Updated July 18, 2023
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with an addiction to alcohol, there are only two certainties: You have a lot of questions, and you are terrified.
The unknown — and the fear of the unknown — can feel overwhelming. It can also feel isolating. In spite of the prevalence of alcohol and addiction in today's world, there is still a stigma associated with alcohol addiction. People may assume an addict has a problem with partying, or perhaps doesn't have any self-control. Others may believe a person who becomes addicted to alcohol is immoral, lazy or self-centered. This stigma can lead people to try and hide their addiction from loved ones, co-workers and friends.
The problem with these common misconceptions is simple — they are not true.
Thanks to advances in mental health research, today we now know someone who is struggling with an addiction to alcohol is not any of these things. In fact, the link between alcohol addiction and mental health is significant. As we'll discuss later, many people turn to alcohol because they are attempting to self-medicate a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, which may worsen as their addiction spirals.
The hard part is waiting for society to catch up with the science. When someone meets an addict for the first time, sadly, they often don't know what to say or how to act. They may say the wrong thing. They may make the wrong assumptions. Or, perhaps the addict himself has come to believe these stereotypes and sees himself as a selfish individual with no values.
The truth is that a significant number of the adult population in the United States struggles with an addiction to alcohol. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 28.6 million adults struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) — alcohol addiction. An additional 894,000 adolescents, ages 12 to 17, were also struggling with addiction to alcohol.
For someone to receive an AUD diagnosis, they must meet certain criteria, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To meet the criteria, an individual must display at least two out of a set of 11 standards during a year. A person diagnosed with AUD will receive a further diagnosis of "mild," "moderate" or "severe," depending on how many of the criteria they meet.
While people who seek help for alcohol addiction have encountered great success in treating and lessening the grip of alcohol on their daily lives, the unfortunate reality is that only 12.2% percent of the people who struggle with AUD will actually get help. That number is only a fraction of what it should be.
When you compare the high numbers of people who are addicted to alcohol with the low percentage of those who get help, the contrast is alarming. People are struggling, but are unable or unwilling to get the help they need. While several complex factors play into this hesitation, one of the problems many addicts encounter is that there is a lot of debate about what addiction is.
Addiction is any behavior that is compulsive or difficult to control. Over time, there has been much debate about whether or not alcohol addiction can be classified as a disease. Scientists continue to do research to understand this idea, but so far, they have discovered addiction is a long-term, complicated brain disease. Addiction to alcohol and illegal substances has been shown to stem from the effect these substances have on brain chemistry, resulting in long-term changes to the brain and the way it functions. Specifically, drugs and alcohol alter the areas of the brain that impact judgment, self-control and pleasurable feelings, which is why it can be so hard for some people to "get clean," especially on their own. Over time, the parts of the brain that recognize alcohol as a "reward" may become weaker and require more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effect.
While the intent of this blog post is not to debate the science behind this, it's also important to understand what alcohol does to the body over time. As studies have shown, besides altering brain chemistry, consistently consuming large amounts of alcohol can also increase the risk of early-onset memory loss, as well as a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals your brain needs to function at its optimal level.
So why the science lesson?
When you or someone you love becomes trapped in an addiction cycle, there is a natural tendency to look for a scapegoat — someone or something to blame for what is happening. Yes, the person with the addiction made the initial choice to begin drinking alcohol. However, in many cases, their ability to choose to stop has become compromised. At this point, there is no one you can blame.
At first, that may sound discouraging, but the truth is, blaming someone or something isn't going to solve the problem. And, when a person's brain chemistry has become altered to this point, they may not even be able to understand what is happening or how to fix it. That's why it is critical to seek help through a reputable treatment program. Recovery from alcohol addiction is possible, and getting help from trained medical and mental health professionals is a vital part of the recovery process.
Many times, when someone realizes they are addicted to alcohol, they try to hide it. Some people succeed in keeping their drinking a secret, hiding it from their spouse, their parents and even their co-workers. They may assume as long as their drinking isn't hurting anyone, they don't really have a problem. They may be afraid of someone taking away their child or firing them from their job. They may fear public humiliation or disappointing people they care about.
For other people, their struggle with alcohol becomes very public. They may get charged with one or more DUIs. They may have damaged property, destroyed relationships or found themselves broke because they have poured all their money into their addiction.
Whatever the story, each alcoholic tends to experience intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. They don't want their families and loved ones to know the extent of their struggle. They may incorrectly believe no one else will understand what they are thinking or feeling, and they may believe there is no help for them.
The truth is that one of the best pieces of alcohol addiction advice is that successful recovery depends on your willingness to share the struggle with a trusted individual or small group. Some people believe this is because an addict needs accountability. Yes, this is true. However, the even bigger reason to seek out people to confide in is that you need to know you are not alone.
The statistics don't lie. There are 28.6 million other people like you. If you are a family member or friend, there are even more people in your shoes, because each of those 28.6 million people has a family and loved ones who have watched them and see what you are seeing.
People who become addicted to alcohol each have a unique story and set of circumstances that have led to their addiction. But one of the most interesting things about these stories is that, underneath the surface, they all share similar struggles. By understanding some of the things that motivate people to begin to consume and eventually abuse alcohol, you can better understand what is happening to you or someone you love.
1. The Struggle to Fit In
Many people began drinking alcohol to fit in with a certain group of people. They may have wanted to impress a group of friends or an older sibling. Perhaps they were in college and spending weekends bar-hopping with friends. Maybe they were high school students who hung out after school. For teens and young adults in college, the urge to experiment and join in with things their friends are doing is particularly strong. It can be hard to say "no" to the activity all your friends are engaging in. Unfortunately, what can happen is that, over time, it turns from a voluntary social activity to an involuntary need to fill time with alcohol. While there are certain risk factors, there is no one way to tell who will become addicted to alcohol and who won't. But, over time, what started as a "harmless" social activity may become something a person needs more and more each day.
2. The Desire to Self-Medicate
Many people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism when they really have other issues they may not want to confront. They may be struggling with depression or anxiety and use alcohol to calm down — we've all heard the term "liquid courage" — or numb the things they are feeling, rather than seek help from a mental health professional. They think they can knock back a drink or two before they confront whatever is causing their anxiety and be fine. The reality is that drinking as a form of self-medication is only covering up the problem, not resolving it.
For some people, this is as far as it goes. But, for other people, the tendency to turn to alcohol to cope with their problems can turn into dependency. When a person's body becomes dependent on alcohol to address their symptoms, over time, a person's natural coping mechanisms — behaviors they have learned over the years for coping with new or stressful situations — may erode, leaving them with drinking as their only coping mechanism.
Ironically, while many people drink to control symptoms of anxiety, ongoing consumption of alcohol can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Ongoing alcohol use and abuse overall can have a negative impact on a person's mental health. There is also a strong link between alcoholism and trauma. People suffering from PTSD frequently turn to alcohol as a means of coping with their symptoms, rather than asking for help.
3. The Desire to Escape Circumstances or Negative Feelings and Emotions
Similar to self-medicating, sometimes people use alcohol to escape from the feelings they're struggling with. After a rough week at work, friends might suggest an evening at the bar as a good way to unwind. A stay-at-home mother may drink to cope with loneliness or a strained marriage. A teenager might begin drinking as a mental escape from abusive parents or a family tragedy. A man may drink to avoid memories of abuse and abandonment during his childhood years. These are just a few scenarios out of many, but you get the idea. Using alcohol to escape is akin to self-medicating because people are using alcohol to cover up or ignore certain negative feelings.
If you are one of the millions of Americans who has developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, there are a few things you need to know. First and foremost, the fact that you have lost control over your drinking is not because you are immoral, self-centered or a bad person. Yes, you have made a series of choices that have led you to this place. Looking back, they were not wise, but those choices were rooted in the pursuit of real solutions to genuine problems. Those problems very likely were out of your control, and you did the only thing you could think to do at the time. But it doesn't have to be like that anymore.
It is critical to realize this is not the time to stay silent. Wanting to protect your loved ones or your reputation is admirable. But, whether you realize it yet or not, this is a life-or-death situation. A life under the control of alcohol is no life at all, and, while you may still be able to function in spite of your addiction, that may not always be the case. Over time, your dependency on alcohol will overtake each area of your life. It will begin to wear away at your physical health as well, and you may also inadvertently put yourself in grave danger if you choose to drink and get behind the wheel or engage in other reckless behaviors while under the influence.
If you're one of the many people struggling with addiction, help is here. Trained medical and mental health professionals are ready and waiting to help you take back your life and discover your future. Diamond House Detox is a residential treatment facility in Northern California dedicated to offering an intimate recovery setting. We invite you to read our addiction recovery blog to learn more about us.
At Diamond House Detox, we believe addiction is a disease stemming from a complex set of circumstances and factors that are unique to each person. We also strongly believe alcohol addiction can often be a symptom of other mental health issues that have gone undetected or untreated. Our goal is to work closely and carefully with each client to provide comprehensive care in overcoming the grip addiction has on their life. We want to see you break free of your substance misuse, learn to love your life again and become one of our many alcohol addiction recovery stories.
Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on March 27th, 2019.