Most individuals are first introduced to alcohol in a social setting. Maybe a grade school friend snuck some of his dad’s whiskey into the basement from the unlocked liquor cabinet, and you passed a small glass of it back and forth until you both threw up and passed out. Maybe you attended a high school party freshman year and played your first game of beer pong, or took your first shot of tequila and spent the rest of the evening dry heaving in the guest bathroom. No matter how unglamorous your first night of drinking was, it probably did not deter you from picking up alcohol later on in life. The purpose drinking plays in adulthood is quite different – it is no longer a sneaky and risky late night activity, one that makes us feel rebellious and more socially accepted. In adulthood, drinking is a right. As adults, it is our right to drink. We have waited for 21 long years to enjoy the sweet relief of happy hour after a long day of work; to savor an expensive glass of wine at a nice restaurant, or to taste some craft beer at a local brewery and pretend to critique its mouthfeel. For most, drinking becomes a social and infrequent diversion in adulthood, and never gets as ‘out of hand’ as it did in adolescence and young adulthood, when experimentation and rebellion were in style.
When Drinking Becomes a Problem
For some, however, drinking shifts from a leisurely pastime to a major problem somewhere along the line. Perhaps an individual undergoes a traumatic experience, and he or she turns to alcohol as a means of self-medication. Perhaps drinking shifts from a social pursuit to a private necessity, and an individual begins drinking alone every evening…and then every afternoon, and then every morning – for no apparent reason. The disease of alcoholism is a tricky one, because it is largely psychological. As alcoholics, our minds work tirelessly to convince us that we have everything under control and that our drinking habits are not a problem. This is why it may seem that everyone else believes we have a problem long before we consider the possibility ourselves. This component of steadfast denial works against us, preventing us from seeking outside help before things get way too out of hand. Even when things do get way too out of hand, most of us will continue drinking. Why? Partially because we continue to convince ourselves that we have got things under control, and partially because we are physically and mentally unable to quit despite the fact that we may want to.
The Disease of Addiction
Alcoholism has long been understood as a chronic and relapsing brain disease – in fact, it was first described as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in 1956. With continued heavy drinking, the neurotransmitters within our brains actually begin to physically change. Biochemical response systems shift, and the ‘pleasure pathway’ that is activated by chemical substance (which triggers a release of dopamine) struggles to return to its baseline level after months or years of consistent use. Essentially, our brains begin to tell us that we need to keep drinking in order to survive. Drinking becomes as important as our human necessities – eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, and shelter. Eventually, drinking becomes more important. We begin to rapidly lose stability in our lives, our careers and interpersonal relationships suffer immensely, we are given ultimatums and warnings and last chances over and over and over again, and still we cannot stop. But still, admitting this struggle to ourselves can be difficult. Take a look at the following symptoms of alcoholism, and try your best to honestly consider whether or not seeking professional help is in your best interest.
- Building tolerance.
After awhile, you need to consume more alcohol in order to achieve the same desired effect. Perhaps you used to feel good and drunk after two large glasses of wine… now you can easily polish off a bottle and still hold a conversation. Our brain functions adapt in order to compensate for the continuous disruption that is caused by alcohol consumption, and the more we expose our systems to booze, the more we will have to drink in order to feel drunk. If you find that your tolerance continues increasing, it may be time to seek help. Believe it or not, continuously building tolerance is not normal!
- Interpersonal problems.
Relationships can be difficult to maintain regardless of substance abuse; add a little alcoholism to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for relational disaster. When we lose power over the amount we drink and how often we drink, it looks to the outside world as if we are prioritizing alcohol over our friends and family members. In reality, we are simply incapable of providing our interpersonal relationships with the attention they deserve. If your relationships have begun to feel strained, if you seem to be losing friends, and if your family members no longer want to associate with you when you are drinking, you may have a problem.
- Reckless behavior.
If you find that you engage in behaviors you would never dream of engaging in while sober, you may be suffering from a nasty case of untreated alcoholism. Perhaps you consistently wake up in strange places next to strange people, or get into bar fights on a regular basis. Perhaps you consistently vow that you will not get behind the wheel of a car after drinking, only to find yourself with a second, third, fourth DUI. If you engage in reckless behavior that puts yourself or others in danger, it is probably a good time to seek help.
- Legal problems (or problems at work).
Getting a DUI is not merely a sign that perhaps you have been engaging in reckless behavior – it is a serious legal problem that will follow you for years, and put a serious dent in your quality of life until it has been fully resolved. If you have been experiencing any type of legal problem or if you have begun experiencing problems at work (perhaps you have been late or hungover at work multiple times, and have either lost your job or been given several warnings) you may be battling a serious issue. Most non-alcoholics will discontinue drinking as soon as the potential for a problem at work crops up with no issue whatsoever. Keep that in mind.
- Health concerns.
Perhaps you landed yourself in the hospital after shotgunning too many beers in college. This kind of brash stupidity is not all too uncommon, even amongst those who do not develop serious substance-related issues later on in life. However, if you continuously suffer from alcohol-related health concerns, you may want to consider the fact that outside help has become a necessity. Health concerns do not necessarily entail liver failure, delirium tremens, and jaundice… perhaps you simply have not been taking care of yourself nutritionally, eating fast food for every meal (or not eating at all) and failing to exercise. A sedentary lifestyle can (and will) lead to more severe health concerns later on down the line.
Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
Although your friends and family members might feel strongly about you seeking outside help, no one can force you into recovery if you are completely unwilling to change your ways. Unfortunately, most addicts and alcoholics need to be beaten into a place of submission; most need to undergo so much unbearable pain and suffering that the only remaining option is to seek professional help. It is important to bear in mind the fact that once you are truly sick and tired of being sick and tired, help is available. Help will always be available. If your life has not yet gotten completely unmanageable, Alcoholics Anonymous and therapeutic care may be enough. If you need a higher level of care, inpatient treatment is an ideal option. If you feel you may have a drinking problem and would like to learn more about the disease of addiction or about our comprehensive program of trauma and addiction recovery, please feel free to contact us today.