Alcoholism is not a mysterious illness, nor something someone brings on themselves. Alcoholism is a medical disease caused by abnormalities in the brain, aberrations that are inherited by most alcoholics. Something different happens when the alcoholic drinks. Emotional instability, personality disorders, character defects, or traumatic circumstances contribute to the problem. Understanding alcoholism includes knowing these facts.
Understanding Alcoholism: 5 Common Myths Examined
- Myth: Alcohol affects everyone who drinks the same.
- Reality: Like every other consumable substance, alcohol has different effects on different people.
- Myth: Alcohol is addictive, and anyone who abuses it will become addicted.
- Reality: Alcohol is selectively addictive; only an unfortunate minority will experience the need or want to consume it in sufficient amounts for a long enough period to become addicted.
- Myth: People are alcoholics because they have personal or emotional issues that they try to get over by drinking.
- Reality: Abusers have the same general problems as everyone else before they start drinking, but alcohol adds to the mix.
- Myth: People would not become addicted if they drank responsibly.
- Reality: Responsible drinkers aren’t immune to developing a problem. Because of the nature of the disease, not the person, they begin to drink irresponsibly.
- Myth: Addicts can learn to drink regularly.
- Reality: Alcoholics have a permanent brain addiction. They can never safely return to drinking.
Hopefully, these myths will be debunked and replaced with facts so that understanding alcoholism can become more common.
Alcohol’s Journey Through the Body
When you drink a glass of wine, beer, or mixed drink, the substance travels down your esophagus directly into your stomach. Alcohol is a very small molecule. Thus it requires little or no preliminary enzyme activity and passes directly through cell membranes. On the other hand, a starch molecule weighs 250,000 times as much as alcohol and requires three to four hours in a rich stew of stomach acids and pancreatic enzymes before it can be broken down into smaller molecules that then can absorb into the bloodstream.
The Absorption Process
Five to 10 percent of the alcohol you drink absorbs into the bloodstream through the lining of the mouth and esophagus. About 20 percent is absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach. The walls of the small intestine absorb the remaining 70 to 75 percent. When alcohol mixes into your bloodstream, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), also known as blood alcohol level (BAL), rises. How quickly and how high your BAC rises depends not only on how much you drink, but on your gender, age, weight, body fat, nutritional status, emotional state, and physical health.
The Early Stage of Alcoholism
Alcoholism differs from virtually every other disease process in that it begins with symptoms indicating an improvement in functioning. These early-stage symptoms make sense only when you understand that the illness is characterized by brain adaptations, which enhance the pleasurable sensations of drinking while mitigating the unpleasant effects. Only later, typically over a period of years, do these adjustments lead to physical and mental deterioration.
Four Early Stage Symptoms
- Intense pleasure associated with drinking – Most people who drink feel good after the first glass of beer, wine, or vodka.
- Lower-intensity reaction – Early-stage alcoholics typically experience a lower-intensity reaction to alcohol’s effects.
- Acquired Tolerance – Metabolic tolerance is responsible for about 20 percent of the early and middle stage alcoholic’s ability to consume relatively large amounts of alcohol without feeling intoxicated, while acquired tolerance accounts for the remaining 80 percent.
- Preoccupation with drinking – As the months and years go by, the early-stage alcoholic begins to experience a concern with drinking. Everything feels so good, so right when you’re drinking that the desire to repeat the experience seems entirely sensible.
The Middle Stage of Alcoholism
In the middle stage of alcoholism, the predictable euphoria associated with drinking gradually begins to dissipate. Middle-stage alcoholics still feel good when they drink, no doubt. But life, in general, is not quite so easy or simple as it used to be. Understanding alcoholism and how it works on the mind is crucial to overcoming the addiction.
Four Middle Stage Symptoms
- Withdrawal – This happens when the BAC begins to descend. Most people think that withdrawal occurs when the substance is completely eliminated from the bloodstream, but the addicted brain starts to call out its misery long before its alcohol bath is completely drained. The brain cells require a specific amount of the drug to feel good; when that level begins to drop, the pain and misery of withdrawal begin. In the early and middle stages, withdrawal is often subtle, and the symptoms seem to bear little or no relationship to excess drinking: anxiety, irritability, tremors, nervousness, weakness, insomnia, loss of appetite, elevated blood pressure, elevated temperature, and exaggerated reflexes.
- Blackouts – When you drink to the point of intoxication, whether you are an alcoholic or not, the substance and its metabolic by-product acetaldehyde destroy cells in the hippocampus, the long-term memory storage areas of the brain. Cell destruction is usually associated with a rising BAC and may be related to oxygen deprivation in certain crucial areas of the brain. While patchy memories are a common after-effect of heavy drinking, blackouts – total wipeouts of moments, hours, or even days of your life – are less common. They are always, however, terrifying.
- Personality Disintegration – Somewhere in the middle stage, which can last for many years and even decades, the alcoholic’s personality begins to undergo dramatic changes.
- Denial – In a society where alcoholism is associated with abuse and alcoholics are depicted as morally depraved, physically unfit, mentally unsound social outcasts, it is not difficult to understand why so many victims practice denial.
Late-Stage Alcoholism and Best Form of Treatment
In the late, deteriorative stage of alcoholism, the thunderclouds of pain gather in force and intensity, and the forecast begins to look grim indeed. As the disease progresses, the pleasures associated with drinking diminish. The only gratification is the reduction of the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony that appears. Even at this stage, when the disease seems to have progressed into irreversible physical and mental deterioration, hope is not lost. Inpatient treatment facilities offer the best possibility for recovery. This method of treatment provides the proper guidance and support including:
- Structured programs and activities
- Guidance and support from licensed and experienced professionals
- No access to alcohol or any other drug
- Continuous counseling and support through the physically and mentally draining withdrawal phase
There are no negative influences at treatment facilities. Patients have the opportunity to develop new, more supportive and productive relationships. Patients who successfully complete the program will receive support even after they leave to help keep them on the right track. Alcoholism is not a life sentence, and with the proper treatment, individuals can resume their life as it was before the devastation of this disease.
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