Alcohol has insinuated itself into just about every social activity imaginable, from weddings and sporting events to dance parties and housewarmings. In fact, a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed that 86 percent of people age 18 and older drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.
Alcohol, as a social lubricant, has a way of transforming a stiff, buttoned-up affair into a raucous, all-out throwdown, a curator for countless experiences, pleasurable and unforgettable.
Studies and published reports boast of alcohol’s health benefits. For example, moderate drinking is good for the heart and circulatory system and protects against gallstones and type 2 diabetes states the Harvard School of Public Health. In a 2017 study, the American College of Cardiology concluded that men and women who engaged in light-to-moderate drinking have a decreased risk of mortality from all causes and cardiovascular disease.
It’s when moderate drinking morphs into heavy consumption that this elixir morphs into a ruinous, life-altering poison, causing someone to feel abnormal when they are not drinking and leaving them susceptible to a litany of physical and psychological deficits. The withdrawal symptoms that come with an alcohol use disorder can also be life-threatening.
Depending on someone’s history, environment, physical, and mental state of being, recovery can take months or even years. The chronic condition of addiction can take up an entire lifetime. While the nation remains fixated on the opioid addiction, alcohol use disorders are on the rise, particularly among older Americans.
As this Washington Post article contends, the spike in drinking among older Americans, in particular, has revealed some troubling health trends: “The nation’s sharp decline in cardiovascular disease and strokes has begun to level off. Emergency room visits for alcohol-related falls, particularly disabling for seniors, have increased. So have deaths from liver cirrhosis.”
The only way an individual can safely treat their addiction to alcohol is through professional addiction treatment. Depending on the severity of their addiction and circumstances, the amount of time in recovery varies.
Without professional addiction treatment, the prospect of enjoying a healthy and generative life greatly diminishes.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that one “standard” drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This amount is typically found in a regular 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5-ounce shot of a distilled spirit like vodka or whiskey. Two drinks a day for men and one for women is considered moderate.
While moderate drinking does not pose much of a threat to someone’s health, drinking a lot over a long period or on a single occasion (also known as binge drinking) can have a deleterious effect on a person’s health.
Heavy alcohol use can disrupt mood, behavior, and coordination, but it can also inflict heavy damage on the heart and liver. Heart complications include:
The liver damage that occurs from heavy drinking can manifest as these conditions:
There also is scientific evidence that links drinking to several types of cancers, including:
What’s more, alcohol can damage the pancreas and weaken the immune system. Heavy and chronic drinkers are more prone to contracting diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”
What’s more, an estimated 16 million people have AUD, according to the NIAAA.
To be diagnosed with AUD means the person meets specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). If you suspect that your or a loved one has AUD, the NIAAA recommends that you consider these questions:
In the past year, have you:
The NIAAA states that if you exhibit any of these symptoms, your drinking may be a concern. The more of these symptoms you exhibit, the more you will need to change your drinking habits.
Another gauge that can determine whether you have an alcohol problem is the CAGE Questionnaire. The following questions can be used to assess whether you have alcoholic symptoms:
1. Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
3. Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye-opener)?
If you answer “yes” to two or more questions, then that typically indicates dependency. Professional help and treatment are necessary to halt this cycle of destruction before it consumes your life.
It remains difficult to determine the early onset of alcohol addiction because the signs do not readily present themselves. When you engage in prolonged use, the following signs will manifest themselves more clearly. You could exhibit any of the following behaviors where:
You will also begin to crave more alcohol to experience the same effects as before and show the following signs and behaviors:
Whether you display symptoms that are mild or severe, professional addiction treatment will be your best course toward recovery. Yet, only 10 percent of people with AUD seek treatment, a decision that can ultimately prove life-threatening.
Nelsan Ellis, a critically acclaimed actor best remembered for his role on HBO’s True Blood, is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you decide to go cold turkey by quitting alcohol on your own. In 2017, his family shared the hard details of his last hours:
“Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own…during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.”
Ellis died after spending four days in the hospital.
His story is a testament as to why professional treatment is necessary for alcohol addiction. Going “cold turkey” puts you at risk for experiencing a series of harmful withdrawal symptoms that can present themselves within eight hours of your last drink, and they can even appear days later.”
Withdrawal symptoms peak from between 24 to 72 hours, but they can last a lot longer, sometimes weeks. Withdrawal symptoms include:
You may also experience other symptoms, such as:
Additionally, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (DTs), can occur and cause these symptoms:
DTs syndrome is life-threatening, especially when you opt to go cold turkey. Its symptoms almost took the life of bestselling crime author and screenwriter Lowell Cauffiel back in the 1980s. He told USA Today in a November 2018 article that he decided to abruptly stop drinking two-fifths of bourbon a day to gain the proper motivation to stay sober.
The weeklong process started with the feeling that his “guts were being pulled out.” He shook. He sweat. He suffered some very vivid hallucinations.
The tactic worked, but it nearly killed him. Hundreds of people, however, are not as lucky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 831 people died from alcohol-related withdrawal in 2016.
There is no single, one-size-fits-all course of professional addiction recovery for people who grapple with alcohol addiction. One’s substance abuse history will determine the length of recovery. The severity of the addiction and the number of withdrawal symptoms someone exhibits are also taken into account.
Professional addiction treatment does possess key features that, over time, have been proven to treat people with alcohol use disorders. Treatment typically begins with medical detoxification where alcohol and other toxins are removed from your body. You will be provided with medications that will safely and comfortably treat your withdrawal symptoms, which could last a week or more. A team of licensed and experienced medical professionals will be assessed to determine the best treatment options after detox.
After detox, patients will be required to enroll in one of two programs, inpatient or outpatient. If you have a severe alcohol addiction and/or a co-occurring mental health issue, an inpatient stay at a facility away from home will be the most effective option. With inpatient, you will receive therapy and group and individual counseling to help you discover the root causes of your addiction. An inpatient stay in a facility typically lasts between one to three months, though a three-month stay is proven to be most effective.
For people who do not have an extensive history of alcohol abuse and have a stable home environment, there is outpatient treatment, where they can receive therapy and counseling during the week but can return home and continue their normal lives.
A partial hospitalization program is also an option for people with severe addictions that gives them the option of living at home but still receive intensive treatment at a hospital or clinic at least five days a week.
Because alcohol addiction, like other substance use disorders, is a brain disease, it requires former users to engage a lifelong battle. Thus, it is necessary to continue receiving treatment after rehab in the form of support groups and aftercare programs like 12-step.
Ultimately, the length of stay for your rehab could take anywhere from one to three months. Yet management of your addiction requires a lifetime investment. The value of professional treatment is the opportunity to realize a healthy, fulfilling, and generative life.
Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Alcohol Use Disorder. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
Alcohol's Effects on the Body. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body
Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. (2018, August 30). from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/
O'Donnell, J. (2018, November 28). Quitting alcohol can be deadly: Hundreds in the US die each year. from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2018/11/27/alcohol-withdrawal-syndrome-detox-delirium-tremens-hallucinations-substance-abuse-disorder/2082020002/
Parker, R. (2017, July 11). Nelsan Ellis' Family Shares Circumstances of 'True Blood' Actor's Death. from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/true-blood-actor-nelsan-ellis-died-due-alcohol-withdrawal-complications-family-says-1019634
What Is A Standard Drink? (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink