The reality of alcohol abuse

Editor note: The names in this story have been changed for privacy reasons.

More than two years ago, a local man named James attempted suicide. James grew up as the oldest boy of eight children, and his parents divorced when he was 5 years old. He spent years shuttling back and forth, living between parents. His mother remarried a few times, and each man was an alcoholic who physically abused her.

James discovered that he was homosexual and turned to the bottle at the age of 21 to cover up his problems and identity. James’ mother died 18 years ago, and shortly thereafter one of his sisters committed suicide. Then two years ago when his partner died of cancer, he decided it was time to turn his life around and get some help. That help came in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experiences, with each other so that they can try to solve their problems and help others to recover from alcoholism. The desire to stop drinking is the only requirement for membership.

“Coming to A.A. has changed my life entirely,” James said. “Before, I was miserable, self-centered and only thought about myself.”

Now that James is in A.A., his life has improved greatly.

“It’s a wonderful way of living now,” he said.

Nearly 14 million people in the United States currently abuse alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is characterized as a strong urge to drink, a physical dependence on the substance and the need to drink larger amounts of alcohol to get intoxicated, according to the NIAAA Web site.

But Mark Goldman, a USF psychology professor and director of the Alcohol & Substance Use Research Institute, made a distinction between abuse and dependence.

“Alcohol abuse is when people have problems that come from alcohol,” Goldman said. “Alcohol dependence is the inability to control the amount of drinking that they do.”

Leonard E. Kirklen, coordinator for Clinical Services, Psychological Testing and Outreach for USF Counseling Center for Human Development, said there are two basic theories about alcohol abuse.

“For some people, they are almost hooked from the beginning. They tend to feel normal when they drink,” Kirklen said. “It can also be a learned behavior and they could become a person who drinks in social situations learning to associate having a good time with drinking.”

The NIAAA Web site said alcohol abuse is a disease, which lasts a person’s lifetime, usually following a predictable course and has symptoms.

“The range of things that can happen are large,” Goldman said. “They can’t perform day-to-day activities very well and their behavior upsets the people around them, and their family gives up on them.”

James said in addition to his depression, he had trouble juggling the demands of his family.

“My three older sisters always came to me for advice and were always asking me to help them,” he said. “I had a hard time refusing their requests.”

Goldman, who was co-chair of a task force for the NIAAA, said alcohol abusers perform poorly and tend to lose their jobs because they cannot function properly due to excessive drinking.

“They do a lot of damage to their own bodies in that they destroy their livers and brain,” Goldman said. “Alcohol in excess takes a toll on virtually every organ in the body.”

Alcohol abuse is not a curable disease, but it can be treated. There are programs that use both counseling and medication to help a person stop drinking. Some medications, such as benzodiazepines, known by the brand names Valium and Librium, help combat withdrawal symptoms the first few days after a person stops drinking. Other medications help people remain sober, such as disulfiram, known by the brand name Antabuse, which discourages drinking by making the person feel sick if he or she drinks alcohol. However, not all medications work with every individual.

Most alcohol abusers cannot stop alone and need help in recovering from the disease. Treatment works for many people but there are different levels of success, according to the NIAAA Web site. Kirklen said treatment would be different for someone who has been drinking for a long time.

“Part of it is to determine if a person is going through a stage of use and abuse, or if they are developing a long-term pattern,” Kirklen said.

Kirklen gave the example of two 21-year-olds that get drunk on a periodic or regular basis. The one who started drinking at the age of 14 may have a long-term problem because he started drinking earlier. The one who started drinking at 18 may have started in college and established a recent pattern of alcohol abuse. Treating these two people would be different because one has already developed a resistance to changing his behavior, Kirklen said.

Kirklen said family history also plays a part in alcohol abuse.

“The highest risk in terms of family history is being a son of an alcohol abusing father,” he said. “If both parents are alcohol abusers, the risk increases and the children would probably have long-term problems and present different issues in treatment.”

Kirklen also said there are gender differences in alcohol abuse as well.

“Male alcohol abusers will be identified more than female alcohol abusers,” Kirklen said. “The tendency is that society is more protective of a woman with a drinking problem.”

Kirklen said that lots of women develop drinking problems that go undetected for years because their family shields them.

James said that A.A. has changed him because his relationships with people are better and he is now closer with his family, specifically his father.

“A.A. allows you to get all the problems out,” James said. “I’ve never been so comfortable in my life, and I feel blessed.”

Contact Kelly Icardiat