Alcoholism is a family disease. You don’t have to be the one drinking it to be deeply impacted by its effects. The emotional scars left in the wake of a person with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) can range from unkept promises made under the influence to severe verbal abuse, not to mention watching a loved one engage in risky behaviors that might result in injury or even death. The tragic truth is that the person abusing alcohol often doesn’t remember their actions, leaving those around them grappling with heartache that isn’t easy to resolve. This is true whether the individual is a social drinker binging on the weekends or a full-blown alcoholic who over-consumes on a daily basis. Drinking alcohol is such a widely-acceptable practice (and even deemed healthy in some contexts) that recognizing patterns of abuse before they result in severe consequences can be extremely difficult.
The most undesirable form of alcohol intervention is being arrested for drinking and driving. Each day, more than 300,000 people drive drunk in the United States, while only about 3,200 of those drivers are arrested. The many who manage to elude the law may do so as many as 80 times prior to their first arrest. This might be of consolation to those who drive after having a few too many, but the sad reality is that two out of every three people will be the victim of a drunk driving accident in their lifetime.
While being arrested for driving under the influence certainly indicates an alcohol abuse problem, most of those arrested are repeat offenders. When the severe financial and legal consequences that come with being arrested aren’t enough to deter drinking, it becomes clear why alcohol abuse is categorized as a mental illness. A number of structured intervention programs exist to support recovery, including professionally-administered, social support, and self-help options.
Finding Alternatives and Avoiding Triggers. While this may seem obvious, it can be hard to recognize the impact your environment and lifestyle have on your choice to drink. Since dependency is the result of a habit of drinking regularly, it can be equally difficult to break the habit and find new activities to help you avoid alcohol on your own.
Planning for Urges and Offers. Having a plan can help you avoid relapse. Knowing exactly what you are going to do when the urge strikes and exactly how you are going to say “no” when someone offers you a drink can help ensure you follow through.
Social support networks:
12-Step Programs. Likely the most widely-known form of alcohol intervention, 12-step programs work best for those who have decided on their own to stop drinking. They focus on education, emotional support, and accessibility.
Other Community Support. This might include family support, or support from a religious group or other community network intended to help you make better choices and use of your time.
Professionally administered options:
Medication. A number of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications are available to treat alcohol dependence. These medications are available by prescription, and can be prescribed by a family doctor for those committed to quitting.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET). This and other types of behavioral treatments help those who abuse alcohol resolve the conflicts it presents with their personal value structure, and helps to resolve other emotional and behavioral issues that influence problem drinking.
Intensive Treatment Programs. These include therapeutic communities and rehabilitation centers, where patients either voluntarily or involuntary submit to round-the-clock treatment for a period of time.
What is Alcohol Detox?
Like many other drugs, those who consume alcohol will experience a period of withdrawal and detoxification. These are the after-effects that occur as your body tries to recover from the negative effects of the alcohol. Everyone who has ever over-consumed alcohol has likely experienced a hangover. While not generally life-threatening, a hangover is the first sign that you are misusing or abusing alcohol. Conversely, those with extreme alcohol dependence can experience withdrawal symptoms so severe that they are life-threatening. Often, the detoxification period lasts much longer than in those with low dependency. In such cases, detoxification should occur only under the supervision of a medical professional. Delirium tremens in the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal, and may result in death. It can occur in anyone following a period of heavy drinking, but most often occurs in those who have been drinking large amounts for an extended period of time.
Symptoms of Detox
Detoxing can have mild to severe symptoms depending on age, frequency of use over time, current mental and physical health, and other substance abuse issues.
Common symptoms include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Sensitivity to light and sound
Delirium tremens symptoms may include:
- Full body tremors
- Changes in mental function
- Deep sleep that lasts for days
- Severe fatigue
- Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch
- Rapid mood changes
- Heavy sweating
- Being easily startled
- Problems with eye muscle movement
- Irregular heartbeat
Common symptoms will occur within the first 24 – 48 hours following the last drink. More severe symptoms can occur up to two to four days following the last drink, but may occur as far out as seven to 10 days later. Seizures are likely to occur within the first 12 – 48 hours.
When is Medical Detox Necessary?
Those who have been using alcohol consistently for any length of time should discuss with the doctor the possibility of undergoing a medically-supervised detoxification process. Anyone who is at risk for delirium tremens should definitely have a medical detox. Those at greatest risk include:
- Those who have used alcohol for 10+ years
- Anyone with a history of withdrawal
- People who consume the equivalent of one pint of hard liquor each day
If a person is at high risk for delirium tremens, they should seek professional assistance to undergo a medical withdrawal, and never attempt to withdraw at home. If a person at any risk level attempts to detox without professional assistance and exhibits symptoms of delirium tremens, it should be treated as a life-threatening medical emergency.
Detoxing from Alcohol Safely
Whether detoxing from a night out with friends or under the direct supervision of a physician trained in alcohol addiction, it is important to focus on hydration and nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies and dehydration are two of the most common health problems caused by alcohol use. A person doesn’t need to abuse alcohol regularly to experience these ill effects. While eating is often the last thing a person withdrawing from alcohol wants to do, taking care to drink plenty of water and replenish vitamins is a vital step in the recovery process.
Dehydration affects the body in many ways but also impacts the severity of the headache that comes with even a mild hangover. Water, along with other fluids, will restore electrolytes and help flush the alcohol out of the body. Alcohol also impairs the body’s ability to process and absorb key nutrients. Replenishing important vitamins and minerals that were flushed out of the system while drinking is also important. Supplementing B vitamins along with fat-soluble vitamins can help speed recovery from withdrawal symptoms. In addition to proper nutrition and hydration, medication will likely be used in cases where dependence is moderate to severe.
Staying Sober with Rehab
When a medical detox is required, it often indicates that a person has lost complete control of their ability to use alcohol responsibly and in moderation. In such cases, therapeutic communities (also known as residential rehabilitation centers) can be an important part of the aftercare process. As with most substance abuse problems, lifestyle and environmental changes play an important part in long-term recovery. Finding a rehab center that specializes in the treatment of AUD can help teach those with alcohol abuse and dependency issues what lifestyle changes are needed to support recovery, while removing them from environments that may encourage immediate relapse.