Most adults have an alcoholic beverage at some point in their lives. In many areas and cultures, reaching the legal drinking age and celebrating by imbibing with friends is a right-of-passage. Countless households regularly serve wine with dinner, and going out for a drink after work with colleagues, family members, or significant others is incredibly common.
Drinking is a highly social activity. It is also one that’s hardly frowned upon. Unfortunately, the high prevalence and widespread acceptance of alcohol often make it difficult to determine whether or not a drinking problem exists. How can you tell when you’re drinking too much? When have you crossed the barriers between alcohol use, alcohol abuse, and alcohol addiction?
Many heavy drinkers regularly suffer significant consequences as a result of their alcohol consumption. However, even for these individuals, alcohol addiction can look quite different from one person to the next.
What is the Definition of an Alcoholic?
With alcohol abuse, people drink heavily despite experiencing widespread and undeniably negative consequences. As these consequences continue to mount, someone who’s abusing alcohol can make the rational and life-affirming decision to stop drinking, avoid hard liquor, or limit their alcohol intake. Dramatically reducing the amount of alcohol they consume or outright abstaining does not result in overwhelming physical and psychological pain. Abstaining might not be comfortable for an alcohol abuser, but it doesn’t present a dangerous array of withdrawal symptoms indicating that the body is in extreme distress.
Alcoholics or those who suffer from alcohol use disorder have moved beyond merely abusing alcohol. Instead, they have become chemically and physically dependent upon it. Every heavy drinker won’t perfectly fit the stereotype of the “typical” alcoholic. Anyone who no longer has the power to either limit their drinking or stop drinking has a serious problem.
With alcohol addiction, changes within a person’s brain chemistry have made it virtually impossible for the body to function without a drink. As a result, even relatively short periods of abstinence lead to painful side effects. From headaches and tremors to vomiting, disorientation, and seizures; the body sends out a vast range of distress signals when an alcoholic is deprived. While alcohol abuse can look quite a bit like alcohol addiction, many people who abuse alcohol can still consciously choose to change their behaviors.
What It Means to be a Functioning Alcoholic
You might think that you’ve got your drinking under control simply because you have yet to:
- Be arrested for a DUI or other alcohol-related crime
- Lose your job due to drinking
- Lose your housing due to drinking
- Have regular alcohol blackouts
Stereotypical views of alcoholics paint these individuals as homeless, capable of stealing or lying to support their habits and plagued by numerous DUI or other criminal charges. Surprisingly, however, many people with alcohol use disorder live very ordinary-seeming lives.
Known as functioning alcoholics, these individuals take concerted steps to maintain all outward appearances of normalcy. Their clothes look clean and pressed, their breath smells fresh, and they generally make it to work and other scheduled meetings on time. From the outside looking in, they appear to have their lives in fairly good order. As a result, very few people suspect that their drinking is out of control.
Enabling and the Alcoholic
Functioning alcoholics rarely function on their own. These individuals frequently have one or two enabling family members or friends. Enablers make excuses for their behavior. They clean up their physical and financial messes and intervene in many other ways to prevent the consequences of heavy drinking from spiraling out of control.
Although the actions of enablers might seem helpful, they are often the very same actions that keep functioning alcoholics from hitting their personal “rock bottoms.” This also stops them from seeking the help they need.
Heavy drinking and even binge drinking are not always a sign of alcohol addiction. The primary difference between someone who’s abusing alcohol and someone with full-blown alcohol addiction is choice. Sadly, however, the time for making the right choice is incredibly short. From a clinical perspective, the definition of an alcoholic is largely related to the overall health and functionality of the brain.
In a clinical setting, alcohol addiction can be assessed and identified according to the amounts of neurological changes that have occurred. Each time that a person drinks to excess, new changes occur within the brain. With prolonged and regular drinking, considerable brain damage is sustained, and actual brain volume is lost. Once the brain and its functions have completely acclimated to alcohol use, alcohol abusers become dependent, and the power of choice is lost.
Physical Effects of Alcoholism
Whenever a person becomes intoxicated, chemical signals between neurons in the brain are blocked. This temporary shut-down of normal brain activity is what causes people to:
- Slur their speech
- Lose their inhibitions
- Struggle with balance and coordination
With short-term, moderate drinking, these are problems that naturally abate as the body clears itself of alcohol and all residual toxins. For someone who abuses alcohol, the brain attempts to overcome blocked signals between its neurons and neurotransmitters. This is known as neurotoxicity and it is but one of three forms of brain damage that can occur as the result of excessive drinking.
Because of this change, prolonged alcohol use can actually wear the brain’s neurons out. This is known as “burnout”, and it occurs when exposure to over-activated neurotransmitters goes on for too long. Finally, even a person’s actual brain matter can suffer from heavy alcohol use. Binge drinking followed by short periods of abstinence and withdrawal causes dramatic decreases in cell bodies and cellular pathways.
Heavy alcohol use is always a dangerous game. Routinely consuming more alcohol than the body can process increases your likelihood of heart disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, and many other serious health issues. It also places you at greater risk of experiencing extraordinary legal challenges, job loss, loss of your meaningful relationships, and even loss of housing among many other things. More importantly, however, heavy drinking places people on a dangerous precipice that can have them plummeting uncontrollably towards full-blown addiction at any time
Even with functional alcoholics, unseen changes that are constantly occurring within the brain can take away the power of choice at any moment. If you’ve been having a hard time abstaining from alcohol or reining your drinking, getting professional treatment is always the best choice.
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we offer comprehensive, end-to-end solutions for helping people reclaim their lives. You can receive quality detox support for mitigating and limiting the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. We also offer intensive outpatient treatment or inpatient rehab. To get started on the path to recovery from alcoholism call us today at 855-334-6120.