Growing up, I thought alcoholics were people who drank constantly, beer cans or wine glasses or brown bags in hand, lost their jobs, and dramatically ruined every relationship in their life. That road is definitely possible, but I learned it’s not the only road for addictive drinking, not by far.
Modern culture has presented a more nuanced version of what addiction can look like, but often alcoholism is still depicted fairly predictably, a la the falling down drunken dad in Shameless, or Lucille in Arrested Development. In life, how this disease presents itself isn’t always so loud, graphic or obvious. There are other details about alcoholism that don’t get much play time in our culture– let’s take a look at those.
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1. Some alcoholics function very well…
Functional alcoholism, or high-functioning alcoholism, refers to people who drink alcoholically, but manage to hold down their job, interact (mostly) normally in society, meet most of their obligations, and stay out of jail. They aren’t getting DUI’s or arrested for public drunkeness–yet. In fact, functional alcoholics may be so successful or appear so happy that no one has the slightest idea they have a problem.
2. Yet all alcoholism ends badly.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It doesn’t reverse itself or end unless the person does something about it. Meanwhile, an active alcoholic who is functioning well will find that eventually, the center cannot hold. They miss meetings, call someone in a blackout and don’t remember the next day, start to hide alcohol at work, let go of a relationship instead of alcohol. For some, this process of erosion can take months, for others, years.
3. Alcoholic drinking seriously damages your body and brain.
Most people know that heavy drinking hurts the liver, but not as well known is the myriad of other physical effects. Over time, alcoholic drinkers can experience deterioration of brain function, heart damage, high blood pressure, stroke, pancreatitis, digestive diseases, a weakened immune system, and a higher risk for various cancers, such as breast, throat, esophagus, and mouth.
4. Binge drinking damages the brain.
A person who binge drinks may not think of themselves as an alcoholic, but the body doesn’t differentiate: the physical damage occurs all the same. Evidence points to regular binge drinking causing damage to the frontal cortex and sections of the brain involved in executive functions and decision making. Your mood and physical responses are also deeply altered with binge drinking.
5. Alcoholic drinking is not easily defined.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as 5 or more drinks on 5 or more days of the last 30 days. However, I’ve known women who defined themselves as alcoholics who drank less than that one each occasion, but more frequently. Knowing the warning signs is important, because a problem can creep up on you and get serious before you realize you have one.
6. The warning signs of alcoholism.
There are warning signs of heavy or alcoholic drinking:
- Anger when anyone asks you about your drinking.
- Blacking out.
- Trying to quit and finding it very hard, or impossible.
- Experiencing withdrawal: anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, nausea, headaches when you don’t drink.
- Regularly drinking more than you ‘meant to.’
- Neglecting responsibilities because you want to drink or because you are hungover.
Here is a ‘Am I an Alcoholic’ Self Test from The National Council On Alcoholism and Drug Dependance.
7. Women have different risks than men.
Younger women ages 18-34 are more at risk for alcoholic drinking than their middle-aged counterparts. Women also have different physical risks from alcoholic drinking, including higher rates of breast cancer, and more rapid onset of liver and heart disease.
8. Wine absolutely counts.
In our society right now, wine and women are paired regularly as a very socially acceptable stress reliever. Jokes about enormous glasses of wine, wine parties, wine clubs, ‘Wine Wednesday,’ are all common. There is nothing wrong with wine in itself, it has some health benefits and is a relaxant, but our society presents regular wine consumption as the hilarious answer to a life jam-packed with stress and emotions we don’t know how to deal with: the perfect setup for alcoholic drinking. Whatever you drink, if you use it regularly as an escape, if you depend on it for emotional relief, if you notice increasing dependance and spend time ‘looking forward’ to your drink on a regular basis, it may be time for a harder look.
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