5 myths about alcoholics

by Per Wickstrom on October 21, 2013

Alcoholic Truths

Alcoholism is no small problem. There are an estimated 12 million alcoholics in the United States and 140 million worldwide. It is also estimated that in America, one in ten children has a parent that is an alcoholic. A legal drug, alcohol is the most commonly used drug in America and throughout the world. Although it is legal, it is extremely easy for teenagers to obtain, making it the most commonly used drug amongst high school kids, according to the 2012 Monitoring The Future survey and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) who report that out of over 45,500 high school students surveyed, over 50% had used alcohol.

The most common practice amongst teenagers and college kids is binge drinking. While binge drinking does not make one an alcoholic, the habit is firmly associated with alcoholism and other related health and safety concerns. Many people have some misconceptions about alcohol dependence (alcoholism). Here are 5 myths and the true information:

Myth #1: “Alcohol is not as addictive as cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.”

In actual fact, alcohol is one of the toughest drugs to kick. However, the manner in which people become addicted to alcohol is different than other drugs. Someone can take heroin a few times (or even once) and quickly become addicted. Alcoholism is often described as more of a gradual progression than a sudden compulsion. A person starts drinking regularly and in many cases routinely binge drinks. This goes on for years and physical tolerance develops wherein the person must drink a higher and higher quantity of alcohol in order to get the desired effect – which is normally to get drunk or to black out. A long-term alcoholic who drinks a quart of hard liquor and several beers very single day is not particularly unusual. By this point, even if the person says they can “quit any time” they have in fact developed an extreme physical dependence on alcohol. This means that their body is so accustomed to consumption of alcohol, that it is dangerous and even life-threatening for them to abruptly stop drinking without trained medical supervision.

The symptoms of unsupervised withdrawal include severe cravings, nausea, sweating, tremors, and anxiety. Life-threatening symptoms and convulsions can start eight to twelve hours after the last drink. Three or four days later a series of symptoms known as delirium tremens can begin. Abbreviated DTs, it means literally “trembling delirium” and includes some of the most acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms, specifically severe agitation, seizure, hallucination, and temporary psychosis.

Heroin and other opiates, while addictive and potentially deadly, are not particularly known for deaths associated with withdrawal (the exception being some cases of long-term methadone use); they are however well known for deaths related to overdose. Alcohol and a few other drugs (for example some anti-anxiety drugs) are notorious for the volatile nature of withdrawal symptoms. They therefore require a delicate and precise process for detoxification. For long-term alcoholics, proper medical protocol must be adhered to.

Myth #2: “Alcohol doesn’t kill like other drugs.”

Drugs kill in a number of different ways – overdose, disease, accidents, crime, to name a few.

In regards to alcohol, estimates vary, but statistics indicate around 80,000-100,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States every year. These include: traffic fatalities resulting from drunk driving; incidents of alcohol poisoning (toxic alcohol level in bloodstream); accidental drowning, fire, falls; firearm accidents; suicide, homicide.

The figures also encompass the slow killers closely associated with protracted alcoholism, specifically: circulatory and respiratory diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, cirrhosis (liver disease), and even forms of cancer.

Taking a drink is fairly harmless for a responsible adult. But like anything, alcohol can be abused. Historically and for whatever reasons, heavy abuse of alcohol seems to go hand in hand with human strife and misery. People can become a slave to alcohol, fail to practice self-control, and in so doing wreak havoc in their own lives and upon the lives of those surrounding them. Just some of the human tragedy and physical problems that can result from alcohol abuse and alcoholism (quite in addition to causes of death as listed above):

  • Loss of productivity, absenteeism, dismissal
  • Broken homes, failed relationships, familial strife
  • Sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse
  • Drunken fighting, violent behavior
  • Deficiency in vital nutrients, such as the B vitamins
  • Permanent damage to nerve and brain cells
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – birth defects brought about by the pregnant mother’s alcohol use, marked by hindered mental and physical development, particularly of the infant’s skull and facial features.
  • Ulcers
  • Gastritis (inflammation of stomach walls)

Myth #3: “It’s relatively safe to drink while using prescription drugs.”

Many drugs include warnings about mixing alcohol. Combining psychoactive drugs is dangerous yet very common. If one goes to a doctor and does not inform him or her about a current prescription, accepts a new prescription, disaster can result from the chemical mix. People who are abusing prescription drugs, such as opioid painkillers, will even go “doctor shopping” for new prescriptions. Alcohol use only exacerbates the problem.

Prescription drug abuse amongst high school and college students is a growing problem – and alcohol is commonly used along with the drugs. Kids will even hold “punch bowl parties” where they take pills while having no idea what they are – yet they’ll down a bunch of random pills while binge drinking alcohol simultaneously.

There is a long list of drugs that should not be used in conjunction with alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides a partial list on its website. For example, mixing drugs such as Paxil, Klonopin, and Xanax with alcohol can produce such symptoms as drowsiness, dizziness; increased risk of overdose; slowed or difficulty breathing; impaired motor control; unusual behavior; and memory problems. This is all in addition to the already long list of side effects associated with psychotropic drugs. Mixing multiple drugs and alcohol increases the risks even further.

Myth #4: “The only rehabilitation that works for alcoholics is the Twelve Step (Alcoholics Anonymous) program.”

The program known as the “Twelve Steps” refers to the one developed in 1939 in the book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. The Twelve Steps comprise the core of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The program has gained wide acceptance and has been incorporated into a large number of inpatient and outpatient programs, including the adaption for drug users under the banner of Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

While it is true that many people have benefited from the program and gone on to live clean and sober lives, it does not “bite” with everyone. Some people simply don’t get much out of it. But fortunately there ARE other programs available. There are faith-based and secular (non-religious) programs. There are also holistic centers that incorporate multiple methodologies within the same facility. The point of the holistic approach is to provide a tailor-made program addressing the alcoholic’s individual circumstances. Every person is different, and it is becoming increasingly evident that this must be accommodated in detox and rehab – particularly in cases of poly-drug abuse and addiction involving multiple substances.

Myth #5: “You can always tell when someone is an alcoholic.”

Just because someone is an alcoholic doesn’t mean they aren’t doing an excellent job of concealing it. A person who is alcohol dependent can have a successful career while failing in other areas of life. They may appear to be a dedicated “social drinker” while consumption is at a higher frequency and quantity than people realize. As described earlier, alcoholism is more of a progression than a sudden downslide. A man can drink more and more as the years go by and not even realize or care to admit that he is alcohol dependent.

Alcoholism affects the young, the old, the skid row bum, the housewife, the burnt out salesman, the struggling artist, and the corporate CEO – no strata of life is exempt. As earlier stated, in order to address alcoholism, it is often necessary to design a program specifically tailored to each person. Treat people as individuals, and assist them in dealing with their individual problems connected with alcohol and drug abuse.

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