Alcoholism—The Facts, The Myths
Which one is the typical alcoholic?
1 2 3 4 (See pictures in publication)
DID you pick No. 4? Perhaps the biggest myth about alcoholism is that the skid-row derelict is the typical alcoholic. Actually, fewer than 5 percent of the alcoholic population can be found in the derelict sections of large cities. The rest? They are taking care of the children at home, caring for patients, working at the office.
Of all major health problems, probably none is more shrouded in myth than alcoholism. So what are the facts? The facts must be recognized if alcoholism is to be treated. And it can be treated successfully.
● What Is an Alcoholic?
According to Marty Mann, founder-consultant of the National Council on Alcoholism, “an alcoholic is someone whose drinking causes a continuing and growing problem in any department of his life.” The key word is “continuing.” To illustrate: If drinking was causing a problem in the homelife, social life, business or professional life of a normal drinker, he could drink less, even though this might call for real determination. But with the alcoholic it’s different. Oh, hea may try to cut down. But no matter how much determination he may have, once he starts to drink, he is unable to control it, and thus drinking causes a “continuing” problem in his life.
● Why Is Alcoholism Called a “Disease”?
In a general sense, a disease is defined as “a disturbance in function or structure of any organ or part of the body, possessing certain recognizable symptoms.” Does alcoholism fit the definition? According to the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and numerous other medical and government agencies, it does.
How is there “a disturbance in function” in the body of an alcoholic? Well, alcohol affects him differently from the way it affects other people. In the early stages he often consumes huge amounts of alcohol without getting drunk. Then, too, he may have blackouts, afterward not remembering what he said or did while drinking, although he was fully conscious and appeared normal to others. And as we will see, there are recognizable symptoms.
Alcoholism is not strictly a physical problem. The alcoholic is affected mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well, and efforts to help him must take these factors into consideration.
● Are Some People Predisposed to Alcoholism?
There is increasing evidence that this may be the case. For example, a study carried out in Denmark between 1970 and 1976 found that sons of alcoholics were four times as likely to be alcoholic as were sons of nonalcoholics. And this was so even though the children were raised by nonalcoholic adoptive parents.
In another study, conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, it was found that young men with a family history of alcoholism developed high levels of acetaldehydeb in their blood when they drank alcohol. Science Digest suggests that the “increased acetaldehyde may heighten the feeling of intoxication and pleasure alcohol brings, thereby serving as strong inducement to drink more.”
Such findings, however, are not conclusive and indicate only that some predisposition to alcoholism may be hereditary.
● Is Alcoholism Curable?
If by “curable” is meant the ability to return to normal controlled drinking, this has happened so rarely that most experts would answer, No! Dr. Sheila Blume, director of the New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, put it this way: “I tell my patients to imagine that they are on this side of Long Island Sound and are asked to swim to Connecticut through shark-infested waters. Out of hundreds of swimmers, one or two might make it—but would you plunge in?”
Alcoholism is, however, controllable, and most counselors and recovering alcoholics agree that it can best be controlled only by total abstinence.
● Is It the Same as Drunkenness?
No. Drunkenness describes the result of overconsumption—a temporary loss of control over physical and mental capacities. But not everyone who gets drunk is an alcoholic. And not all alcoholics get drunk. For instance, a recovering alcoholic may not drink at all. Yet he is still an alcoholic; if he started drinking, he eventually would lose control.
The Bible condemns both heavy drinking and drunkenness as morally wrong. (Proverbs 23:20, 21; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 6:9, 10) But the alcoholic does not have to get drunk. He can stay sober by not drinking. However, if he, with full knowledge of his condition, chooses to go on drinking and continues to get drunk, then he has a moral problem—drunkenness.
● Is It Just a Case of Willpower?
“Most alcoholics have more than their share of will power,” answers Marty Mann. “They will get up and go to work when anyone else, feeling as they do, would be in bed calling for the doctor.” If alcoholics were simply lacking in willpower, then no doubt most of them would be skid-row derelicts.
Perhaps the myth about alcoholics’ being weak willed stems from what happens when they do drink—they lose control. So the alcoholic must use his willpower to abstain from the first drink.
● What About Tranquilizers?
The alcoholic who wakes up with the shakes and doesn’t want to drink in the morning might reach for a tranquilizer. But what he may not realize is that his body doesn’t know the difference. Alcohol is a sedative, a mood changer, just as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, painkillers, even medicines for colds (which contain antihistamine) are mood changers. And any mood-changing substance can present a danger to the alcoholic.
To progress in recovery, therefore, many experts recommend that alcoholics abstain not only from alcohol but from all mood-changing substances.
● How Does Alcoholic Drinking Differ from Normal Drinking?
The alcoholic’s drinking goes beyond what is accepted as normal. For example, if somebody you know started sneaking into a closet to drink milk, surely you would conclude that something was wrong. It’s not normal. Yet alcoholics very often sneak drinks, even hiding bottles for later consumption. Normal drinkers don’t do that.
The biggest difference, however, between alcoholic drinking and normal drinking is control. The social drinker, even the heavy drinker, usually can decide when and how much he or she will drink. The alcoholic can’t. He consistently drinks more than he intended to.
Have others become increasingly concerned about your drinking? Be honest with yourself. ‘I can stop any time I want to,’ you might say. And you’re probably right. But “going on the wagon” is no test, because even the most advanced alcoholics can at times do that for a while. Besides, how do you feel during periods of abstinence—calm and relaxed or nervous and tense? Remember, the key is control. Thus the book Alcoholics Anonymous states: “If when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.”
● Why Doesn’t the Alcoholic See What Is Happening to Him?
As his condition worsens, the alcoholic’s sense of self-worth deteriorates and in its place grow anxiety, guilt, shame and remorse. To live with himself, he unconsciously uses several defenses.
Rationalization: He gives his drinking and its effects a variety of excuses: “I’m nervous,” “I’m depressed,” “I drank on an empty stomach.”
Projection: He puts his painful feelings onto others. Now he sees others as “hateful,” “spiteful,” “mean,” “against me.”
Repression: He tunes out painful drinking episodes, actually convincing himself that they never happened. Thus, with his wife upset over last night’s binge, he might lean over and ask: ‘Is anything bothering you this morning?’ And she can’t believe her ears!
Euphoric recall: At times his memory of drinking episodes is euphoric or happy. So he might say, ‘Yes, I had a few last night, but I was just fine’—when actually he wasn’t ‘just fine.’ Alcohol has distorted his perception.
These defenses build up a wall of denial that hinders the alcoholic from seeing what’s happening to him. He needs help.c
● What Kind of Help Is Needed?
‘All he needs is help to stop drinking,’ you might think. But he needs more.
Physically: He must be safely withdrawn from alcohol (“detoxified”). This may require hospitalization so that alcohol-related health problems can also be treated. But physically recovering is not enough. Otherwise, once he’s feeling better, he might think, ‘Now I can handle it.’
Mentally: He should learn the facts about alcoholism, becoming aware of and accepting the logical reasons for him to abstain. This knowledge will help him in his lifelong fight to maintain sobriety.
Socially: He must learn to live comfortably with himself and others.
Emotionally: He must learn to cope with anxiety and the other negative feelings within him. He must learn to be happy without alcohol.
Spiritually: Since he is given to hopelessness and fear, he needs help that will inspire hope, confidence and trust.
● Where Can Such Help Be Found?
While there are various forms of treatment available, one thing stands out as a must—having someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to talk to, perhaps someone who has been there and back. This can inspire hope, for it lets the alcoholic know that he, too, can recover.
Many alcoholics have been aided by an alcoholism rehabilitation center. Such centers may have a staff that is drawn from many disciplines, including physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and trained social workers. Here the patient usually goes through a thorough educational process whereby he learns about alcoholism in a way he can accept.
Then, too, group-therapy sessions led by trained counselors may offer the patient practical support with his problems and help him to open up and become aware of the unconscious defenses he has been using. Since he can’t change what he can’t see, such insight is an aid in his recovering. But whatever therapy is used, the basic goal is to help the patient to learn to cope emotionally without resorting to alcohol.
However, once he leaves such treatment, the recovering alcoholic may find himself face to face with the realities that used to drive him to drink. There may be lingering negative feelings about himself, family problems or a shaky job situation. Clearly, he needs ongoing help to cope. For such help, some turn to local volunteer groups made up of recovering alcoholics who are dedicated to helping one another.d
There is, however, another source of help available, one that can give the recovering alcoholic strength “beyond what is normal” in his daily struggle to cope with life and maintain sobriety. What is that?—2 Corinthians 4:7, 8.
“My success,” states a recovering alcoholic, “is due to my faith in Jehovah, the power of prayer and the help given to me by my Christian brothers. Without that, I would now be in the gutter, or dead, through alcohol.” Yes, it was by studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and attending Christian meetings that this man acquired real faith in God and loving Christian companions. But in what way can these help?
Well, his study of God’s Word can help the recovering alcoholic to change his way of thinking. (Romans 12:1, 2) Feelings of guilt and remorse are eased as he comes to know Jehovah as a merciful, forgiving God. (Exodus 34:6, 7) Too, Bible principles show him how to improve family life, how to be the kind of worker any employer would delight in, and how to avoid thoughts and actions that create undue anxiety and worry.—Ephesians 5:22-33; Proverbs 10:4; 13:4; Matthew 6:25-34.
As he builds a trusting relationship with Jehovah God, he learns to commit his cares and burdens confidently to Jehovah in prayer. With the help of loving Christian friends, he learns to communicate clearly his feelings and needs and comes to realize that he can get close to others without fear. Such relationships inspire the secure feeling and the sense of self-worth so much needed by the recovering alcoholic.—Psalm 55:22; 65:2; Proverbs 17:17; 18:24.
So, have you or others become concerned about your drinking? Has drinking caused you problems in one or more areas of your life? Then do something about it! Why hold onto something that can cause you so much pain and trouble? By learning the facts (not myths) and acting in harmony with them, it is possible to recover from alcoholism and lead a happy, productive life.
a Of course, alcoholics may be either male or female.
b Acetaldehyde is a substance produced when the body breaks down alcohol.
c A discussion of what the family can do will appear in a later issue of Awake!
d Of course, a person who is desirous of living by Bible principles needs to be very selective in choosing help. He would not want to become involved in the treatment or the activities of an organization that would in any way cause him or encourage him to compromise his Christian principles.
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There is a source of help available that can give strength “beyond what is normal”
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Is drinking causing problems in your life? Why hold onto something that can cause so much pain and trouble?
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Symptoms of Alcoholism
(Please note that these are some symptoms of alcoholism and that the onset of these symptoms may vary from person to person.)
Possible early symptoms
● Gulping Drinks (“Others drink so slowly”)
● Sneaking drinks
● Predrinking drinking (“Might as well have one before the party”)
● Increase in tolerance
● Blackouts (“How did I get home last night?”)
Possible middle symptoms
● Begins losing control
● Denial of problem
● Changes drinking pattern (“I’d better switch to beer. It’s Scotch I can’t handle”)
● Tries “going on the wagon” (abstaining)
● Drinks alone
Possible late symptoms
● All control is lost
● Benders (drunken sprees) increase in frequency and intensity
● Decrease in tolerance
● Unreasonable fears and anxieties
● Delirium tremens
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Does her body know the difference?
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Do normal drinkers do this?