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Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse
On This Page:

  • Understanding drinking problems
  • Signs & symptoms of alcohol abuse
  • Signs & symptoms of alcoholism
  • Drinking problems and denial
  • Effects of alcoholism
  • Getting help for alcohol abuse
  • When a loved one has a drinking problem

It’s not always easy to see when your drinking has crossed the line from moderate or social use to problem drinking. But if you consume alcohol to cope with difficulties or to avoid feeling bad, you’re in potentially dangerous territory. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse can sneak up on you, so it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and take steps to cut back if you recognize them. Understanding the problem is the first step to overcoming it.

**Signs, Symptoms, and Help for Alcoholism and Alcohol Use Problems**

Understanding alcoholism and alcohol abuse

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are due to many interconnected factors, including genetics, how you were raised, your social environment, and your emotional health. Some racial groups, such as American Indians and Native Alaskans, are more at risk than others of developing alcohol addiction. People who have a family history of alcoholism or who associate closely with heavy drinkers are more likely to develop drinking problems. Finally, those who suffer from a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder are also particularly at risk, because alcohol may be used to self-medicate.

Do you have a drinking problem? You may have a drinking problem if you...

  • Feel guilty or ashamed about your drinking.
  • Lie to others or hide your drinking habits.
  • Have friends or family members who are worried about your drinking.
  • Need to drink in order to relax or feel better.
  • “Black out” or forget what you did while you were drinking.
  • Regularly drink more than you intended to.

Since drinking is so common in many cultures and the effects vary so widely from person to person, it’s not always easy to figure out where the line is between social drinking and problem drinking. The bottom line is how alcohol affects you. If your drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse

Substance abuse experts make a distinction between alcohol abuse and alcoholism (also called alcohol dependence). Unlike alcoholics, alcohol abusers have some ability to set limits on their drinking. However, their alcohol use is still self-destructive and dangerous to themselves or others. 

Common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:

  • Repeatedly neglecting your responsibilities at home, work, or school because of your drinking. For example, performing poorly at work, flunking classes, neglecting your kids, or skipping out on commitments because you’re hung over.
  • Using alcohol in situations where it’s physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving, operating machinery while intoxicated, or mixing alcohol with prescription medication against doctor’s orders.
  • Experiencing repeated legal problems on account of your drinking. For example, getting arrested for driving under the influence or for drunk and disorderly conduct.
  • Continuing to drink even though your alcohol use is causing problems in your relationships. Getting drunk with your buddies, for example, even though you know your wife will be very upset, or fighting with your family because they dislike how you act when you drink.
  • Drinking as a way to relax or de-stress. Many drinking problems start when people use alcohol to self-soothe and relieve stress. Getting drunk after every stressful day, for example, or reaching for a bottle every time you have an argument with your spouse or boss.

The path from alcohol abuse to alcoholism

Not all alcohol abusers become full-blown alcoholics, but it is a big risk factor. Sometimes alcoholism develops suddenly in response to a stressful change, such as a breakup, retirement, or another loss. Other times, it gradually creeps up on you as your tolerance to alcohol increases. If you’re a binge drinker or you drink every day, the risks of developing alcoholism are greater.

Signs and symptoms of alcoholism (alcohol dependence)

Alcoholism is the most severe form of problem drinking. Alcoholism involves all the symptoms of alcohol abuse, but it also involves another element: physical dependence on alcohol. If you rely on alcohol to function or feel physically compelled to drink, you’re an alcoholic.

Tolerance: The 1st major warning sign of alcoholism

Do you have to drink a lot more than you used to in order to get buzzed or to feel relaxed? Can you drink more than other people without getting drunk? These are signs of tolerance, which can be an early warning sign of alcoholism. Tolerance means that, over time, you need more and more alcohol to feel the same effects.

Withdrawal: The 2nd major warning sign of alcoholism

Do you need a drink to steady the shakes in the morning? Drinking to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms is a sign of alcoholism and a huge red flag. When you drink heavily, your body gets used to the alcohol and experiences withdrawal symptoms if it’s taken away. 

These include:

  • Anxiety or jumpiness
  • Shakiness or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache

In severe cases, withdrawal from alcohol can also involve hallucinations, confusion, seizures, fever, and agitation. These symptoms can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor if you are a heavy drinker and want to quit.

Other signs and symptoms of alcoholism (alcohol dependence)

  • You’ve lost control over your drinking. You often drink more alcohol than you wanted to, for longer than you intended, or despite telling yourself you wouldn’t.
  • You want to quit drinking, but you can’t. You have a persistent desire to cut down or stop your alcohol use, but your efforts to quit have been unsuccessful.
  • You have given up other activities because of alcohol. You’re spending less time on activities that used to be important to you (hanging out with family and friends, going to the gym, pursuing your hobbies) because of your alcohol use.
  • Alcohol takes up a great deal of your energy and focus. You spend a lot of time drinking, thinking about it, or recovering from its effects. You have few if any interests or social involvements that don’t revolve around drinking.
  • You drink even though you know it’s causing problems. For example, you recognize that your alcohol use is damaging your marriage, making your depression worse, or causing health problems, but you continue to drink anyway.

Drinking problems and denial

Denial is one of the biggest obstacles to getting help for alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The desire to drink is so strong that the mind finds many ways to rationalize drinking, even when the consequences are obvious. By keeping you from looking honestly at your behavior and its negative effects, denial also exacerbates alcohol-related problems with work, finances, and relationships.

If you have a drinking problem, you may deny it by:

  • Drastically underestimating how much you drink
  • Downplaying the negative consequences of your drinking
  • Complaining that family and friends are exaggerating the problem
  • Blaming your drinking or drinking-related problems on others

For example, you may blame an ‘unfair boss’ for trouble at work or a ‘nagging wife’ for your marital issues, rather than look at how your drinking is contributing to the problem. While work, relationship, and financial stresses happen to everyone, an overall pattern of deterioration and blaming others may be a sign of trouble.

If you find yourself rationalizing your drinking habits, lying about them, or refusing to discuss the subject, take a moment to consider why you’re so defensive. If you truly believe you don’t have a problem, there should be no reason for you to cover up your drinking or make excuses.

Five myths about alcoholism and alcohol abuse

Myth #1: I can stop drinking anytime I want to.

Maybe you can; more likely, you can’t. Either way, it’s just an excuse to keep drinking. The truth is, you don’t want to stop. Telling yourself you can quit makes you feel in control, despite all evidence to the contrary and no matter the damage it’s doing. 

Myth #2: My drinking is my problem. I’m the one it hurts, so no one has the right to tell me to stop.

It’s true that the decision to quit drinking is up to you. But you are deceiving yourself if you think that your drinking hurts no one else but you. Alcoholism affects everyone around you—especially the people closest to you. Your problem is their problem.

Myth #3: I don’t drink every day, so I can’t be an alcoholic OR I only drink wine or beer, so I can’t be an alcoholic.

Alcoholism is NOT defined by what you drink, when you drink it, or even how much you drink. It’s the EFFECTS of your drinking that define a problem. If your drinking is causing problems in your home or work life, you have a drinking problem—whether you drink daily or only on the weekends, down shots of tequila or stick to wine, drink three bottles of beers a day or three bottles of whiskey.

Myth #4: I’m not an alcoholic because I have a job and I’m doing okay.

You don’t have to be homeless and drinking out of a brown paper bag to be an alcoholic. Many alcoholics are able to hold down jobs, get through school, and provide for their families. Some are even able to excel. But just because you’re a high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t mean you’re not putting yourself or others in danger. Over time, the effects will catch up with you.

Myth #5: Drinking is not a “real” addiction like drug abuse.  

Alcohol is a drug, and alcoholism is every bit as damaging as drug addiction. Alcohol addiction causes changes in the body and brain, and long-term alcohol abuse can have devastating effects on your health, your career, and your relationships. Alcoholics go through physical withdrawal when they stop drinking, just like drug users do when they quit.

Effects of alcoholism and alcohol abuse

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse can affect all aspects of your life. Long-term alcohol use can cause serious health complications, affecting virtually every organ in your body, including your brain. Problem drinking can also damage your emotional stability, finances, career, and your ability to build and sustain satisfying relationships. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse can also have an impact on your family, friends and the people you work with.

The effects of alcoholism and alcohol abuse on the people you love

Despite the potentially lethal damage that heavy drinking does to the body—including cancer, heart problems, and liver disease—the social consequences can be just as devastating. Alcoholics and alcohol abusers are much more likely to get divorced, have problems with domestic violence, struggle with unemployment, and live in poverty.

But even if you’re able to succeed at work or hold your marriage together, you can’t escape the effects that alcoholism and alcohol abuse has on your personal relationships. Drinking problems put an enormous strain on the people closest to you.

Often, family members and close friends feel obligated to cover for the person with the drinking problem. So they take on the burden of cleaning up your messes, lying for you, or working more to make ends meet. Pretending that nothing is wrong and hiding away all of their fears and resentments can take an enormous toll. Children are especially sensitive and can suffer long-lasting emotional trauma when a parent or caretaker is an alcoholic or heavy drinker.

Getting help for alcoholism or alcohol abuse

If you’re ready to admit you have a drinking problem, you’ve already taken the first step. It takes tremendous strength and courage to face alcohol abuse and alcoholism head on. Reaching out for support is the second step.

Whether you choose to go to rehab, rely on self-help programs, get therapy, or take a self-directed treatment approach, support is essential. Recovering from alcohol addiction is much easier when you have people you can lean on for encouragement, comfort, and guidance. Without support, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns when things get tough.

Your continued recovery depends on continuing mental health treatment, learning healthier coping strategies, and making better decisions when dealing with life’s challenges. In order to stay alcohol-free for the long term, you’ll also have to face the underlying problems that led to your alcoholism or alcohol abuse in the first place.

Those problems could be depression, an inability to manage stress, an unresolved trauma from your childhood, or any number of mental health issues. Such problems may become more prominent when you’re no longer using alcohol to cover them up. But you will be in a healthier position to finally address them and seek the help you need.

Helping a loved one with alcoholism or alcohol abuse

If someone you love has a drinking problem, you may be struggling with a number of painful emotions, including shame, fear, anger, and self-blame. The problem may be so overwhelming that it seems easier to ignore it and pretend that nothing is wrong. But in the long run denying it will be more damaging to you, other family members, and the person with the drinking problem.

What Not To Do:

  • Don't attempt to punish, threaten, bribe, or preach.
  • Don't try to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to drink or use other drugs.
  • Don't cover up or make excuses for the alcoholic or problem drinker or shield them from the realistic consequences of their behavior.
  • Don't take over their responsibilities, leaving them with no sense of importance or dignity.
  • Don't hide or dump bottles, throw out drugs, or shelter them from situations where alcohol is present.
  • Don't argue with the person when they are impaired.
  • Don't try to drink along with the problem drinker.
  • Above all, don't feel guilty or responsible for another's behavior.

Dealing with a loved one’s alcohol problem can be an emotional rollercoaster. It’s vital that you take care of yourself and get the support you need. It’s also important to have people you can talk honestly and openly with about what you’re going through.

A good place to start is by joining a group such as Al-Anon, a free peer support group for families coping with alcoholism. Listening to others with the same challenges can be a tremendous source of comfort and support. You can also turn to trusted friends, a therapist, or people in your faith community.

  • You cannot force someone you love to stop abusing alcohol. As much as you may want to, and as hard as it is to watch, you cannot make someone stop drinking. The choice is up to them.
  • Don’t expect the person to stop drinking and stay sober without help. Your loved one will need treatment, support, and new coping skills to overcome a serious drinking problem.
  • Recovery is an ongoing process. Recovery is a bumpy road, requiring time and patience. An alcoholic will not magically become a different person once sober. And the problems that led to the alcohol abuse in the first place will have to be faced.

Admitting that there’s a serious problem can be painful for the whole family, not just the alcohol abuser. But don’t be ashamed. You’re not alone. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse affects millions of families, from every social class, race, and culture. But there is help and support available for both you and your loved one.

What Not To Do:

  • Don't attempt to punish, threaten, bribe, or preach.
  • Don't try to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to drink or use other drugs.
  • Don't cover up or make excuses for the alcoholic or problem drinker or shield them from the realistic consequences of their behavior.
  • Don't take over their responsibilities, leaving them with no sense of importance or dignity.
  • Don't hide or dump bottles, throw out drugs, or shelter them from situations where alcohol is present.
  • Don't argue with the person when they are impaired.
  • Don't try to drink along with the problem drinker.
  • Above all, don't feel guilty or responsible for another's behavior.

When your teen has a drinking problem

Discovering your child is drinking can generate fear, confusion, and anger in parents. It’s important to remain calm when confronting your teen, and only do so when everyone is sober. Explain your concerns and make it clear that your concern comes from a place of love. It’s important that your teen feels you are supportive.

Five steps parents can take:

  1. Lay down rules and consequences. Your teen should understand that drinking alcohol comes with specific consequences. But don’t make hollow threats or set rules that you cannot enforce. Make sure your spouse agrees with the rules and is prepared to enforce them.
  2. Monitor your teen’s activity. Know where your teen goes and who he or she hangs out with. Remove or lock away alcohol from your home and routinely check potential hiding places for alcohol—in backpacks, under the bed, between clothes in a drawer, for example. Explain to your teen that this lack of privacy is a consequence of him or her having been caught using alcohol.
  3. Encourage other interests and social activities. Expose your teen to healthy hobbies and activities, such as team sports, Scouts, and afterschool clubs.
  4. Talk to your child about underlying issues. Drinking can be the result of other problems. Is your child having trouble fitting in? Has there been a recent major change, like a move or divorce, which is causing stress?
  5. Get outside help. You don’t have to go it alone. Teenagers often rebel against their parents but if they hear the same information from a different authority figure, they may be more inclined to listen. Try seeking help from a sports coach, family doctor, therapist, or counselor.

How To Cope When A Loved One Has Alcoholism 

  If you’ve had the experience of living with an alcoholic, you know how heartbreaking it can be to watch someone you love slowly destroy themselves with drinking. Like a train wreck in ultra-slow motion, often times the downward spiral of alcoholism takes years and sometimes decades to play itself out. The very notion of standing by helplessly as a spouse, family member or close friend ruins their life one drink at a time is incomprehensible to most people. Yet the compulsive nature of the disease and the impenetrable wall of denial most alcoholics surround themselves with means most rational rules of behavior simply don’t apply.

How can you cope with something so baffling?

Alcoholism – A Family Disease. To understand more about alcoholism, let’s discuss some statistics:

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that as an addictive substance, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug in the United States. The statistics are staggering. Over 17 million Americans, or one in 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse, and millions more engage in risky behaviors or binge drinking patterns. More than seven million children live in a home where at least one parent is an alcoholic. Because alcoholism affects everyone in the household, it is estimated that 50-60 million Americans are affected by the disease.

The Denial Of Alcoholism

Not long ago, alcoholism was widely misunderstood and considered to be a weakness or a moral failing on the part of the alcoholic. Though there are many uninformed people who still feel this way, the general public perception has changed over the last 20-30 years, and alcoholism is now understood to be a disease.

Much like cancer or diabetes, you don’t blame an individual for having a disease but you do expect them to go to a doctor and get help. The unique role that denial plays in the disease of alcoholism means the afflicted person – the alcoholic – literally cannot see or comprehend the problem that everyone else so clearly and plainly observes. This sets up an exasperating situation for anyone who finds themselves in the frustrating position of dealing on a day-to-day basis with a loved one who is an alcoholic.

Understand The Role Of Denial

How do you cut through denial? The choice, on the part of the alcoholic, refuse to admit to reality is what often infuriates spouses and family members most. Try to remember that denial is part of the disease and it’s best not to get upset about something which is out of your control.

How To Effectively Cope When A Loved One Has Alcoholism

First, educate yourself on the disease of alcoholism. Understanding alcoholism is a tall order. There are many excellent books on the subject, and groups such as Al-Anon provide information and meetings to family and friend of alcoholics. Seek help and information online or schedule a visit with counselor.

Protect Yourself

Sadly, many emergency room doctors will attest to the high number of alcohol-related injuries they treat on a daily basis. If you have the sense that you are in a dangerous situation due to an alcoholic’s temper or abusive behavior, please get help now.

Manage Your Emotions Wisely

The frustration of dealing with an alcoholic’s behavior can often cause anger in spouses or family members. Alcohol and anger are an explosive mix. If you see that the drinking is already underway for the day, it’s best to not engage with the alcoholic. If you feel anger welling up inside of you, you need a strategy to find a healthy way to express that negative emotion. Venting on the alcoholic will only worsen the situation.

Get An Action Plan

Have an action plan and be ready to act. Many times, during a crisis, the alcoholic’s defense mechanisms will come down, and the fog of denial will lift. The alcoholic may connect the dots and see the wreckage that excessive drinking has brought. It’s at a time like this that an alcoholic may be more open to hearing about treatment options.

Effectively Communicate With The Alcoholic

Like navigating a sailboat on a stormy night, you have to keep your eye on the long-term goal of getting the alcoholic into the safe harbor of treatment. Don’t get bogged down in pointless alcoholic arguments or debates. Choose the right moment to discuss the problem, and ideally speak to the individual in a group setting so that they understand that the problem is something that others see, too.

Seek Professional Help

It can be tempting to just turn a blind eye to the problem of alcoholism and just work around the havoc that the disease is causing in your life. However, it’s important to know that alcoholism is a progressive disease. It’s likely that the problem is only going to get worse over time. This is why your best bet is to try and get your loved one to accept help.

Often, professional treatment is the best approach and often, it starts with a call to a professional interventionist. With a professional team and a comprehensive program for recovery, your loved one has the best chance for long-term recovery.

Develop a Customized Treatment Plan for Substance Abuse

During the consultation process for an intervention, Family First Intervention prepares a customized treatment plan for substance abuse that spans beyond a successful intervention for your loved one. Our plan helps to navigate the way to long term sobriety following the intervention, including the transition to the desired treatment center.

Over the years, Family First Intervention has worked with several different types of treatment centers across the country. These relationships are based on long-term success and professionalism, as well as the treatment centers’ area of expertise that best fits the needs of the addict/alcoholic and the family.

Our Approach to Family Intervention

As the name implies, Family First Intervention takes a family-centered approach to each and every intervention we perform. Most families do not initially realize that the intervention is as much for them as it is for their loved one. Addiction is a family illness, and the family typically has to change their habits as much as the addict. If the family does not change along with the addict, it almost always decreases the overall success of long-term recovery.

About 90 percent of addicts who are given interventions will seek treatment, but few of their families are willing to go through all the steps necessary to maintain the results of a successful intervention. It is imperative, then, to have an intervention performed by a trained professional who can identify the changes needed within the family while helping the addict take responsibility for their life.

Family intervention is about bringing the family together (as many members as possible) to identify the unhealthy roles they have played in their loved one’s addiction, so that these members can begin to change. Once family behaviors improve, a better home environment is created, and the likelihood of the addict getting better is vastly increased.

Our Focus on Addiction Intervention

Our point isn’t to seek out dysfunction families. Rather, addiction afflicts families and creates tension and rifts where healthy relationships may have existed before. And this is where we come in and try to provide several solutions.

The phrase “addiction intervention” refers to helping someone whose behavior is destructive in nature and affecting the quality of life of both the person needing help and their family. No matter which type of addiction a person is suffering from, the common denominator is the suppression of feelings and the escape from reality.

When we speak of addiction intervention, we’re referring to a variety of addictions that an intervention can help with. Here are some of those addictions:

  • Drug Abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Food
  • Hoarding
  • Eating Disorder (Anorexia or Bulimia)
  • Any other destructive behavior that decreases the quality of one’s life

Our focus on the day of the addiction intervention is to have all the family on the same page and to begin peeling back the layers of the unhealthy family dischord created by your loved one. Our interventions are designed to get the loved one feeling accountable for the addiction and willing to accept treatment. Ultimately, we want the addict to willingly accept help so that their destructive behaviors are replaced with healthier, more positive solutions, along with increased family support.

Insurance Verification for Treatment

Family First Intervention can handle the insurance verification process in house once your loved one has agreed to accept treatment. We will thoroughly verify your loved one’s insurance benefits and explain their coverage with as little confusion as possible. Nobody, not even your own insurance company, can guarantee that your loved one’s claim will be covered, but you have to know where you stand first.

At Family First, we dig into the in-network and/or out-of-network portion of your loved one’s health benefits for substance abuse treatment coverage. Understanding the details of these benefits could make all the difference between a short stay in treatment or admission to a long-term care facility for 90 days or more.

Hotlines to Call

  • Drug and Alcohol Resource Center: 1-800-784-6776
  • Drug Rehabs: 1-866-762-3712
  • Recovery Connection: 1-800-511-9225
  • Addiction Helpline: 1-877-235-0400
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse: 1-800-662-HELP(4357)
  • Drug Abuse and Alcohol Hotline: 1-800-553-7160
  • Teen Help Inc: 1-800-400-0900
  • Students Against Drugs and Alcohol: 1-800-782-4062
Note:  This page is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified provider, prior to making any decision about your health.
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