What Kind of Disease Is Alcoholism? Could I Be an Alcoholic?
- Alcoholism is a very common disease.
- Alcohol abuse affects one in 13 U.S. adults.
- Alcoholism involves physical dependence.
- Alcoholism is a treatable but not a curable disease.
When many people think of alcohol abusers, they picture teenagers sneaking drinks before high school football games or at unsupervised parties. People who abuse alcohol can be college students who binge drink at local bars, pregnant women who put their babies at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome when they drink, professionals who drink after a long day of work, or senior citizens who drink out of loneliness. Denial of the negative effects of alcohol in their lives is a common in alcoholics and those close to them.
Medically defined, alcoholism is a disease in which there is impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with alcohol, continued use of alcohol in the face of adverse consequences, and distorted thinking. Alcoholism is repeated drinking that causes trouble in the drinker's personal, professional, family or school life. When alcoholics drink, they can't always predict when they'll stop, how much they'll drink, or what the consequences of their drinking will be.
Like other diseases, alcoholism is an interaction between the host (the person who gets the disease and his/her genetic and biological makeup), the agent alcohol or other mood-altering chemicals, and the environment.
SO WHAT IS IT?
There are four symptoms:
- Craving—A strong need, or urge, to drink.
- Loss of control—Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
- Physical dependence—Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety after stopping drinking.
- Tolerance—The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get "high."
IS ALCOHOLISM A DISEASE?
- Yes, alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.
- Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle.
IS ALCOHOLISM INHERITED?
- Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism does indeed run in families. The genes a person inherits partially explain this pattern, but lifestyle is also a factor. Currently, researchers are working to discover the actual genes that put people at risk for alcoholism. Your friends, the amount of stress in your life, and how easy it is for you to get alcohol may put you on the road to alcoholism.
- But remember: Risk is not destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn't mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic too. Some people develop alcoholism even though no one in their family has a drinking problem. Not all children of alcoholic families get into trouble with alcohol. Knowing you are at risk is important, though, because then you can take steps to protect yourself from developing problems with alcohol.
CAN ALCOHOLISM BE CURED? ..... No.
counseling and medications to help a person stop drinking. Treatment has helped many people CAN ALCOHOLISM BE TREATED?
Yes, alcoholism can be treated. Alcoholism treatment programs use both stop drinking and rebuild their lives
IF AN ALCOHOLIC IS UNWILLING TO GET HELP, WHAT CAN I DO?
This is hard.
An alcoholic can't be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as a traffic violation or arrest that results in court-ordered treatment. But you don't have to wait for someone to "hit rock bottom" to act.
Many alcoholism treatment specialists suggest the following steps to help an alcoholic get treatment:
- Stop all "cover ups." Family members often make excuses to others or try to protect the alcoholic from the results of his or her drinking. It is important to stop covering for the alcoholic so that he or she experiences the full consequences of drinking.
- Time your intervention. The best time to talk to the drinker is shortly after an alcohol-related problem has occurred—like a serious family argument or an accident. Choose a time when he or she is sober, both of you are fairly calm, and you have a chance to talk in private.
- Be specific. Tell the family member that you are worried about his or her drinking. Use examples of the ways in which the drinking has caused problems, including the most recent incident.
- State the results. Explain to the drinker what you will do if he or she doesn't go for help—not to punish the drinker, but to protect yourself from his or her problems. What you say may range from refusing to go with the person to any social activity where alcohol will be served, to moving out of the house.
- Do not make any threats you are not prepared to carry out.
- Get help. Gather information in advance about treatment options in your community. If the person is willing to get help, call immediately for an appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program and/or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
- Call on a friend. If the family member still refuses to get help, ask a friend to talk with him or her using the steps just described. A friend who is a recovering alcoholic may be particularly persuasive, but any person who is caring and nonjudgmental may help. The intervention of more than one person, more than one time, is often necessary to coax an alcoholic to seek help.
- Find strength in numbers. With the help of a health care professional, some families join with other relatives and friends to confront an alcoholic as a group. This approach should only be tried under the guidance of a health care professional who is experienced in this kind of group intervention.
- Get support. It is important to remember that you are not alone. Support groups offered in most communities include Al-Anon, which holds regular meetings for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic's life, and Alateen, which is geared to children of alcoholics. These groups help family members understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic's drinking and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of whether the alcoholic family member chooses to get help.
HOW CAN A PERSON GET HELP FOR AN ALCOHOL PROBLEM?
There are many national and local resources that can help.
The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), offering various resource information. Through this service you can speak directly to a representative concerning substance abuse treatment, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information in Michigan.
Many people also find support groups a helpful aid to recovery. The following list includes a variety of resources:
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)