For many individuals, the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol is probably not harmful. Unfortunately, for others it is – harmful, hurtful, and devastating. More than 18 million Americans suffer from some form of an alcohol use disorder. In addition to this frightening statistic, there are millions of children and family members who experience first hand the devastating effects alcohol creates on everyone involved – employers, spouses, and children, that are part of the alcoholic’s life. The economic cost of alcohol abuse and alcoholism has been estimated by the CDC to be $223.5 billion that includes losses in productivity in the workplace, alcohol related health care expenses, impaired driving and motor vehicle crash costs, and law enforcement expenses. The emotional, physical and financial burdens placed on a family of the addict is enormous.
Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease that carries serious implications. Heavy drinking can increase a person’s risk of certain cancers, cause liver damage, and complications to the brain and other organs. Individuals with the disease have problems controlling their consumption, have withdrawal issues when they rapidly decrease or stop drinking, have to drink more and more in order to achieve the same effect, and become preoccupied with drinking, despite the fact that the habit causes problems and sometimes even irreparable damage.
Signs and symptoms may include drinking alone or hiding bottles in places within the home/basement/garage where they might not be found, having an inability to remember conversations or important dates that mean a great deal to other members of the family, developing a tolerance to alcohol so that more is needed if the “high” is to continue, having a quick fix at a local bar or restaurant during lunch hour as a pick-me-up, and losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once important. Denial is a common factor, since the alcoholic perceives he or she is in control and on top of the situation. The actual process of becoming addicted to alcohol doesn’t happen overnight but occurs gradually.
Those individuals at an increased risk for becoming alcoholics include having a parent or close relative with a similar problem, drinking too much on a regular basis for an extended period of time and finding countless reasons for indulging that others “simply don’t understand”, using depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder as an excuse to drink, having “successful” friends that drink which creates a need to keep up or risk losing the respect of that person looked up to, and beginning the habit of drinking at an early age.
Excessive drinking can reduce judgment skills, lower inhibitions, cause issues with muscle coordination, affect speech, and lead to numerous health issues. Inflammation of the liver, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), stomach and esophageal ulcers, hypertension, heart failure, weakness and paralysis of the eye muscles, and pancreatitis are but a few of the concerns. Alcohol can affect a person’s central nervous system, causing pain and numbness of the extremities. An alcoholic can have blackouts in which he or she drives, functions, or speaks, yet will have no knowledge of anything done.
There are no specific tests to diagnose alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association has published a manual known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that spells out the criteria for the diagnosis. The first category is tolerance. As the disease progresses, the amount leading to intoxication can also decrease because of damage to the liver or central nervous system; withdrawal symptoms including tremors, nausea, insomnia and anxiety; and drinking more than intended, or drinking over a longer period of time. For example, an alcoholic will “have just one”. That often means just one at a time, since the individual simply doesn’t have the capability of stopping.
If you have a problem with alcohol addiction, consider attending AA meetings. They’re everywhere. If you are a family member or friend, consider ALANON to learn how to better understand and cope with this devastating disease. Protect yourself, don’t become a victim. There’s help for everyone.