What Is an Alcoholic? – The term “alcoholic” is a non-medical term for a person who consumes alcohol beyond their ability to control it and is thus unable to stop drinking independently. Most often this is accompanied by habitual intoxication, daily drinking, and the consumption of larger amounts of alcohol than most others.
As noted, the development of “alcoholism,” or a person being an “alcoholic,” are not clinical diagnoses. Rather, they are somewhat archaic yet commonly used terms. Accepted modern medical terminology is largely based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), which places various levels of alcohol abuse or addiction under the category “alcohol use disorder,” ranging from mild to severe.
Alcoholics Anonymous defines alcoholism as “a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession, to consume alcohol.” The individual usually has intense cravings for alcohol, often at times when drinking is imprudent or inappropriate.
When speaking about the everyday references to alcoholics or alcoholism, most people tend to imagine a person who is not merely a binge drinker or occasionally imbibes too much. Furthermore, the average person doesn’t usually think of someone who drinks daily but rarely becomes highly intoxicated and manages to control their lives.
Instead, they imagine a person who has developed a chemical dependence on alcohol, drinks way too much way too often, and clearly exhibits addiction through an obsession with obtaining and using alcohol. In short, an alcoholic is perceived as an addict, perhaps no different than a person who is addicted to prescription painkillers, heroin, or cocaine.
What Causes Alcoholism?
A precise, singular cause of alcoholism has not yet been identified. Alcohol dependence has been defined as a condition that occurs when a person drinks so excessively and so frequently that it changes the structure and function of their brain.
When a person consumes alcohol, dopamine levels increase just as they do with exposure to many other drugs. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Normal, everyday activities can boost dopamine, including eating, socializing, and exercising.
However, certain drugs and alcohol increase dopamine to levels far beyond natural stimuli, and therefore, promote further substance use/abuse and ultimately, addiction. Over time, a person developing an alcohol addiction begins to have strong cravings for alcohol.
These cravings may be accompanied by unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is discontinued, even for a short period. Depending on many factors, such as a person’s genes, environment, psychology or stress levels, he or she may be more vulnerable to becoming an alcoholic and find themselves unable to abstain for even the most logical of reasons.
Signs of Alcoholism
For those suffering and their loved ones, it is crucial to be able to identify the behavioral signs of an alcoholic, which include:
- Drinking alone or in secret
- Hiding alcohol and drinking patterns from others
- Blacking out and severe memory loss
- Exhibiting an inability to limit one’s alcohol consumption
- Exhibiting extreme cravings for alcohol
- Engaging in risky, impulsive, or violent behavior when drinking
- The onset of withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as shakiness, trembling, sweating, nausea or fatigue
- Denying that a problem exists despite clear evidence to the contrary
- Neglecting activities once considered important or enjoyable in favor of drinking
- Placing alcohol use above personal responsibilities and relationships
- Poor academic or work performance
- Needing to consume increasing amounts or more potent drinks in order to produce the same effect (tolerance)
Alcohol use can impact every organ in the body. The most commonly known related conditions are liver disease and cirrhosis, but there are many other adverse medical complications of alcohol use including the following:
- Heart problems
- Increased risk of stroke
- Gastrointestinal problems
- High blood pressure
- Sleep disturbances
- Impaired cognition
- Mood swings
What’s more, long-term alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breasts.
Risk Factors—Age and Gender
Alcoholism is a progressive, chronic disease that will eventually take its toll on the entire body. For older adults who have been long-term alcoholics, cognitive impairment is entirely possible, and numerous studies have linked alcoholism to an increased risk of dementia. Many people who are alcoholics past middle-age have been so for a long time, even decades.
It is vital to understand alcoholism’s truly insidious nature, which, tragically, is frequently overlooked and underestimated. A person can remain a relatively “high-functioning” alcoholic for years or decades and appear to be mostly stable. However, stressful circumstances, such as the loss of employment, forced retirement, divorce, financial problems, or the death of a loved one, can prove to be enough to send someone over the deep end.
This underlying instability of the alcoholic is just one reason why it is so important for those close to them to understand the nature of addiction in general. An addict is not always a person already at “rock bottom” in the throes of addiction, but also a seemingly normal person who may be just one step away from slipping into that abyss.
Moreover, there is something to be said for seeking treatment at any stage of problematic alcohol use, as it may help prevent an escalation of the disease and the problems associated with it. Also, as an addiction becomes more intense an ingrained, recovery also becomes progressively more difficult and complicated.
Finally, women, due to differences in rates of metabolism also are often more apt to become addicted to alcohol sooner than men and are twice as likely to die from conditions related to alcoholism. Both sexes are under-treated for alcoholism, however, even though a higher percentage of men are diagnosed as having an alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism, Treatment, and Recovery
Discontinuing the use of alcohol is not always enough to dramatically improve the quality of one’s life because long-term abstinence often requires additional emotional and mental health support. Moreover, many people who are alcoholics struggle with co-occurring mental illness that requires concomitant treatment.
Harmony Recovery center specializes in the treatment of addiction to drugs and alcohol as well as co-existing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and trauma. Achievements in emotional, physical, and spiritual balance hallmark our treatment, as clients build and restore energy levels, repair relationships, and find a renewed purpose.
We employ a holistic approach to treatment that addresses all aspects of the person, his or her addiction, and their unique circumstances. We seek to change perceptions and bring new purpose into the lives of both the patient receiving treatment and their loved ones.
We offer a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment that consists of evidence-based services vital to the recovery process. These approaches include behavioral therapy, individual, group, and family counseling, peer group support, health and wellness programs, medication-assisted therapy, and aftercare planning for continual long-term treatment and support.
Highly-skilled, compassionate addiction professionals facilitate these services with expertise and provide our clients with the tools and resources they so urgently need to achieve abstinence, prevent relapse, and sustain long-term sobriety and wellness.
If you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of alcohol addiction, please contact us as soon as possible for a free consultation and to discuss treatment options. We are dedicated to helping people free themselves from the grip of addiction and reclaim the healthy and fulfilling lives they deserve!