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Is alcoholism a disease?

Yes, alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.

Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle

Is the person who regularly takes a cocktail before dinner an alcoholic?

Not necessarily. Drinking every day - in and of itself - does not indicate alcoholism. Many people drink every day for a variety of reasons with no subsequent problems. The question to ask is: "Do I need that drink?" If the answer is "No" and you can control the amount of alcohol you drink, then more than likely you are not an alcoholic.

Can a problem drinker simply cut down?

It depends. If that person has been diagnosed as an alcoholic, the answer is "no." Alcoholics who try to cut down on drinking rarely succeed. Cutting out alcohol--that is, abstaining--is usually the best course for recovery. People who are not alcohol dependent but who have experienced alcohol-related problems may be able to limit the amount they drink. If they can't stay within those limits, they need to stop drinking altogether.

What is social drinking? How much does a social drinker drink?

Social drinking is not based on - nor defined by - a certain number of drinks. While lacking an exact definition, social drinking usually takes place with two or more participants, is satisfying to the drinker and participants, and does not impede the drinker's health, interpersonal relations, or economic functioning.

A social drinker respects alcohol and its effect on the body, consumes alcohol according to family and social customs, and realizes that alcohol complements the pleasures of life. For the social drinker, drinking is not an end in itself but an accompaniment to other activities.

What distinguishes a social drinker from an alcoholic?

Loss of control. A social drinker has control over when, where, and how much he/she drinks. An alcoholic has lost this ability and after beginning to drink, usually drinks to intoxication.

Can alcoholism be treated?

Yes, alcoholism can be treated. Alcoholism treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help a person stop drinking. Most alcoholics need help to recover from their disease. With support and treatment, many people are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives

What type of person is an alcoholic?

There is no typical alcoholic. Anyone can abuse alcohol and become and alcoholic. Current studies show an increasing number of alcoholic women, teenagers, and children, some as young as 10 years old. There is also a rising number of alcoholics among senior citizens. It is estimated that as many as one out of ten people over age 60 have alcohol-related problems.

Do you have to be an alcoholic to experience problems?

No. Alcoholism is only one type of an alcohol problem. Alcohol abuse can be just as harmful. A person can abuse alcohol without actually being an alcoholic--that is, he or she may drink too much and too often but still not be dependent on alcohol. Some of the problems linked to alcohol abuse include not being able to meet work, school, or family responsibilities; drunk-driving arrests and car crashes; and drinking-related medical conditions. Under some circumstances, even social or moderate drinking is dangerous--for example, when driving, during pregnancy, or when taking certain medications.

What is denial?

Denial occurs when a person refuses to believe that alcohol-related symptoms are caused by excessive drinking. Denial is a major obstacle to alcoholic recovery.

What is the difference between denial and rationalization?

With denial, the alcoholic believes that drinking has nothing to do with his/her problems. With rationalization, the alcoholic attempts to find logical reasons for drinking, by confining drinking to certain occasions - e.g., "I'll drink because it's my birthday" or "I'll drink because it'll help me unwind" - without the ability to control drinking during any of these occasions.

Why do alcoholics refuse to recognize their problem with alcohol?

The effects of chronic intoxication interfere with thinking and impairs attitude, behavior, and personality. The alcoholic is incapable of recognizing the serious harm caused by heavy, repeated use of alcohol. Until drinking stops, the brain does not function normally. These effects may last for weeks or months, but they are mostly reversible.

How can you help an alcoholic who does not want help?

First, learn as much about alcohol, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism so that you may be better able to deal with the problems of alcoholism and some of your own feelings about the problem. Next, talk to the person about their behavior changes that result from drinking. Be firm, considerate, single-minded, and focus on the drinking behavior, not the reasons for drinking. Some alcoholics always find a reason to drink. Be specific: point out times when drinking interfered with the person's life.

Offer hope. Alcoholism is a treatable illness. Between one-third to two-thirds of all people who seek help actually recover from alcoholism when the first step is taken to stop all alcohol consumption. Since many alcoholics lapse again into heavy drinking, patience and encouragement can help the alcoholic regain sobriety.

Finally, remember that the worst thing to do is to ignore the problem and hope that it will go away.

What is an intervention?

Intervention is a "process by which the harmful, progressive, and destructive effects of chemical dependency are interrupted and the chemically dependent person is helped to stop using mood-altering chemicals [e.g., alcohol] and to develop new, healthier ways for coping with his or her needs and problems." The ultimate goal of an intervention is to get the alcoholic into a treatment program.

How does an intervention work?

Intervention occurs when the alcoholic person is in denial or does not seem to want to accept any help and loved ones, relatives, and even employers decide that it is time to step in and take action. They do this to help the alcoholic to recover a sober and healthy life.

Under the guidance of a professional, an intervention team forms, made up of two or more people who are concerned and close to the alcoholic and who have first-hand knowledge of the alcoholic's symptoms or behavior.

The team meets and, in an objective and caring way, the alcoholic is confronted with the facts about his/her drinking. By using specific examples of the alcoholic's drinking behavior, the team attacks the alcoholic's wall of defenses. the alcoholic meets head-on with the reality of the effects of alcoholism. This process causes discomfort and upset. The alcoholic is shaken out of denial and this may lead to agreement to seek help.

What is a safe level of drinking?

For most adults, moderate alcohol use--up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people--causes few if any problems. (One drink equals one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

Certain people should not drink at all, however:

  • Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • People who plan to drive or engage in other activities that require alertness and skill (such as using high-speed machinery)
  • People taking certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
  • People with medical conditions that can be made worse by drinking
  • Recovering alcoholics
  • People younger than age 21.

What attitude should I have toward a problem drinking spouse?

Don't blame yourself for your spouse's alcoholism. An alcoholic can be very clever in shifting the responsibility for drinking to others and may use your feelings of caring to cause feelings of guilt within you. You are not responsible for the illness that affects your spouse and you cannot control or change alcohol-related behavior. Seek professional help for your spouse, yourself, and other family members.

How do you handle children experimenting with alcohol if one or both parents is a recovering alcoholic?

One way to prevent alcohol abuse is to give children accurate information about alcohol, its properties, and its effects on the body. If a child is well informed about the important aspects of alcohol and has a feeling of self-confidence, chances of abusing alcohol are greatly reduced. "Scare tactics" should not be used to change undesirable behavior. Clear expectations and rules are important and discipline should be consistent if rules are broken. Finally, seek professional help.

What if I'm the child of an alcoholic?

Just remember that you are not the cause of your parent's drinking; it is an illness. You are not responsible for their actions. It does not mean that you are a "bad" person and you should not feel guilty. If you are really upset about a parent's drinking, you should try to get professional help.

How does an alcoholic recover from alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a chronic progressive illness. While there is no medical cure for the illness, many alcoholics do "arrest" it; i.e., stop its progress with medication and training.

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Date of Last Update: 07/27/12