The term “alcoholism” is complex. Since millions of people drink alcohol regularly, some to excess, it can be difficult to grasp the concept of what alcoholism truly means. People may wonder, is alcoholism really a disease and the answer is yes, it is. When alcohol use reaches the point of addiction, it’s not a lifestyle choice or a matter of exceeding tolerance levels. It’s an illness that can worsen over time and it must be treated.
Per the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s definition, “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and continue despite harmful consequences.”
Drinking alcohol itself isn’t considered taboo, which makes people comfortable talking about it and engaging in situations where it’s available. Alcohol use disorder, on the other hand, often carries a stigma that prevents people from admitting how much alcohol they consume or that there could be a problem. This prevents people from seeking the help they need to treat the disease and start on the path to recovery.
Problems with alcohol manifest themselves in various ways and don’t look the same for everyone. The societal perception of what alcoholism entails and what an alcoholic acts like often goes to the extreme of how this disease affects people. It’s important to look at it as a chronic disease that requires professional care and compassionate support in order to heal.
Factors That Affect an Alcoholism Diagnosis
There’s a fine line between social or even excessive drinking and alcoholism. Various factors contribute to whether a person becomes addicted to alcohol or not. There’s no way to compare one person’s consumption to another. Age, weight, height, and general health all play a part in how alcohol affects you. Stressful life experiences can also lead to drinking more heavily, which eventually can become an addiction.
Have you ever considered why alcoholism is a disease? It’s because an addiction means a person doesn’t know when to stop drinking. It’s a compulsive behavior driven by alcohol dependency. Although a doctor diagnoses alcoholism, there are ways to determine if you have a tendency toward alcohol-dependent behavior. Consider your drinking habits and the effects of them.
- Do you start drinking first thing in the morning?
- Do you continue drinking long after everyone else is finished?
- Has drinking alcohol negatively affected your job or personal relationships?
- Have you been in an alcohol-related car accident or other type of incident?
Answering these types of questions honestly helps to reveal the early stages of addiction. Although it’s easy to validate certain moments that occur as a result of excessive drinking, continuing such a level of activity and relationship with alcohol leads down a dangerous path to alcoholism. The difference between drinking too much one night and suffering from alcoholism is that with the latter you’re unable to limit or stop yourself from immediately drinking again.
Once alcohol addiction has taken control, your body will feel like it needs it just to function normally rather than to feel intoxicated. That’s because over time, alcohol affects the brain. This continuous increase is damaging to the brain, liver, and other organs. It changes how you act, think, and feel.
Stages of Alcoholism
One of the reasons that alcoholism may be difficult to diagnose is because people don’t often go to the extreme right away. There are signs that lead up to alcohol-dependent behavior that may not at first be obviously apparent; a few extra drinks here and there, a rough patch leading to excessive drinking for a short period of time. There are five general stages of alcoholism: binge drinking, excessive drinking, problem drinking, dependence, and addiction.
There’s often overlap between stages and the time between each differs from person to person. The first stage of binge drinking is common among young adults ages 18 to 21. This is the experimentation phase where people may drink all the time or every day, but when they do it’s in excess. It’s not any less harmful than other stages of alcoholism. Binge drinking can lead to blackouts, vomiting, seizures, and other extreme side effects.
The second stage is similar to the first, but it involves drinking alcohol more frequently. It may start with a drink with friends at a happy hour and quickly increase to three to four every night out of habit or due to stress or boredom. In this stage, there doesn’t necessarily have to be an event or other people around to continue this level of drinking.
Even if it’s not to the point of being intoxicated, the amount of alcohol consumed still has its own physical and mental effects. These may include memory loss, slurred speech, delayed reactions, and loss of other cognitive functions. It makes it unsafe to drive and also does internal damage as well. This type of behavior can also quickly lead to what’s dubbed as “problem drinking.”
Once the behavior begins affecting others, it has reached the next stage of alcoholism. If drinking causes you to be late to work or hungover on a regular basis, it may have reached a “problem” stage. If you’re arguing with friends or family members about how much you drink or your actions when drinking, it may be time to consider how seriously alcohol is affecting you. Since alcohol affects the brain, it may not seem like a difference in the moment because it’s become a new norm, but to those who know you well, it will seem out of character.
When a person has developed an alcohol dependency, they may think they can quit drinking anytime they want. However, the attachment makes it feel out of the ordinary not to drink. It closely aligns with alcohol addiction, which is when you don’t have control over when you stop. And, when you do abstain, painful alcohol withdrawal symptoms take effect.
Treatment helps you achieve abstinence and work through the alcohol withdrawal process and into recovery. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the first stage or well into the last, each puts your health and well-being at risk and can have lasting detrimental effects.
How Does Treatment for Alcoholism Work?
Since alcohol affects people in different ways based on age, gender, health, and lifestyle, treatment must also accommodate these differences as well. The first step for every alcohol treatment program is detox. Detox is the process of ridding your body of alcohol without drinking again.
During this phase, you’ll experience symptoms that may include body aches, nausea, vomiting, and tremors. These range in intensity and are typically most severe in the first few days as your body is adjusting to abstinence from alcohol. Full detox typically lasts up to a week, but can progress longer depending on your history of alcohol use.
The safest way to go through detox is under the care of a drug treatment facility. Detoxing on your own is difficult both physically and mentally. The symptoms can make you feel weak and tired and it can be difficult to resist temptation and find the motivation to continue with the encouragement of others. With the help of caring professionals, you’ll receive the medical attention you need, as well as the support and guidance that’s necessary to help keep you on the track to recovery.
Once detox is complete, the next step is participating in an inpatient or outpatient care program, depending on what fits your needs best. Inpatient or residential treatment requires a short-term stay at a safe and peaceful facility to work with a team of dedicated specialists through the different areas of your recovery.
Outpatient care is a continuation of what’s learned to help you transition back to regular life. It’s also an opportunity for those who’ve previously received residential treatment to return for additional care at a future date when they need assistance. To receive the full continuum of care, both residential and outpatient care are recommended, in addition to addiction support services to help maintain your sobriety once treatment is complete.
The Path to Healing
Many who are unfamiliar with its effects don’t know how to categorize alcoholism. They still may ask, is alcoholism an illness? It is an illness that has its own set of symptoms and affects both you and those around you.It can affect jobs, relationships, and other life events by making everything come to a halt. When the disease takes over, the addict is left craving their next sip of alcohol. The sooner you can start fighting it and giving your body all it needs to be healthy, the greater opportunity you have to become substance-free for the long-run.
It’s normal to feel anxious about what life will be like without alcohol if that’s what you’ve known for so long. Through treatment, you’ll have a certified support team who will help guide you through your healing. You’ll be able to uncover triggers and ways to cope with them without using alcohol going forward. There are opportunities you may have missed or goals you’ve put on hold when alcoholism took over, which treatment will help plan for as you begin to heal.
The long-term effects of alcohol use disorder can cause havoc on an addict’s body. That’s why treatment of alcoholism is so detrimental to the long-term recovery of an addict. If you or a loved one is an alcoholic, the time to seek help is now. Our health professionals are here to guide you through the stages of withdrawal and overcome your alcoholism and addiction. Contact our team today to get one step closer to sobriety.
- “American Society of Addiction Medicine.” ASAM Definition of Addiction, 15 Sept. 2019, www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction.
- Cherney, Kristeen. “Stages of Alcoholism: When Is It A Problem?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 4 Apr. 560AD, www.healthline.com/health/stages-alcoholism.