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When is A Little Holiday Cheer not so Cheerful?

We’ve all heard the justifications.  Maybe we’ve even said them ourselves. “It’s the holidays.  Everybody drinks a little.  Have a little Christmas cheer.”  After all, doesn’t everybody want to get into the holiday spirit?  So what’s the problem with a few drinks anyway?

For most people, nothing.  Most people will celebrate this holiday season safely visiting with family and friends, imbibing in their favorite eggnog or other alcoholic concoction with no untoward effects.  Most, but not all. 

Some individuals will drink during this holiday season, but not without consequences because their drinking is different and they don’t just have “ a few.”  Their drinking will be excessive and will cause problems.  As a result, the “holiday gifts” they will give their family members include such hot items as worry, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment and more.  Many a family holiday celebration has been ruined by alcohol- fueled behavior leaving family members to wonder, “why can’t they just stop?”.

Some facts about Alcoholism

  • One out of every ten people is alcoholic.
  • Ten million Americans are alcoholic and another ten million are problem drinkers on their way to becoming alcoholics.
  • Most people have at least one family member who is alcohol or drug dependent.
  • One out of four Americans directly feels the impact of alcoholism.

 

In spite of its prevalence in today’s society and the enormous associated financial and emotional costs, alcoholism remains an under-identified and under-treated disease.  Even designation as a disease by the American Medical Association in the 1950’s hasn’t stopped many people from believing that problem drinking results from lack of self-control, or from an underlying depressive or anxiety disorder.  This type of thinking leads to the mistaken assumption that if will-power or medication is used, the problem drinking will stop.

Denial

“I just drank a little too much, it’s no big deal,” is what many a family member and friend will be told by someone who has consumed too much alcohol.  In other words, “leave me alone and let me drink.”  So why can’t they see what they are doing to themselves and their families?  Alcohol is actually a drug that sedates the brain and as a result, people who are intoxicated are not able to see themselves as they are seen by others.  In addition, some alcoholics experience “black-outs”, or periods of amnesia during intoxication resulting in no memory of the problem behaviors.  At best their memory is fuzzy after a night of drinking and most aren’t in the mood to respond to their loved-ones’ concerns about their behavior.  Besides, most alcoholics believe they can “stop anytime they want to.”

Having a Good Time or Alcoholism?

Like diabetes or heart disease, alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease that can be fatal.  Alcoholic drinking is characterized by compulsive and excessive drinking and has physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms that get worse if left untreated.  Ironically, alcoholism is a disease that can go into complete remission if proper treatment is followed.  Sadly, this usually isn’t the case as the denial of both drinker and family members collude to just “hope that the problem will go away.”  But if it really is alcoholism, it won’t.

In the early stages of the disease, episodic problems resulting from drinking are ignored or explained away.  Often alcoholics make promises to themselves and their family members that they will not behave the same way again.  And then they do.  During the middle stages, alcoholic drinkers  start to experience problems in more areas, like family, finances and work.  Coping skills deteriorate and conditions like depression and anxiety disorders worsen.  By late stages, serious health problems are evident and most alcoholics are about to lose or have already lost their families and jobs.  At this point withdrawal from alcohol can cause seizures and needs to be medically supervised.

Making the Diagnosis

So, how do you know if you are a loved one is an alcoholic?   Answering yes to any of the following questions may be an indication of alcoholism and the need to get help.

Has the amount of alcohol you drink increased over time?

Do you drink more than you intend to or for longer than you planned?

Do you have hangovers?

Do you drink to resolve emotional problems?

Has your drinking caused problems, and if so, have you continued to drink?

Have you tried to cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink, or tried to stop without success?

Treatment

The primary treatment for alcoholism is abstinence from alcohol.  Most people need assistance to stop drinking and it can come in many forms.  Twelve-step recovery programs like AA and NA are available world-wide to help people stop drinking and using drugs.  Al-Anon is the sister organization to AA and was formed to help the family members of alcoholics.   Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP’s) are widely available and provide counseling, education and support for people who need more structure to help get started in recovery.  In-patient treatment centers, where an individual stays for weeks or more, are less prevalent, but still around.

If you are concerned that you may have a drinking problem, consult your doctor or mental health professional for referral information.  If you are a family member worried about a loved one, seek professional help to learn more about your options.  Waiting for alcoholics to decide on their own to get help is often a long and futile wait, and there are ways that you can help increase their motivation to do something about their drinking and learn to take care of yourself.
Beverly L. Supler, PhD, LPC

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