Below are the 5 main symptoms of alcoholism (they may also be applied to other addictions). They are in no particular order. By Mike S. author of “How did you do it? 31 years sober” and co-author of “Dry Drunk Syndrome.”
1) LOSS OF CONTROL: the inability to accurately control the amount of alcohol intake. Once drinking has started there is no way that an alcoholic can consistently decide on how much to drink or when to stop. Any attempt at control usually fails.
2) INCREASE IN TOLERANCE: The alcoholic’s body becomes acclimatized to alcohol and gradually needs more alcohol to get the same effect. This, in part, accounts for the alcoholic’s use of greater and greater amounts of alcohol over time. (If a non-alcoholic drank as much at one session, it would probably kill them).
3) WITHDRAWALS: As the body metabolizes the alcohol taken, the alcoholic will experience withdrawal symptoms from an overwhelming desire to have a drink to the shakes, DTs (Delirium Tremens), hallucinations, fits and in extreme cases death.
4) CONSEQUENCES: The alcoholic continues to drink despite ever increasing negative consequences such as health problems, social isolation, damage to important relationships, employment difficulties, to name just a few.
5) NEGLECT OF USUAL ACTIVITIES: Obtaining and using alcohol become
s the alcoholic’s sole focus. This leads to a neglect of family, friends, all social activities that do not include alcohol, work and so on.
SYMPTOMS AS I EXPERIENCED THEM:
Loss of control – this was a gradual and insidious process. When I think back to the early days of drinking as a student I was able to go out with friends and have a “social” drink and look just like anybody else. After a while I would find ways to sneak in an extra drink or two which my friends did not know about.
So, by the end of the three-year course my drinking had increased to the point where, if I had one drink, I had to have lots more. Once I started work, I substituted it for alcohol and became a “workaholic”. Most drinking at that time involved social occasions where alcohol was free, as I was not earning much as a newly qualified teacher. On these occasions I could be relied upon to drink far too much! No control or any wish, then, for control. My body loved alcohol.
As life proceeded, I took a job in the insurance industry and my income increased considerably – more money meant more drinking, but few negative consequences apart from hangovers at that time. Another change in employment meant that I joined my Mother at her private school. She was in a lot of pain from arthritic hips and it seemed like a good idea. In the end the nine years that I was with her led to my really serious descent into complete addiction to alcohol. I always found that although I would promise myself in the morning that I would not drink when I returned home at about 4:30, somehow that decision died and the first thing that I would do is to have a drink. Once the first drink entered my body, I was lost and more would follow usually until I went to bed. I was drinking daily with no control as to the amount and the amount increased considerably. I will address consequences later but suffice to say that at the end of the nine years I needed treatment for severe alcoholism. Once I took one drink I could no longer know with any accuracy how much I would drink. Total loss of control!
Increase in tolerance – Some of the clues to this are apparent above. At college, initially, as an eighteen year old, I could take maybe 2 pints of beer and think that I had had a good evening. By the time that I left college 3 years later it needed 8 to 10 pints for the same effect and the addition, at times, of some spirits such as brandy or scotch. Although my drinking reduced in my early days of work, the tolerance that I had built up was still in me to some extent so that I was able to take several pints without obvious effect. In the nine years with my mother, my tolerance increased dramatically and my body was able to manage a 750ml bottle of scotch a day, sometimes more. Total increase in tolerance!
Withdrawals – In the early days of drinking I have no recollection of withdrawal symptoms as my body then was not sufficiently acclimated to alcohol, so no shakes, fits etc. only hangovers. My serious withdrawals began, again related to my drinking when working alongside my mother, as my intake increased. I would experience shakes, which made it difficult, for example, to carry a cup and saucer without the rattle of the cup and the spilling of some of the contents. Thank goodness for mugs, although I had to be careful not to fill the mug. I would feel “anxious” and fearful, I think related, in part, to whether or not I had a supply of alcohol available. I only felt “safe” when I knew I had enough, although in one sense there could never be enough. The anxiety and fearfulness were what I would describe as “free floating” and would lead to angry responses and attitudes. I was an emotional mess. I did not experience the DTs or have hallucinations. Delirium Tremens is a really extreme form of the shakes, usually accompanied by hallucinations, which are most often of a scary nature. Another effect of withdrawals can be Formication – as the name suggests, this feels like ants crawling all over the arms and legs. The name comes from the Latin for ant – formica.
Consequences – The consequences of my drinking were many and varied. There are similarities to most drinkers and some that are my “yets” meaning that they haven’t happened yet. As long as I stay in recovery they will remain as yet to happen. If I start drinking again, for sure they will come almost immediately. So my consequences were (1) health, a fatty liver, raised blood pressure, stomach problems, shakes, and blackouts. [Blackout for an alcoholic does not mean becoming unconscious; it means a total lack of memory of the past hours or days, no recall at all, a blank in life. During a blackout, an alcoholic may do all sorts of things both legal and illegal and sometimes very serious.] Stealing. (2) Social, damage to relationships, family, marriage, work, drink driving and its legal results and other negative events that would not have happened without alcohol. How bad do consequences have to get before an alcoholic seeks help? For some, not a lot, for others the final consequence is death, either directly from alcohol or indirectly as a result of actions taken while drunk – falling off a ladder, drunk driving, using tools, the list is endless.
Neglect of usual activities – this applies to the narrowing effect of drinking. When I was drinking, I really only wanted to be involved in activities where I could be sure that alcohol would be available. I stopped making pottery [it is difficult to throw a pot when I am drunk!], making furniture and other creative activities. I wasn’t able to play with my children; I would fall asleep in front of the television. First and foremost all I was interested in was obtaining and using alcohol. Everything else was secondary to that activity. If any activity was likely to interfere I would not become involved.
Above are the five symptoms of addiction to alcohol and any other mood altering chemical or activity including work, exercise, food, sex or any other activity used to mood or mind alter. Addiction is a crafty disease and, yes it is a disease a primary illness and not a symptom of an underlying problem.
One interesting thing seems to be that although an alcoholic, when dry, can often be helped to see the consequences of his/her drinking this is rarely enough to encourage them to stop. What kicks in is Denial, a psychological defense mechanism to protect us from overwhelming information. In life generally this is an important mechanism and happens when we, for example, hear of the death of a loved one. Most often we will say, “I can’t believe it!” That is our mind giving us time to absorb information before it does psychological harm.
Useful denial. Now, in the case of the alcoholic denial keeps us sick, as it prevents us from taking on board the full effect of our drinking on others and ourselves. We will minimize the amount that we drink, the consequences of our drinking and when challenged and presented with evidence we will explain it away. Denial allows us to keep drinking when not drinking is so scary. An important part of early recovery is the breakdown of the denial defense mechanism. If denial remains, recovery will not start. One way that denial can be broken is to confront the drinker with specific examples of the effects of his drinking.
Nowadays with the advent of cell phones with cameras, visual evidence can be quite quickly gathered. Facing incontrovertible evidence can begin the breakdown of denial. But this is a cunning illness and alcoholics are very adept at saying one thing and then doing another.
Alcoholics who have had a number of blackouts will confabulate to explain the gaps in memory. They will make up plausible stories, which those around him may well know are a complete fabrication, but puts the alcoholic at ease as it fills the gaps in memory. AA describes that the alcoholic needs to reach “rock bottom” a point at which an individual has had enough and starts to look for a way out, another way of looking at the breakdown of denial.
The consequences of alcoholism are as varied as the drinkers, as is the damage caused both to the alcoholic and those around him/her. Many alcoholics will eventually find recovery, but there seem to be some who never “get it” and continue to the inevitable end, death.
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