem,” said Monica Blizek, the Clinical Director at Nova Treatment Community in Omaha, Nebraska.
Admitting that there’s a problem can be painful for the entire family, not just the person with the addiction. We often hear the saying, “Addiction is a family disease.” It not only has effects on the person with alcoholism, but it will affect the entire family unit.
“I have told families if the person they are concerned about will not seek help, then you must seek help for yourself,” said Blizek. “I encourage them to find a therapist, educate themselves on substance use, suggest Ala-non meetings, and create a support system if they don’t have one. Once one person in the family starts to change, the entire system will have to adjust.”
It is important to understand that you are not alone and that alcohol dependency is nothing to be ashamed of. Treatment is available and recovery is possible.
If you or someone you love my have a problem with alcohol, please go to The Kim Foundation’s website and click on the “Finding Help” tab to find a service provider near you.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee,Nebraska State LOSS Team Conference Planning Committee; she is a volunteer mentor with Y.E.S., and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.