Consuming alcohol is a tricky business in so many ways.
Some people can have one or two drinks and call it a day. Others may find it difficult to stop at just one or two drinks, those first few fueling an intense desire for more … and more … until things spiral out of control.
Alcohol abuse versus alcoholism
There's a fine line between alcohol abuse and full-blown alcoholism. Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that people who abuse alcohol can usually set limits for their drinking. That's not to say their drinking doesn't put both the user and others at risk, especially if they overdo it.
Abusing alcohol puts you at risk of becoming dependent on it, and the line is crossed to alcoholism when you need it to function physically.
Many interrelated factors cause alcoholism, like genetics, upbringing, social environment and emotional health. A family history of alcoholism makes it more likely for you to develop drinking problems. If you associate with many heavy drinkers, you're more likely to pick up the habit yourself. And if you suffer from things like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, it's more likely that you'll use alcohol to self-medicate.
How it begins
For some people, a personal life crisis, like the death of a loved one, a job loss, breakup or divorce can put you on the path from alcohol abuse to full-blown alcoholism. For others, as their tolerance to alcohol increases, so does their consumption. For those who binge drink, or drink every day, the road to alcoholism might be accelerated.
In a nutshell, alcohol affects everyone differently, but if drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem.
Warning signs of alcoholism
Alcoholics rely on alcohol to function or feel a physical compulsion to drink.
Its first warning sign is usually increased tolerance. You might drink more than other people do; yet despite drinking more, you do not feel drunk. Or, you might need to drink a lot more than you once did to feel any effects from the alcohol.
Another major warning sign: If you don't have a drink, you experience withdrawal symptoms. Your body gets used to having alcohol, and without it, you suffer both physically and mentally. Your body might shake or tremble, or you may feel anxious, irritable, jumpy or depressed. Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, headache, fatigue or insomnia can all be signs of dependence and withdrawal, too. In extreme cases, you could experience blackouts, seizures, confusion, fever or even hallucinations.
And that's not all. Alcoholism can exhibit itself in other ways:
- You can't control how much you drink (even though you tell yourself you will stop or cut down).
- You're unable to quit drinking (despite having the desire).
- You focus a lot of your energy and time on alcohol. This includes planning to drink, drinking and recovering from drinking. Often your social plans and interests revolve around drinking.
- You try to cover up your drinking by purchasing alcohol at different stores; you worry that you won't have enough.
- You feel guilty, yet continue to drink even though health, relationship or social problems caused by alcohol consumption continue to exist.
- You exhibit physical signs of dependence, like upset stomach (gastritis), weight loss or redness of your nose or cheeks.
It's not uncommon for people with alcoholism to deny they have a problem or insist that they are in control and can quit whenever they want to. They may also believe that their alcohol consumption isn't really a problem because they can hold down a job, provide for their family and are not homeless (known as being a "functional alcoholic").
But, the fact is that alcohol is a drug—and addiction to it causes serious and debilitating changes in your brain and body. It can lead to cancer, heart and liver disease and premature death.
You can overcome alcohol addiction—if you're ready to stop drinking and willing to reach out for help and support from professional organizations like Alcoholic Anonymous, support groups, and close friends and family. Here's a guide to self-help groups that can help with alcohol addiction.
For those who are heavily addicted or have been drinking for a long time, a medically supervised detoxification program may be necessary. Everyone's needs are different, and there's no one cure that works for everyone.
The important thing is to admit you have a problem, then promptly reach out for help. And know that if you slip, it doesn't mean you are doomed for a full-blown relapse or you won't be able to get back on track.
Commitment and follow-through are skills every addict needs in order to get—and stay—well.