When people refer to someone as “having an alcohol problem,” it does not necessarily mean they are an alcoholic. Problems with alcohol can range from occasionally drinking to harmful levels (also known as binge drinking) to alcohol dependence and alcoholism. One does not have to exhibit all the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) to have a drinking problem. Even if someone displays only a few symptoms, they may have a problem with alcohol that could benefit from treatment.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates over seventeen million American adults have alcohol use disorders of varying severity. Another nine-hundred thousand Americans between the ages of twelve and seventeen have alcohol use disorders. It is essential to remember that alcoholism is not a problem created overnight. It emerges out of long-term alcohol abuse. For most adults, occasional, moderate drinking is not a cause for concern. However, when alcohol consumption becomes uncontrollable, addiction and alcoholism could become a problem.
Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes alcohol dependence disorders as mild, moderate, or severe. Additionally, this is the terminology used when medical providers are providing an official diagnosis. Most people refer to alcohol use disorders in different terms. These include Binge drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcohol dependence (alcoholism). We have all heard these terms, but what do they mean, and how do they indicate when someone might have a problem with alcohol?
One of the most common drinking problems among teens and adults alike is binge drinking. The simple definition of binge drinking is drinking a harmful amount of alcohol in one session of drinking. The official definition of binge drinking is the consumption of five or more (four or more for females) standard drinks in one sitting. In most cases, a “sitting” is narrowed to a window of two hours or less as the body does not have adequate time to process the alcohol taken into the system during such a short window. The equivalent of one standard drink is calculated based n the amount of alcohol in the drink. For instance:
- Beer and wine coolers- both beer and wine coolers are typically 5% alcohol. One standard drink is 12 ounces.
- Malt liquor- these liquors are approximately 7% alcohol, and therefore a standard drink is between 7 and 8 ounces.
- Spirits- spirits are typically 80 proof, which means they contain approximately 40% alcohol. A standard drink (or shot) of spirits, including gin, vodka, whiskey, or brandy, is 1.5 fluid ounces.
Scientific research has shown that drinking more than the suggested number of standard drinks can have a significant impact on one’s emotional and physical health. Therefore, if one engages in binge drinking, even on an occasional basis, they have a problem with alcohol. For many, this is not a severe problem or defined as alcoholism, but frequent binge drinking can be considered dangerous.
The most significant research into the effects of binge drinking has occurred around the drinking habits on college campuses. Unfortunately, binge drinking has shown to be a common practice among students between ages eighteen and twenty-one. The same body of research also indicates students on college campuses with higher binge drinking rates experience more physical assaults and unwanted sexual advances or crimes.
When having a “few too many” is becoming a frequent occurrence that is beginning to cause real problems in your life, yet, you continue to drink despite the negative consequences, your drinking has become alcohol abuse. As ones drinking increase from occasional binge drinking to perhaps, drinking every weekend, an alcohol abuse problem is beginning to develop.
Drinking is considered alcohol abuse when someone continues to drink regardless of:
- Poor performance at work or at school
- Neglect of responsibilities
- Legal troubles (such as DWI or more severe issues)
It is important to understand that regular alcohol use (or alcohol dependence) is different from moderate drinking. For regular drinkers, there is usually a more significant emotional attachment to alcohol and how it makes the person feel. Where a moderate drinker may pair a glass of wine with dinner, a regular drinker uses alcohol to enhance emotional well-being and make themselves “feel good.” As drinking increases and the increase continues, one becomes more dependent on alcohol to achieve happiness, and their risk of developing alcoholism increases dramatically.
Because alcoholism is considered a progressive disease with several stages, it is essential to understand when it is time to ask for help. If your drinking has caused significant problems in other areas of your life, including social, legal, and personal, yet you choose not to or cannot stop drinking, it is time to seek treatment at a treatment center such as The Hills in the beautiful Los Angeles, California area.
Before alcohol dependence develops, many people go through the “problem drinking” phase. At this point, frequent, uncontrolled alcohol abuse has led to the drinker feeling and seeing the effects of their habit. Again, at this point, drinking and alcohol have become a problem for which treatment is vital. During this phase, one may become more depressed, anxious, and possibly experience sleep difficulties. They may also start to feel sick (physically) from the effects of heavy, frequent drinking, but like the feeling, it provides too much to care. There are specific social challenges that are commonly attributed to problem drinking, which include:
- Relationship challenges or loss of relationships
- Decreased social activity due to erratic and unpredictable behavior
- A drastic and sudden change in one’s social circle
- Difficulty conversing with strangers
If help is not sought during this stage, alcoholism is the likely next step. At this point, most people have gone too far down the path of addiction to turn around without help from a treatment center and expert medical staff like those here at The Hills.
Alcohol abuse, if not adequately treated, can turn into alcohol dependence very quickly. Those who are alcohol dependent (or alcoholics) continue to drink despite the growing challenges alcohol has created. At this stage, continued alcohol consumption will also begin to have a physical effect. People who are alcohol dependent (or who struggle with alcoholism):
- Continue to drink despite new or ongoing physical or psychological problems
- Begin to crave alcohol when they do not have a drink in their hand
- Develop a tolerance for the effects of alcohol requiring more drinks to achieve “that feeling.”
- Have withdrawal symptoms when not drinking (common examples include nausea, tremors, sweating, heart racing, and severe agitation)
Once someone reaches this stage-alcohol dependent, severely alcohol-dependent, alcoholism-it is much more challenging to decide to get or successfully get sober. This is because, at this point, a physical and psychological addiction to alcohol has developed. If you have reached this stage, it is essential to get help for your alcohol abuse problem before any physical damage (or other issues) become permanent.
At this stage, alcohol is no longer someone consumed just for pleasure. Alcohol addiction is characterized by a physical and psychological need to drink. One an addiction to alcohol has developed, the physical cravings for alcohol are often so intense they are inconsolable until the person begins drinking again. Consequently, the addict is drinking almost constantly to alleviate the physical discomfort associated with not having alcohol in their system. They may also develop an addiction to or begin to misuse other substances during this time as well. People with alcohol addiction often drink whenever and wherever they desire, regardless of any potential consequence.
The short answer is, yes. Any stage of alcoholism, whether binge drinking or alcohol dependence, is problematic in its own way. One of the biggest challenges risky drinkers often face is the inability to accept that they indeed have a problem.
It is critical to identify problems related to drinking and alcohol consumption early on to help avoid dependence and eventual addiction. The longer someone has been struggling with addiction, the harder it is to take the steps necessary to achieve sobriety. The deeper into the stages of alcoholism someone goes, the more difficult it is to quit drinking, and more likely they are to develop long-term physical side effects. A few examples of these include:
- Damage to the liver, liver failure or cirrhosis of the liver
- Heart disease
- Brain damage
- Mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression and increased risk of suicide
Many people believe their drinking, if moderate in frequency and amount, is not a problem. They also tend to think that it won’t or can’t develop into a problem because they “do not drink often enough” for issues to develop. Unfortunately, the exact opposite often occurs. Long term occasional drinking leads to increased tolerance and an increased need to consume alcohol to achieve the feelings of relaxation and ease provided by intoxication or “tipsiness.” Before long, addiction and alcoholism have developed. Unlike many chronic illnesses, one can “beat” alcoholism. By seeking treatment and completing a substance abuse program here at The Hills in the Los Angeles area, you can achieve sobriety and take the steps towards living a life without alcohol.
At The Hills, we understand the decision to enter treatment is not easy. There are still many real and lingering stigmas associated with substance abuse treatment. It is normal to wonder and be concerned about how a stay at rehab will impact your employment, your family, and your physical, emotional well-being. Withdrawal from alcohol addiction can be just as challenging and equally as risky as detox from any other form of addiction and is not a process you should undergo without appropriate medical, physical, and emotional support. At The Hills, we design our luxury California alcohol addiction rehabilitation programs based on the needs of each individual person who comes through our doors. We understand substance abuse treatment must be personalized to be successful. If you are ready to live your best life without alcohol in the picture, contact us at The Hills today.