Alcohol addiction is incredibly common. Sadly, however, it is also commonly misunderstood. This is a chronic disease affecting the brain and both its chemistry and functioning, and it goes far beyond lacking willpower or making bad choices.
If you or someone you love has been abusing alcohol, it’s important to understand what addiction truly means, how it forms, and the best way to treat it. This is all information that can make the recovery process both easier and infinitely more successful.
Also known as alcohol use disorder, alcohol addiction is a state in which people are no longer able to stop drinking on their own. When they do, they’re plagued by constant and overwhelming cravings for a drink.
They also develop uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. If you or your loved one seeks alcohol obsessively in order to avoid feeling sick, this is a sure sign of addiction. Prolonged alcohol abuse alters a person’s brain chemistry so dramatically that sudden cessation causes the entire body to send out intense distress signals.
Even after just several hours without a drink, an alcoholic may struggle with:
- Decreased ability to focus
Moreover, if these initial symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are not identified and mitigated early-on, they can lead to a dangerous state of physiological distress known as delirium tremens. During delirium tremens, people can experience auditory and visual hallucinations, seizures, respiratory troubles, and more. Unsupervised alcohol detox can even result in death.
Understanding the Different Stages of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) doesn’t develop overnight. Instead, most people start by drinking purely in a recreational capacity. They might have a few drinks with friends, a nightcap during dinner, or a drink or two on special occasions. The risk factors for alcohol addiction include:
- Having one or more immediate family members with AUD
- Past trauma
- Extreme stress
- Co-occurring mental health issues
When drinking makes people feel exceptionally good, they are more likely to return to this behavior in the future. This is especially true if they’re living with excess stress, repressed emotions, or constant emotional pain. This results in regular or daily drinking in which alcohol consumption becomes an increasingly important part of their lives. When regular drinking causes legal, financial, professional, or social problems, people at-risk of alcoholism continue drinking anyway. Continuing to drink despite increasingly adverse consequences is alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse places people on a dangerous precipice where alcohol addiction can occur at any time. Addiction is reached when the brain and body can no longer function normally without alcohol. Often referred to as chemical dependence, addiction takes away a person’s ability to choose. Even though you or your loved one may want to stop drinking, trying to do so without help will likely end in relapse. Until addiction is properly treated, the risk of relapse will always remain high.
Why Unsupervised Alcohol Detox Is So Dangerous
Alcohol triggers the release of an important neurotransmitter known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA causes people to feel calm, relaxed, uninhibited, and even empowered. While it may be possible to trigger sufficient GABA with just one or two drinks for achieving the desired mental and emotional state, over time, more alcohol will be needed to obtain the same effects. Increased tolerance can lead to binge drinking and a greatly elevated risk of alcohol overdose. Like many neurotransmitters, GABA isn’t just responsible for elevating a person’s mood.
It also plays a role in other functions throughout the body. Constantly triggering this neurotransmitter by drinking can wear it out. As time goes on, the production and release of GABA may become dependent upon alcohol consumption. This neurotransmitter can also misfire and may be produced and released in abundance.
The effects of these chemical changes contribute to withdrawal symptoms. When a person’s brain chemistry has been severely disrupted by alcohol abuse, stopping outright can lead to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, seizures, coma, and even death.
What It Means to Be a Functioning Alcoholic
Alcoholism can look very different from person to person. Not everyone who drinks heavily loses their job, their family, or their home. Some people are able to abuse alcohol for years without anyone in their inner circle being any the wiser. This is known as a functioning alcoholic.
Functioning alcoholics are able to continue going to work or school, taking care of their families, and maintaining nearly all outside appearances of normalcy. Moreover, they often do so with the help of one or more enablers. Thus, just because a person continues to function at acceptable levels in various life areas, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t abusing alcohol or outright addicted to it. Getting treatment for alcohol use disorder is the safest way to reclaim your freedom from this disease.
Although alcoholism does not have a known cure, it can be successfully managed over time. With medically assisted detox and behavioral therapies for developing healthier coping and stress management skills, many people are able to establish healthy, sustainable, and sober lives. If you or someone you care about is battling AUD alone, we can help. Call us now at 844-639-8371 to find out more about the available options in treatment.