From weddings and holidays to birthdays and bachelor parties, it’s rare to attend a social or celebratory event where alcohol isn’t served. Since the prevalence of alcohol is so widespread, it can be hard to tell if loved ones have legitimate drinking problems or if they simply indulge on special occasions. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2013, more than 86 percent of people over the age of 18 claimed they drank alcohol at some point in their lives; more than 70 percent had consumed alcohol in the past year; and more than 56 percent had consumed alcohol in the past month.
Alcohol dependence manifests itself in different ways for different people, but there are a few common symptoms that can indicate a problem might exist. If a loved one has any of these symptoms, it’s not too late to seek help. In fact, taking that first step and addressing the issue head on is often the hardest part, and the road to recovery only gets easier from there.
Early Signs of Alcohol Dependence
If a loved one has developed a dependence on alcohol, the signs will change over time as the addiction grows stronger. Early signs that might signal a growing dependence on alcohol include:
- Partaking in risky situations after drinking, like driving a car, having unsafe sex, swimming alone, or walking in a dangerous area at night
- Waking up hungover even after making an effort to drink less
- Giving up favorite activities in order to drink
- Turning favorite activities like socializing into additional opportunities to drink
- Consuming alcohol instead of coping with personal or professional problems
- Feeling guilty or ashamed about drinking
- Lying about drinking habits, including how often and how much
- Drinking to the point of blacking out
It can be challenging to pinpoint the exact moment when a loved one’s drinking habits turn from normal to destructive, but if any of the above signs are present, it’s worth addressing the problem as soon as possible.
Later Signs of Alcohol Dependence
Once people realize they might have a problem with alcohol, they often do whatever they can to hide it from others. When that happens, family members may not catch on to an addiction until it has become a serious problem. Again, it’s important to remember that it’s never too late to seek help. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), later signs of alcohol dependence include:
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Drinking heavily when disappointed or under significant pressure at work or school
- Sneaking in extra drinks when drinking with others
- Blacking out frequently when drinking
- Regretting behaviors that occurred while drunk
- Promising loved ones to cut back on drinking but failing to do so
- Drinking and driving or partaking in other risky behaviors while drunk
- Eating very little or irregularly
- Staying drunk for days at a time
The more dependent a person is on alcohol, the harder it will be to hide. In one sense, that’s a good thing, because it means getting the help needed to start on the path to recovery. Ultimately, only four elements need to be present in order for alcoholism to be a problem. The four definitive symptoms of alcoholism are: a strong need or urge to drink; the inability to stop drinking once it has begun; certain withdrawal symptoms without alcohol; and a higher tolerance, or the need to drink increasingly more alcohol in order to feel the same effects.
Who Is at Risk?
Alcoholism is a disease, and like any disease, some groups of people are more at risk for it than others. According to NIAAA, genetic factors can influence alcoholism, and children whose parents abuse alcohol are four times more likely than other children to develop alcohol dependence later in life. Other groups whose members have a higher chance of abusing alcohol include Native Alaskans, American Indians, those who associate closely with heavy drinkers, and those who suffer from mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Simply being a member of one of those groups does not mean someone will become an alcoholic though. Children are especially resilient, and those who grew up in homes where their parents abused alcohol are not necessarily doomed to do so themselves. NCADD reminds readers that there are several influences outside of biological, psychological, and familial factors that could lead to alcoholism, and genetics are only responsible for about half the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.
For those who know they’re at a greater risk of developing a substance abuse problem, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk. These include avoiding underage drinking, consuming only moderate levels of alcohol as an adult, and talking to a healthcare professional about any family history of alcoholism to ensure they know the signs to watch out for in case drinking ever does become a problem.
When to Seek Treatment
At the end of the day, family members cannot force loved ones to seek treatment for alcohol abuse, but discussing the issue and concerns with a loved one can help. In a 2013 study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), researchers found that 95 percent of people with substance abuse disorders did not think they needed treatment. That doesn’t mean family and friends can’t nudge and persuade loved ones into seeking treatment, though.
According to NIAAA, it is time to seek treatment if in the past year a loved one has:
- Ended up drinking more than intended
- Tried to cut down or stop drinking but couldn’t do so
- Spent a significant amount of time either drinking or being hungover
- Experienced a strong need to drink
- Let drinking interfere with home, school, or work life
- Continued to drink regardless of issues at home, school, or work
- Abandoned favorite activities in order to drink more
- Built up a tolerance for alcohol
- Experienced withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from alcohol
the decision to seek treatment is a big step, but it’s a necessary one in order to lead a healthy and fulfilling life. Depending on the extent of the addiction, treatment options vary, and what works for one person does not necessarily work for the next person; however, there are some recovery strategies that are fairly effective for most people.
According to SAMHSA, the most popular treatment options include individual and group therapy, intensive outpatient programs, recovery support services, and peer support groups. Many recovery programs start with a medical detox program that is monitored closely by doctors and clinicians trained in managing withdrawal symptoms. Once a client has completed the detox phase of recovery and gotten a doctor’s approval, an intensive outpatient program typically follows.
Intensive outpatient programs provide clients with the structure they need to continue recovery without being too restrictive. IOPs are an effective way of seeing how sobriety will affect daily life while maintaining a strong support structure in the process. An outpatient program usually follows an intensive outpatient program, and both include various types of therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and Motivational Interviewing.
Getting sober may take time, but it’s never too late to start a life in recovery. If a loved one exhibits any of the signs of alcoholism, the best thing a family can do is provide support and encourage that person to get professional help.