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Understanding an Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is one of the most common substance use disorders affecting Americans today. But because alcohol is a legal narcotic, it is one that often goes untreated. In fact, even though more people seek treatment for alcoholism than any other SUD, as much as 95% of those who need treatment feel they don’t have a problem. To put this into perspective, 1 in 13 adults in the United States abuses alcohol or has an alcohol addiction.

With alcoholism being so prevalent, it is not an unknown or mysterious condition. But contrary to popular belief, neither is it something that alcoholics bring on themselves. Although you can take steps to avoid it, alcoholism is a disease caused by defects in the brain. And these abnormalities are inherited. When an alcoholic drinks, their brain reacts differently to other peoples. Emotional instability, traumatic circumstances, personality disorders, and character defects worsen the problem.

There are many things that lead to excessive drinking but to really understand alcohol addition, you need to know these facts.

alcohol addiction

What is alcohol addiction exactly?

There are many terms surrounding addiction to alcohol. And though they all have similar meanings, they are often referring to completely different things.

Alcohol abuse is the practice of drinking too much and is a characteristic of binge drinkers. These are a subset of problem drinkers, but this does not mean they have an alcohol addiction. Prolonged binge drinking can turn into alcoholism over time though.

Alcohol Dependencydescribes a situation where someone has become both physically and psychologically dependent on drinking. If this person does not consume any alcohol for a certain period of time, they start to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

The American Medical Association (AMA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), as well as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) all classify addiction as:

“A chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”

This means that it is a long term illness that can occur repeatedly. It is marked by an almost uncontrollable desire to consume alcohol, the inability to control how much you drink and feeling a variety of negative emotions whenever you don’t drink.

What does withdrawal look like?

A person who has an alcohol addiction often develops a high tolerance for alcohol. So they will have to move onto harder drinks and higher quantities if they want to get drunk. Because a person is dependent on alcohol, they will start to suffer from withdrawal symptoms if their blood alcohol content (BAC) drops below a certain level. There are a variety of symptoms and they range from mild things to more severe, sometimes life-threatening complications.

Some of the mild symptoms of withdrawal include:
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Sweating profusely
  • Occasional but uncontrollable shivering/shaking
  • Headaches or even migraines
Withdrawal that is more severe can involve:
  • Delirium Tremens (known as the DT’s)
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Fever
  • Mild to serious seizures
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • An irregular heartbeat and other heart problems

Some common myths about alcohol addiction examined

One of the reasons why alcoholism is not understood by a vast majority of the population is because of all the misconceptions surrounding it. One of the most common is that they believe alcoholism is self-inflicted. Or an alcoholic can stop drinking whenever they want to. There is also the fact that a lot of people don’t realize just how prevalent alcohol addiction is. It is, in fact, a serious disorder and is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

  • Myth:Everyone who drinks alcohol is affected exactly the same way.
    • Truth: Like every other substance a person can consume, alcohol has a different effect on different people – even if they’re related.
  • Myth: Alcohol is addictive, and anyone who abuses it will become an alcoholic
    • Truth: Alcohol is only addictive in certain circumstances. There is only a small, unfortunate minority who will need or want to drink enough alcohol for a long enough period to become addicted to it.
  • Myth: People become alcoholics because they are trying to get over personal or emotional issues by drinking.
    • Truth: People who abuse alcohol have the same kind of problems as many people who don’t drink in excess, but alcohol does have an adverse effect on their situation.
  • Myth: If everyone drank responsibly, no one would become addicted to alcohol.
    • Truth: People who are considered responsible drinkers are not immune to developing a problem with alcohol. It is because of the nature of the disease that they start drinking irresponsibly, not the person themselves.
  • Myth: Addicts can teach themselves to control their drinking habit.
    • Truth: Alcoholics can never start drinking safely again because they have a permanent brain addiction.

drinking at a bar

The Early Stage of Alcohol Addiction

An addiction to alcohol is different from the process of almost every other disease and that is one of the reasons why it wasn’t recognized as one for so long. The difference lies in the fact that the symptoms in the beginning actually seem to show improved functioning. It is only once you understand that Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is characterized by changes in the brain that the symptoms of this first stage make sense.

These changes make the sensation of drinking alcohol much more pleasurable. They also reduce the more unpleasant effects at the same time. It is only later, usually after years have passed, that these adjustments cause physical and mental deterioration.

Symptoms of the early stage of alcoholism

Drinking brings about a feeling of intense pleasure – Most people who drink feel good once they’ve finished their first drink. They feel more relaxed, happier, calmer, and confident.

Their reaction is less intense – People who are first stage alcoholics usually have a less intense reaction to the effects of alcohol.

They build up a tolerance – The normal metabolic tolerance that early and middle stage alcoholics develop is responsible for approximately 20% of their ability to consume relatively large quantities of alcohol. The other 80% is due to their acquired tolerance.

They become preoccupied with drinking – As the months and years pass, drinkers in the first stage of alcoholism begin to crave drinking. Everything feels so much better and so right when they drink, so the desire to do it again seems sensible to them.

The middle stage of alcohol addiction

In the second stage of alcoholism, the euphoria that an addict has come to associate with drinking starts to fade. There is no doubt that they still feel good when they drink though. It is just that life, in general, does not seem as easy or as simple as it used to. And the ability alcohol had to ease their worry, stress, anxiety and other negative feelings are not as strong anymore.

Symptoms of the middle stage of alcoholism

They start suffering from withdrawal – Most people think that withdrawal happens when alcohol is completely eliminated from the bloodstream. But it actually starts when an alcohol addict’s blood alcohol content starts to drop. An alcoholic's brain cells need a specific amount of alcohol to feel good. When that level gets too low, withdrawal begins. In the middle and early stages, the symptoms of withdrawal are subtle and seem to have nothing to do with excess drinking.

These symptoms include:

  • anxiety,
  • irritability,
  • tremors,
  • nervousness,
  • weakness,
  • insomnia,
  • loss of appetite,
  • elevated blood pressure,
  • elevated temperature,
  • and exaggerated reflexes.

They experience frequent blackouts– Whether you are an alcoholic or not, the metabolic byproduct of alcohol (acetaldehyde) destroys cells in the long term memory storage areas of the brain (hippocampus). This cell destruction is usually associated with a high BAC and may be due to certain crucial areas of the brain being deprived of oxygen. Patchy memories are a common side effect of heavy drinking. But blackouts or complete blanks regarding moments, hours and even whole days are not.

Their personality starts to disintegrate – The second stage can last for years and even decades. But at some point during this stage, an alcoholic's personality starts to change dramatically.

They deny the problem– Our society associates alcoholism with abuse, and alcoholics are often depicted as mentally ill, physically unfit and lacking in morals. So it is understandable why so many who suffer from it deny to themselves and everyone else that they have a problem.

addicted to alcohol

The end stage of alcohol addiction

The end stage of alcoholism, also known as the late or final stage, is full-blown alcohol addiction. Recovery from this stage almost always requires a medical detox period and withdrawal is so bad that it is best managed by trained professionals. By this point, it is common for alcohol addicts to have lost their jobs, as well as friends and family. Although not all full-blown addicts become homeless, it is fairly common.

Symptoms of the end stage of alcoholism

Their mental health has deteriorated – Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant which means that it slows down mental and bodily processes. Excessive amounts of alcohol also destroy parts of the brain and can cause a condition known as "wet brain". Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it is a neurological condition caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency (vitamin B1). The symptoms of this condition can include severe memory impairment, lowered mental activity leading to death or coma, hallucinations, personality changes, and extreme mood swings.

They suffer from a wide range of physical problems – By this stage, an alcoholic’s body is deteriorating rapidly. Cells weakened by extensive alcohol abuse cannot generate bone, tissue, and blood the way a healthy system does. The body can also not efficiently repair any damage it suffers. All of this is aggravated by the fact that alcoholism most often leads to malnutrition caused by severe appetite loss. These physical problems can, and often do, lead to several life-threatening diseases. These include:

  • Alcoholic Hepatitis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Bronchitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Emphysema
  • Heart Failure
  • Tuberculosis
  • Pneumonia

Treating an alcohol addiction

In many cases, an addiction to alcohol is a severe enough problem that professional treatment and therapy is needed to treat it. There are dozens, possibly even hundreds, of different programs available for people from all walks of life. But the first step is admitting that you have a problem, and it also happens to be one of the hardest ones. But once you have taken this step, finding the help you need is not difficult.

Some things to consider when searching for an addiction recovery center

The first is what type of programs they offer. The obvious question is whether they have both inpatient and outpatient programs available. But you should also consider the types of therapy they rely on, whether these therapies can be adapted to suit you, and also what kind of aftercare programs they offer.

The other thing to consider is what the cost of treatment will be at a specific facility. Some rehab programs are completely government funded, others are partially subsidized and then there are completely private programs. If you are lucky enough to have insurance, you can find out from them what types of treatment programs they cover. In fact, they may already have a list of approved alcohol addiction rehabilitation facilities with a proven history of success.

One thing you have to understand is that treatment is not a punishment. Alcoholism is a disease, and it often takes more than simple willpower to recover from it. The further along the road of alcoholism you are, the more difficult recovery will be. But even people in the end stage of alcoholism can and do stop drinking entirely. The physical and mental issues associated with long term excessive drinking cannot always be cured.

But professional treatment centers like Clean & Sober Recovery Services are accustomed to dealing with these problems and are equipped to deal with them. So please, if you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol addiction then please contact us today. We’ll be happy to hear from you and we can discuss your options with no pressure or obligations.

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