The World Health Organization considers alcoholism to be a global problem, harming both the person impacted as well as the family members and friends of that alcoholic person. Each year, according to the organization, the harmful use of alcohol results in the death of 2.5 million people, and injury and illness in many millions more. It’s clear that alcoholism is a problem that everyone should be worried about, and if those impacted could accept help for the problems they face, perhaps the impact of this terrible disease could be lessened.
At Axis, we have a long history of helping people overcome their alcohol use and abuse issues. We know that admitting an alcohol problem is difficult, but we also know that recovery truly is possible, if the appropriate help is provided. We hope that this article will provide you with the information you’ll need in order to make an informed choice about your alcoholism treatment.
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Stages of Alcoholism
Alcoholism can be difficult to diagnose, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as it can be an insidious disease that looks a bit different in each person who has it. For example, some people can drink huge amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, and while they might have an alcohol abuse issue, they may not be classified as alcoholics. Similarly, some people may only drink occasionally, but they might have classic symptoms of alcoholism. Unlike some other forms of addiction, where it’s easy for experts to use black-and-white terms to identify those at risk and those impacted, alcoholism tends to be diagnosed with shades of gray. At the beginning of a treatment program, experts try to assess where their patients fall on the spectrum of addiction, so they can create treatment programs that are appropriate for the problems these people might face.
Addictions to alcohol are commonly diagnosed based on responses to questions. The more times a person can answer “yes” to questions like this, the more likely it is that alcoholism is a part of this person’s life:
- Are you unable to control how much you drink?
- Do you feel upset when someone asks you about your drinking?
- Have you tried to cut back or quit, and found you couldn’t?
- Do you feel physically ill when you’re not drinking?
- Do you spend a lot of time drinking or recovering from drinking?
- Do you find that you need to drink more, in order to feel the effects of alcohol?
Getting Control Without Help
Some critics of the alcohol rehabilitation movement claim that people with alcohol problems can simply stop on their own, if they have a strong enough sense of personal willpower and they are motivated to stop using. These critics might point to studies such as this study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Here, researchers found that “spontaneous recovery,” or cessation of alcoholism without formal treatment, was found in 10 to 42 percent of alcoholics. This study seems to suggest that some people can, and do, simply choose to stop drinking on their own, and they don’t need therapy to overcome their urge to drink.
Those who have a long history of alcohol problems might be wise to take these studies with a grain of salt, however. Alcohol is a very powerful drug that can cause long-term changes in the brain. Over time, these changes can add up and make it very difficult for people to simply choose to stop abusing alcohol, and then stick to that resolution. Their bodies crave and need alcohol, and they need help in order to recover. It’s not a character flaw, but a chemical-based illness. Other studies have made this distinction quite clear. In one such study, published in the journal Addiction, spontaneous recovery tended to occur most often in less-severe cases of alcoholism, and those who “recover” tended to continue to use alcohol. By contrast, those who got treatment tended to abstain from alcohol when their treatment programs were over. This seems to indicate that a spontaneous recovery isn’t always a true recovery, and that it might not be the best choice for people with severe alcohol problems.
Cleansing the Body of Alcohol
Typically, before addiction treatment programs can begin, people need to go through detoxification programs and cleanse their bodies of the drugs they’ve become addicted to. People who are addicted to alcohol might think they can do this step alone, without help, and save time and hassle. They might be wise to think again.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that people who drink 5 to 7 pints of wine, 7 to 8 pints or beer, or 1 pint of hard alcohol every day for several months are at risk for developing severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. During detoxification, these people may become confused and irritable, and then develop hallucinations and delirium. Over time, they may even develop life-threatening seizures. Medications can ease these symptoms and allow people to move through the process without danger.
Since the risk of medical complications is high in people who abuse alcohol, experts often recommend that addicts work with their doctors, or enter formal rehab programs for addiction, instead of attempting to quit on their own without help. Detox from alcohol can be deadly, and it’s simply not safe to go it alone.
When detoxification is complete, the alcoholic person is not completely cured of the urge to use alcohol. In fact, the person might very well feel deep cravings for alcohol, and the environment the person lives in might still be conducive to alcohol use and abuse. The person might have alcohol in the home, live close to bars or have friends who consistently drink alcohol. During the first fragile days of recovery, the temptation to use might be overwhelming, and the risk of relapse might be quite high. For this reason, medications are sometimes offered to people in recovery.
One medication, naltrexone, is designed to block the part of the brain that feels pleasure when alcohol or drugs are present. This can help to break a psychological addiction a person might have to substances of abuse. An addicted person might come to believe that drinking or using drugs will automatically bring pleasure. On naltrexone, these people simply feel nothing when they drink or use drugs. The action is blocked. This might help prevent a relapse to consistent use, as the link between substances and pleasure has been removed.
Another medication, disulfiram, can provide an even more powerful incentive for people who are tempted to relapse.
- Chest pain
- Sensations of choking
This drug tends to convince users that alcohol is actually unpleasant, and using alcohol can cause such extreme symptoms that the person might never want to drink again. For those who are motivated to stop abusing alcohol, but fear that they will “slip,” disulfiram might help them to avoid a relapse to persistent alcohol use.
Medications can help people move through the bumpy times, when they’re tempted to use once more, but they can’t help to correct the original addiction issue. That sort of recovery involves therapy. Here, the alcoholic will learn why the addiction took hold in the first place, and what can be done to correct it.
Many therapists who work with alcoholic patients use cognitive behavioral therapy. In these sessions, therapists help alcoholics identify dangerous situations in which they might be tempted to relapse, and therapists give addicts tools they can use to move through these situations without relapsing. It sounds like a simplistic solution to a difficult problem, but in reality, this can be a powerful form of therapy, as addicts learn how to use their own willpower and their own behavior to take charge of their lives once more. Many people find this therapy format incredibly helpful. In one study, published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Belgica, 76 percent of alcoholic patients surveyed felt that this method was helpful for them. Given these sorts of survey responses, it’s easy to see why the method is so popular with therapists.
Some people enter inpatient programs for alcoholism, in which they go to therapy sessions like this multiple times per day and live in a controlled environment in which the temptation to relapse might be decreased or even absent. Other people prefer to access help on an outpatient basis, continuing to live at home while they obtain care on a daily or weekly basis. In either case, treatment tends to last for months, ensuring that the lessons are truly learned before the person continues on with life. In some cases, therapy never really ends, and people continue to keep working on their sobriety for the rest of their lives.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can provide another form of help for people in recovery. Here, alcoholics join in a supportive environment to learn more about alcoholism, and share stories of the techniques they have used to keep relapses from occurring. AA groups also encourage mentoring, in which an experienced member works as a sponsor for those new to recovery. These tight friendships can provide alcoholics with a lifeline of support when the temptation to relapse begin to arise, and those who mentor may find that their motivation to stay sober also rises as they help new members “work the program.” AA has been remarkably effective in helping people maintain long-term sobriety. In one study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers found that those who participated in outpatient programs and 12-step support groups like AA had better one-year sobriety outcomes than people who did not participate. Staying in touch with learning can be an effective way to maintain sobriety, even when intensive programs are complete.
Taking First Steps
Healing from alcoholism can begin when the addicted person admits that alcohol is a problem, and agrees to get help for that problem. When you’re ready to get started, contact us at Axis. We offer services on an inpatient and outpatient basis, and we always tailor our services to meet the needs of our clients. Please contact us to find out more, and get the enrollment process started.