Determining if someone is alcohol dependent, or what some would call an alcoholic, is not as simple as giving them a questionnaire, especially if you’re not trained on the subject. Some of the signs of alcoholism can be signs of other disorders as well, and they can appear differently in different people.
The stereotype of the alcoholic is the drunk in a ditch at the side of the road sipping out of a paper bag, but there are very few alcoholics who fit that profile. Many alcoholics hold down jobs, some in very technical fields, and some are very adept at hiding their drinking from others. This makes it dangerous to assess other people, but it can be helpful to attempt to assess yourself.
There is a difference between being a full-fledged alcoholic and having a drinking problem. If your drinking has led to difficulties at work, at school, or in relationships, then you have a problem – even if you only drink rarely or socially. If you binge drink one or more nights a week, then your drinking falls under alcohol abuse, but you may or may not be drinking alcoholically. Alcoholism has three distinct characteristics: tolerance, withdrawal, and cravings. While all types of drinking affect the brain, alcoholics develop dependency.
When you drink alcohol regularly, the brain starts to make some adaptations. It allows you to take in more of the drug without experiencing acute intoxication. The brain does this to try to prevent you from poisoning yourself, but you experience it as needed more alcohol to get the same effect. Often, alcoholics can drink large quantities without feeling drunk. Eventually, they develop the urge to drink simply to feel normal.
After a night of drinking, a lot of people feel nauseous and dehydrated. This does not necessarily mean they are going through withdrawal. An alcoholic will start to acquire additional symptoms, such as fever, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety when alcohol isn’t in his system.
A craving is more than simply wishing you had a glass of wine to complement a nice meal. It is a developed psychological need for alcohol. To satisfy cravings, many alcoholics drink alone and/or in the morning, often feeling the need to hide their drinking from others. They start thinking about where their next drink will come from and over time it starts to take top priority.
No matter how much good you want to do, you can’t, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t stay sober long enough to do any good, even for the people you love. The only way to get rid of the pain of not being able to help the people you love is to drink. That’s why it’s essential to break this cycle.
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.
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