The alcoholic beverage industry is booming in America. In 2016, the industry had $223.2 billion in alcohol sales, according to Statista. Alcoholic beverages are available everywhere and their profits influence almost every aspect of American life. Restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, sporting events and now, even movie theaters are catering to those who need a drink while watching their favorite blockbuster movie. Even the well-respected National Institutes of Health (NIH) has asked the alcohol industry to provide $67.7 million to fund a research study to determine if moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease, as some have claimed.
One in eight American adults is an alcoholic, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. More than 88,000 Americans die annually from alcohol-related deaths. That’s more than twice the annual death toll of opioid overdoses. The NIH says it’s the third-leading cause of preventable death, after first-place tobacco, and second-place poor diet and inactivity.
Who are alcoholics? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism gives “problem drinking” the medical diagnosis of “alcohol use disorder” (AUD). AUD is a chronic brain disease. People with AUD compulsively drink alcohol, cannot control their alcohol intake and have a negative emotional state (bad mood) when they’re not drinking. Defining an alcoholic is tricky ̶ we don’t all drink the same. Some people binge drink periodically and some are daily drinkers. Where we all seem to find common ground is that we no longer have a choice after one drink, we want more, but more is never enough.
I’m a pickle
I guess I won the alcoholic lottery. I never used to think of alcohol as a drug. It was just a yummy beverage that took the edge off my day, my worries, my emotional pain.
We don’t know why exactly, but for some people, the craving for alcohol becomes an addiction and a disease. For others, moderate drinking may never become a problem. There is still debate about where or how the line is crossed from problem drinker to alcoholic. Is it an allergy? Is it genetic?
I quit trying to answer these questions a long time ago. It doesn’t really matter. My favorite analogy is that I’m now a pickle, and pickles cannot become cucumbers again. Trust me I’ve tried. For years I’ve tried to “manage” my drinking: I promised myself I’d only drink on weekends, I’d only drink beer, I’d stop at three beers next time. If any of this sounds familiar, you may have a problem with alcohol.
For me, this process took years. I first tried alcohol at a very young age. I didn’t like the taste, but I sure liked the effect! For me it was a way to escape from my dysfunctional childhood and family life. Working in health care communications, I’ve recently learned a lot about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their connection to alcoholism. I was a prime candidate.
I binge drank off and on through my teens and twenties. Binge drinking means drinking a lot (5 drinks for men; 4 drinks for women) in about two hours. By the time I was in my thirties, I was picking up a six-pack or a bottle of merlot every day after work. I planned everything around my drinking. I hung out with friends based on who was drinking. Which ones did I have more fun with? Which events served alcohol, who was driving, how far from home? It’s exhausting to think about it now, and how much control a “beverage” had over my life. Stunningly, nearly one in four Americans under age 30 meets the definition of alcoholic.
It wasn’t until my early forties that drinking too much and too often started catching up to me. I was having problems with my stomach, sleep, fatigue, anxiety, depression, relationships and motivation for activities I used to enjoy. I thought “everything else” was causing my problems, not alcohol. I found a new doctor to fix my health since my last doctor hadn’t done so. I decided it was hormones and I was starting menopause. The new doctor ran a series of blood tests and found some telltale signs of heavy alcohol use, including severe vitamin (B-12) deficiency. He started asking questions: how much do you drink and how often? I admitted to two or three “occasionally,” when the truth was more like six to eight every night. He urged me to cut back and wanted me back every week for a B-12 injection. It was quite frustrating to have to control my drinking, think about it, worry that he’d figure me out, label me an alcoholic.
The river of denial
I fixed that problem by moving to a different state and getting a new doctor. But, apparently the AUD label made it into my medical records. I was mad. There’s a stigma to being labeled an alcoholic. If I can help one suffering alcoholic by sharing my story, it’s worth it to me. No one wants to be an alcoholic. For most it’s a death sentence. The odds aren’t very good for us. Only about one in five alcoholics recover and live the rest of their lives in sobriety. But there’s always hope.
A soft bottom
There I was in a new town, in a new state, without my drinking buddies and my husband traveled for long periods of time for his job. The isolation was almost unbearable, and my only comfort was drinking. I quickly spiraled down into a deep depression. Drinking was no longer fun and the fear of DUIs (driving under the influence) forced me to stay home by myself.
A short vacation with my father and step-mother, who is a registered nurse, was a new turning point. My step-mother noticed that an entire bottle of wine barely phased me, and she was concerned. She suggested I look into a 12-step program when I got home. She told me about some friends who had gone and how it really helped them. I was encouraged, and the timing was right; I knew I needed a change.
There is a solution
I found a local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group near my house. It couldn’t hurt right? I’d at least meet some people and converse with humans for an hour. I’m not sure what I expected at an AA meeting but, it wasn’t the smoke-filled room of toothless old men that lived under a bridge of my imagination.
The meeting included all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds; rich professionals, laborers, doctors, housewives, retired grandmas, army vets – all with the same problem I had ̶ alcohol. We all lost our choice with alcohol. One drink was too many and 100 was not enough. I listened, nodded, cried, laughed and sometimes shared. I finally found a place that I fit in, where I was understood and not judged.
The original and largest of the 12-Step programs is Alcoholics Anonymous. As of 2016, AA had an estimated membership of more than 2.1 million people in more than 118,000 groups in 175 countries. In the program I learned that alcohol wasn’t the problem, alcohol was my solution. I was the problem. Basically, I had to learn how to live the right way, something I didn’t get or that alcohol dependency took away from me when I was growing up. I learned that AA’s Twelve Steps are about how to live a happy and productive life without drinking. Quitting alcohol is only a small part, learning how to live without it is the challenge.
I wish I could say I “got it” at my first meeting on Oct. 9, 2013. Unfortunately, I didn’t because I didn’t put the work in to consistently stay sober. I’ve had several long stints of sobriety and relapses, but I keep trying. I want to keep trying because I feel my life is worth it.
Never deny that alcoholism is a disease. This disease is very real and it’s a killer.
I have lost several people in my life to this disease, some died sober and some not. Watching a 40-year-old woman die from pancreatitis and liver failure was tough. She didn’t even know she was dying because the swelling in her brain caused her to be delusional. She thought she was going home and asked if I could take her.
I’ve heard it compared to serious, long-term diseases like diabetes. It’s something you have that never goes away; it’s a chronic condition. However, it can be successfully treated the rest of your life. Alcoholics have more treatment options, and treatment can be fun and enjoyable. Some people require intensive inpatient treatment where, depending on the severity of their addiction, they will need to be monitored and detoxed by a physician. Outpatient therapy is convenient for those who work during the day.
It’s always important to talk to your doctor honestly about how much you drink, drinking’s effect on your daily life and what treatment options may work better for you. Getting alcohol out of your system is only the first step. Having a positive support network is imperative to getting and staying sober.
The positive support network that works for me is AA’s a 12-step program. For me, the odds of finding a meeting and having people there to support me are pretty good. I can’t do this alone. I go for an hour, donate a few dollars and get to participate in my recovery with others. The treatment can be enjoyable in the company of friends. I sure spent a lot more money and time drinking and recouping from hangovers than what it takes to get sober, feel better and be happy.
I was fortunate that I had a good first experience and a very kind woman to encourage me to get out of my car in that church parking lot and come in. They took me for coffee afterwards and told me about eating candy or something sweet to replace the sugar cravings that come from alcohol withdrawal. I was having headaches and just felt bad. Your body is used to processing all that alcohol to sugar so when you stop cold turkey your body feels it. Feeling bad can make you want to drink.
Give the program a chance. Just listen for a while. If you’ve tried a 12-step program and didn’t like it, try a different group or method. If, after giving it a fair chance, you don’t think it’s for you, there are many other ways to maintain your sobriety. There are Christian-oriented programs; groups that teach meditation and other techniques to help you resist the urge to grab a drink when you’re stressed. Just keep trying until you find a recovery program that works for you
The disease doesn’t go away when you quit drinking. I follow the advice that I hear at every meeting: “Keep coming back and don’t leave before the miracle happens,” because I’m worth it.
This is just part of my story. It doesn’t end here. Alcoholism has affected every one of us in some way or another. It affects our families, communities and our future. I look forward to writing more about resilience to addictions. Stay tuned …