What It Is

Alcohol addiction, more commonly known as alcoholism, is often referred to as the disease that knows no boundaries. While scientists and medical researchers have long been trying to pinpoint genetic, gender, racial or socioeconomic factors that may predispose an individual to alcohol addiction, it appears that alcoholism has no singular cause and can afflict anyone. In the medical community, alcohol addiction is referred to as a psychosomatic condition, meaning that social, psychological, and behavioral factors can all contribute to the onset and progression of the disease.

Alcohol addiction can manifest in a variety of ways. The severity, frequency of use, or type of alcohol consumed can vary significantly from one person to the next. Some individuals may drink heavily all day, while others binge drink for a period and then stay sober until the next “bender.” Regardless of how the addiction manifests, alcoholism is usually present if a person heavily relies on the substance and cannot maintain sobriety for an extended period of time.

Symptoms and Signs

Identifying the signs of an alcohol addiction can be difficult. Unlike an illegal substance like cocaine or heroin, alcohol is a commonly used—and abused—drug that is readily available and acceptable in most cultures. It often permeates social situations and is intimately associated with the ideas of celebration, reward, and fun. Additionally, alcoholics generally become adept at hiding behavior from loved ones or minimizing the negative consequences of their drinking. To determine if alcoholism may be present, look for any or all of the following behaviors:

  • Increased amount of alcohol consumption or increased frequency of use
  • Higher tolerance when drinking or lack of “hangover” symptoms
  • Increased activity in social situations where alcohol is present or avoidance of social situations where alcohol will not be present
  • Changes in friendships. An alcoholic will almost always surround himself with others who drink just as heavily
  • Alienation from loved ones
  • Hiding alcohol, such as in the closet, bathroom or other places where no one will find it
  • Dependence on alcohol to function or be “normal” in every day life
  • Increased lethargy, depression, or onset of emotional issues
  • Legal or professional consequences such as an arrest or loss of job

Since alcohol addiction tends to be progressive in nature, it’s important to look for early warning signs before the alcoholic suffers negative consequences as a result of the disease. If you are worried that an addiction is present, it’s best to approach the alcoholic and convey your concerns in a supportive manner.

Treatment Options

Treating alcohol addiction can be a complex and challenging process. In order for treatment to be effective, it’s necessary that the alcoholic wants to get sober. It’s generally ineffective to try to force a person to stop drinking or consider the possibility of treatment. The recovery process for an alcoholic is a lifetime commitment of daily maintenance, not a quick fix.

A common initial treatment option for alcoholics is an outpatient or inpatient addiction treatment program. In severe cases, an inpatient program lasting anywhere from 30 days to a year is required to help the alcoholic handle the physical withdrawal symptoms and emotional challenges that will ensue after cessation of drinking.

Many alcoholics also turn to 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. However, there are also other support groups that don’t follow the 12-step model, such as SMART Recovery or Sober Recovery. Regardless of the type of support system a recovering alcoholic chooses, it’s usually important to get involved in at least one. Sober communities can help an alcoholic deal with the challenges of sobriety in day-to-day life.

In addition to rehabilitation programs and 12-step support groups, an alcoholic may also benefit from other treatment methods, such as drug therapy, psychological counseling, or nutritional changes. In general, alcohol addiction is treated with several different methods and treatment may vary from one person to the next. It’s important that the alcoholic develops a personal recovery program that will work for him and support his long-term sobriety.

Expectations

When intervention occurs in an early stage of alcohol addiction, treatment tends be more promising. However, long-term addictions can be successfully treated as well. The danger with letting alcohol addiction go untreated is that it tends to progress quickly. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for an alcoholic to have periods of relapse, where he or she either drinks once or drinks for a period of time before getting sober again.

Friends and family of the alcoholic might benefit from seeking professional support or by joining programs like Al-Anon. The alcoholic’s recovery process can be just as challenging and painful for loved ones as it is for the alcoholic. Ultimately, however, sobriety is the responsibility of the alcoholic. It’s important to not enable destructive behaviors and to maintain appropriate boundaries if the alcoholic is still drinking.

Resources

For more information about alcoholism or to help a loved one find treatment options, it may be best to talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you to local programs in your area, such as rehabilitation centers or 12-step programs. Also, the following organizations may be useful:

  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • DrugFree.org