Alcohol abuse is a pervasive issue, affecting people from all walks of life. It’s easy to think you would know for sure if you or a loved one had crossed the line and become addicted, but it isn’t always obvious. If you’re keeping up your daily responsibilities, it’s easy to make the argument that your drinking isn’t really a big deal.
Although it’s no longer the preferred term, a functioning alcoholic is someone who manages to maintain a job and relationships while simultaneously dealing with the challenges of alcohol addiction. The National Institutes of Health reports that about 20% of people with alcohol addiction can be considered functional.
They note that they tend to be well-educated and middle-aged. About a fourth of them once experienced a major depressive illness, and about a third have a family history of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Abuse Warning Signs
These are some signs that your drinking may have become problematic, even if you’re still maintaining your daily responsibilities:
- You drink a lot. Different organizations define heavy or problematic drinking in different ways. The Centers for Disease Control defines heavy drinking as 15 drinks or more per week for men and eight or more per week for women. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines it as more than four drinks on any day for men and more than three for women.
- You may or may not binge drink, which involves drinking five or more drinks for men and four for women on a single occasion (generally within about two hours).
- You drink more than you intend to. Once you get started, you find it hard to stop.
- You’ve thought that maybe it would be a good idea to cut down or stop drinking, but you haven’t done it yet. You may come up with excuses, like that now is a bad time because of stress and that you’ll stop later.
- You’ve tried to stop drinking but haven’t been successful. Your cravings for alcohol were stronger than your decision to abstain.
- You think about drinking during the day, planning when you’ll have your next drink and what it will be.
- If you don’t drink at work, you drink immediately afterward.
- If you plan to drink at a certain time and something keeps you from it, you get irritable or nervous.
- You hide the extent of your drinking from people, minimizing the amount or frequency you drink.
- You’ve done something unwise or unsafe while under the influence of alcohol.
- You’ve had memory lapses related to your drinking.
- Your first impulse when upset or under stress is to turn to alcohol.
- You can’t imagine celebrating without alcohol.
- You make jokes about your drinking.
- A loved one has expressed concern about your drinking.
- You have withdrawal symptoms when you haven’t had a drink for a while. These can be emotional, like anxiety, depression, irritability or mood swings. They can also be physical, like fatigue, headache, nausea or sweating.
It’s certainly easy to understand why people become addicted to alcohol in our society. Not only is drinking socially acceptable but in many cases, there’s pressure to drink to fit in. Alcohol is legal for adults to buy, as opposed to other substances, so maintaining an alcohol addiction is easier. There are advertisements for alcohol that reinforce the message that it’s a normal and even important part of life.
The Risks May Be Higher Than You Think
If you seem to be functioning just fine, you’re unlikely to have much motivation to change things. It’s important to keep two things in mind, though. One is that health effects accumulate over time and are likely to get worse. The other is that you may not be functioning as well as you think you are.
At one point, a common argument was that a small amount of alcohol was good for you, although heavy drinking was known to be harmful. Now, however, we know that no amount of alcohol is considered healthy.
A widely publicized study published in The Lancet in 2018 came to this conclusion, “Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss. We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”
According to Harvard Health and Healthline, the potential negative effects of alcohol are long, and the risks of drinking high. They include the following:
- Various types of cancer, including of the colon, breast, liver, mouth, throat and esophagus
- Liver disease, including liver failure and associated consequences of the liver being unable to filter toxins and waste products in the body adequately
- Damage to the heart and lungs, raising the risk of stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat and heart failure
- Pancreatitis and other effects of pancreas damage, such as blood sugar dysregulation and diabetic complications
- Depression of the immune system, which makes it harder to fight off viruses and bacteria, leading to a higher risk of infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis
- Central nervous system effects, including disrupted communication between the brain and body
- Memory and cognitive impairments, including damage to the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for judgment and emotional control
- Ulcers and damage to the digestive system, which can lead to malnutrition, anemia, and other problems associated with the malabsorption of nutrients and vitamins
- Sexual and reproductive effects, including lowered libido, erectile dysfunction in men, menstrual changes in women and issues related to pregnancy, such as a higher risk of miscarriage or premature delivery
- Thinner bones and a higher risk of fractures
- Muscle weakness and atrophy
- Alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal
An Alcohol-Induced Blind Spot
Part of the challenge of treating substance use disorders, including those associated with alcohol abuse, is that people often don’t see their need for help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 95% of people who needed but didn’t receive drug or alcohol abuse treatment didn’t think they needed it.
We all have psychological reasons for denying what’s hard to face, but the issue goes far beyond that. Alcohol’s influence on the brain explains why people often don’t see their drinking’s negative consequences. When the frontal lobe is affected, it becomes harder to associate drinking with its effects. Drinking also impacts memory, so you may not even remember what you did while drinking, much less associate it with the alcohol you consumed.
The truth is that if you’re drinking heavily, it’s highly likely that you and those around you are experiencing adverse effects. If a friend or family member expresses concern about your drinking, it’s wise to listen to them with an open mind. They may be able to see things that you can’t see clearly at the moment.
Ironically, sometimes people can’t see their need for treatment until they’re already engaged in the recovery process. It is often true of people who enter treatment because they were pressured by family members or mandated by the legal system. There are therapeutic techniques, such as motivational interviewing, that help people overcome ambivalence and increase their desire for change. Sometimes things simply seem clearer after a period of sobriety, when the brain begins to heal.
Unless forced into treatment against your will, you’re going to eventually have to decide for yourself whether or not you want it. Sometimes people talk about how individuals need to “hit bottom” before they’re willing to get treatment.
It’s true that people need to understand that the negative consequences of continuing to drink are greater than the benefits they get from drinking. Still, people don’t have to lose everything to come to that conclusion. Wherever you stop and turn around is your bottom, and the sooner you change direction, the less painful “hitting bottom” is going to be.
You Can Change Course Today
Fortunately, addiction is treatable. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that drug and alcohol abuse treatment should be individualized and matched to each person’s unique needs for the best results. If there are co-occurring conditions, like anxiety or depression, they should be treated at the same time as the addiction, in a coordinated and integrated way.
There are various types of treatment programs available. Some people find that a residential program’s structure and strictly controlled environment is the best fit for them. They can focus all their attention on recovery without other distractions. Other people find that an outpatient program is right for their needs.
That way, they can maintain their work and family responsibilities during treatment. At The Right Step Hill Country, we even have virtual outpatient programs that don’t even require going to the treatment facility.
You can turn around wherever you are today and change direction right now. Whatever your unique needs are, we can help you determine the treatment that will help you get where you want to be. There’s a healthy, happy life waiting for you. Call us today at 844.675.1628 and take the first step toward freedom.