Alcoholism 101 – Explained in “everyday” language

What is alcoholism? It’s not as straightforward as you might think. The short answer — alcoholism is a dependence on alcohol. The longer answer — there are four symptoms of alcoholism. The first one is having a craving or strong urge to drink. The second symptom is not being able to stop drinking once you start. This can sometimes be tricky to comprehend because you can drink once a year and still be an alcoholic. You see, It’s not only how often you drink, but what happens after you take the first drink. Third, is physical dependence. This means that when you stop drinking you have side effects like nausea, shakes and or anxiety. Fourth, is developing a tolerance. This is the need to drink a larger quantity to get the same feeling.

Let me give you an example. Virginia drinks only on the weekends. She usually plans on having three or four drinks.However, after the first drink, she loses the ability to accurately predict the number of drinks she will have that night. In general, the number of drinks she has rarely matched her intentions. Even though she is financially successful, and only drinks on the weekends, she would still be considered an alcoholic. A non-alcoholic can plan out how much they will drink and have little trouble keeping to their plan. An alcoholic might occasionally keep to their plan but can not do it every time.

Let me change the scenario, so you understand what I mean. I like to eat at nice restaurants. I am on a budget, so each month I set aside some money to try out a fancy restaurant or two. My husband and I make two reservations at the beginning of the month. We effortless stick to our plan. We enjoy our two nice meals and thinking nothing more of it.

A non-alcoholic can do the same thing with liquor. Our fictional friend Sam can decide to have two drinks at a party, but not more. He has an early meeting the next day and three drinks will hinder his performance. Just like the restaurant goer, he easily orders only two drinks and thinks nothing more of it.

What about a problem drinker — is that the same thing as an alcoholic? Simply put — no. You can have problems with drinking without being diagnosed as an alcoholic. This kind of consumption is sometimes referred to as heavy drinking or drinking abuse. You might find it interesting that not all problem drinkers turn into alcoholics. Here is how I have come to understand it. If drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem. It’s really that simple. A problem drinker can stop drinking if there is good enough reason for it. Let’s take another example. Stewart is a heavy drinker. He has 2 to 5 cocktails every day. Some days he drinks even more. During his annual check-up, he discovers he has a (potentially deadly) medical condition. The doctor tells him there is a surgical procedure that can cure him. He schedules the surgery to be performed in six weeks. The doctor warns him not to drink before the surgery. In fact, he is told that if he drinks anything alcoholic, in the upcoming six weeks, the surgery will most likely fail. So Stewart follows the doctor’s orders and does not drink for six weeks. He misses the drinking. He is moody and has sugar cravings. However, he follows the doctor’s orders, without too much difficulty.

If Stewart is an alcoholic, he will drink despite the warning. It will baffle the doctor, his family and himself. Why, with so much on the line, would he drink? He has willpower is all other aspects of his life. He is reasonable and successful in all of his choices. It doesn’t make any sense. The disease of alcoholism convinces a person that it will be different this time. And, the real alcoholic has the most trouble when he stops drinking. That is because, when life presents difficulties, there is an instinctive reaction to reach for something to alter the brain. No amount of training or self-knowledge seems to fix this instinct.

I have been sober for 22 years, yet I recently had an experience that demonstrated the power of the disease. I received a phone call, with tragic news. Without thinking, I instinctively opened our medicine cabinet. What is that about! We keep vitamins and first-aid supplies in our medicine cabinet. It’s been TWO DECADES since I have stored anything in the house that would produce any kind of high. Yet, my mind is still programmed to quickly alter reality when something bad presents itself.

The cure for alcoholism needs to be practiced over a lifetime.


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