An alcohol dependent person isn’t someone who simply likes drinking – a lot. It’s someone whose body and brain have adapted to believe alcohol is needed for survival, just like food and water. This can happen fairly quickly, but normally occurs gradually over time, exhibiting itself in a number of telltale signs of alcohol dependence.
One of the easiest ways to detect dependency is when a hangover is no longer just a sick, headachey feeling and a wish to lay on the couch all day. While the typical hangover is due to dehydration and lack of nutrients, this new one is full-on alcohol withdrawal. When alcohol dependents sober up after heavy drinking, they often feel anxious, stressed and shaky (the opposite of how they feel when they drink). Many sweat heavily even when it’s not hot in the room, sometimes excreting alcohol through their pores. Some try to avoid these feelings by drinking as soon as they wake up.
Having a beer in the shower before you go to work is a rather surefire sign of alcohol dependency, as is repeated episodes of drinking alone – whether at home or at the bar. Alcohol dependents tend to be drunk for longer periods than social drinkers. For example, they will stay after the party ends to finish the leftover alcohol or hit the liquor store after the bars close.
If someone is alcohol dependent, it’s likely a loved one has expressed concern. To avoid the shame, many will hide their drinking, whether they literally hide their alcohol in the home or simply drink in places where they will not run into anyone they know. They will sometimes drink before and/or after a social event so they can get drunk but not be seen drinking in excess. Many offer excuses about why they’re drinking, even when they aren’t questioned, i.e. “I never see this beer anymore! I have to try it to see if it’s still good,” or “I’m only drinking wine tonight because it’s Alison’s birthday.”
The body, at this point, has developed a high tolerance, so the person will have to drink a significant amount to feel intoxicated. Even when they feel okay, though, they are likely still impaired. At this point, the body requires alcohol just to feel normal. Alcohol dependent people may want to cut back or stop drinking and find that it is difficult to do. Sometimes, it works for a short period of time, cravings will usually draw them back to drinking at the same level as before or even more heavily – unless they seek outside help.
Perhaps the most serious sign of alcohol dependence is when the alcohol dependent person’s life starts to revolve around alcohol: getting it, drinking it, and recovering from it. Other things get pushed to the wayside, including work, relationships, non-drinking social activities, and even physical health. Some can maintain jobs and relationships, but they start to feel inconvenient – infringing upon drinking time. Unfortunately, alcoholism is progressive. If the person keeps drinking, these problems will only get worse.
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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