How to Tell if Your Loved One has an Alcohol Addiction

How to Tell if Your Loved One has an Alcohol Addiction

While it’s easy to generalize about what alcohol use disorder looks like, the truth of the matter is that the disease can fall into a variety of categories, depending on the frequency, extent and reasons for use. Learning what steps on how to deal with an alcoholic wife, husband, or loved one all starts with identification.

Teen Drinking

When it comes to alcohol consumption among teenagers, we’re often discussing something that starts as a basic desire to explore alcohol, but can quickly spiral downward into an alcohol use disorder. For millions of young Americans, teen drinking is more than just an exploration, a cultural fad or a “phase” of a young person’s life. Approximately 5.1 million American teens ages 12–20 are binge drinkers. Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings BAC levels to 0.08 g/dL. Within a two-hour time period, this typically occurs after four drinks for females and five drinks for males. About one in seven teens binge drink, yet only one percent of all parents believe that their teen binge drinks.

Binge drinking can quickly escalate into regular, heavy drinking among teens. Heavy drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks at one time, and doing so five or more times in a one-month period. Heavy drinking can lead to alcohol use disorder.

While an estimated 697,000 adolescents ages 12–17 had an alcohol use disorder in the past year, only about 73,000 teenagers received treatment for their alcohol use in a program specializing in treating substance use disorders.

No parent wants to believe that their child could be at risk for alcohol dependence. But substance abuse in children is no joke; if you suspect your teen may be binge drinking or engaging in heavy drinking, intervening is critical. Successful, early intervention can prevent your child from developing a life-altering addiction, or worse, becoming injured or even dying from alcohol use.

The ’Functioning’ Alcoholic

Living with a functioning alcoholic husband, wife, or other loved one isn’t always easily identifiable. The media often portrays people struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder only as people whose lives are spiraling out of control. When you picture someone with a drinking problem, you may imagine them to have broken relationships, be living on the street, in serious financial trouble, with extensive job difficulties and health problems.

But despite our stereotypes that someone must be in a near constant state of intoxication or consistently hungover, many people battling an Alcohol Use Disorder do not fit this mold. In fact, many suffering from the disease of alcohol addiction are relatively successful individuals in their personal, academic, or professional lives. And in these cases, it can be very difficult to realize that a loved one is indeed battling alcohol use disorder. The functioning alcoholic may not even be aware of it themselves.

The functioning alcoholic:

  • Does not always drink every day
  • May frequently engage in binge drinking
  • Typically drinks alcohol to relax or relieve stress
  • Drinks alone or in secret
  • Uses alcohol as a reward
  • Has blackouts from alcohol (times where they are functioning but don’t remember what they did)

It’s important to stay alert to these warning signs. If someone you love fits this description, it’s time to intervene. Because even though a functioning alcoholic may appear to still have their life together, they are nonetheless chemically dependent. And eventually, that dependency will take a toll on their brain, their body, and every aspect of their life.

Depression or Anxiety Related Alcohol Use

Those who suffer from anxiety and depression are at a high risk for developing what’s called a “co-occurring” alcohol use disorder. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 37 percent of people who struggle with alcohol use disorder are also suffering from one or more serious mental illnesses. And of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29% abuse either alcohol or drugs. Mental health and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand.

Because of the unfortunate stigmas surrounding both mental illness and the disease of alcohol addiction, the combination of co-occurring disorders has, in the past, been tragically ignored or misdiagnosed. Fortunately, quality treatment programs exist that offer effective dual diagnosis services for these complex issues.

Clinical depression is generally thought to have something to do with brain chemistry. To mask a mental illness or cope with difficult feelings, a person may sometimes turn to alcohol. Because alcohol is itself a depressant, significant consumption of it can lower the serotonin levels of the brain and further contribute to imbalances in brain chemistry. This combination can make it difficult to get a correct, clear diagnosis, and it can result in a more severe situation for the person than either one of the disorders alone. If your loved one is struggling with co-occurring disorders of substance abuse and depression, comprehensive treatment can help them battle both simultaneously.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety is one of the most common forms of mental illness in the United States with approximately 15 million adults suffering from social anxiety disorder. Because alcohol can temporarily inhibit impulse control, many people misuse it to temporarily “fix” their anxiety. Enough alcohol allows them to engage in certain social situations without their usual level of stress. But unfortunately, these “positive” effects are short-lived, misleading, and can quickly turn into a bigger problem: a co-occurring disorder. In fact, alcohol is a negative reinforcer for anxiety, and those suffering from both mental illness and substance use disorder should receive treatment that addresses both diagnoses simultaneously.

Based on your loved one’s specific symptoms and situation, a good recovery center will recognize that all forms of alcohol use disorder are diseases and should be treated with effective services, in a compassionate manner. And while the type of treatment will vary from case to case, the first step is getting your loved one the help they need so that they can begin the road to recovery as soon as possible.

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