Is Alcoholism the “Forgotten” Addiction?

In the last few years, it seems that the word “addiction” is most commonly seen next to the word “drug” or some derivative of it (e.g., “prescription drug,” “opioid,” “heroin,” etc.).

There is no way that the severity of the drug addiction problem in the U.S. can, or should be minimized. However, we should also not lose sight of the impact of alcohol addiction has had, and continues to have, on our population.

That point was vividly illustrated at the April installment of the Now You Know series, co-sponsored by Meridian HealthCare and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County. The speaker was Thomas O’Donnell, a former counselor at Meridian’s TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities).

Tom began his presentation with some chilling statistics. Some 16.3 million adults in the U.S. had an alcohol use disorder in 2014. This includes an estimated 679,000 adolescents ages 12-17. Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually in the United States. And the toll on society goes well beyond individuals with alcohol abuse problems and their families. There are nearly 10,000 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities each year. And in 2010, alcohol misuse problems cost the U.S. $249 billion.

Of course, numbers can’t tell the very personal stories of those who suffer from alcohol abuse and their families. As Tom pointed out, alcoholism on the part of one or more members can stress a family to the breaking point — impacting the stability of the home, as well as the family’s unity, mental health, physical health and finances.

The bulk of Tom’s presentation focused on the different stages an individual goes through when dealing with an alcohol addiction, including behaviors that are associated with each stage. There was much more detail that I have space for here, but there are certain “signposts” that families should look for if they suspect a problem.

A future alcoholic usually starts with “social drinking,” but the road to alcoholism begins when the drinking is no longer social but becomes a means of psychological escape from tensions.

Most importantly, there soon comes a point when an individual who was previously able to stop drinking when they chose to can no longer do so. At this point, what had been a psychological habit becomes a physical addiction. Once this person takes a single drink, they cannot stop — and that single drink is likely to trigger a chain reaction that will continue without a break into a state of complete intoxication.

Such a person may have previously been able to resist taking that first drink, but soon finds that he or she cannot face the day without alcohol. By now, a pattern of anti-social behavior has set in, and the loss of friends, family members and employment does nothing to change the alcoholic’s behavior. Nor will landing in the hospital or consultation with a family physician have more than a temporary effect.

Ultimately, any alibis the alcoholic had been making for his or her behavior up to this point will collapse, and they will be forced to admit that their drinking is beyond their ability to control. Only when he or she is fully willing to seek and accept rehabilitation, and realizes that they can never drink again — ever, under any circumstances — is there hope for recovery.

The recovery process can be long and arduous, but millions of recovering alcoholics are proof that it can work. There are many resources in the community available to the alcoholic and his or her family, including treatment programs provided by Meridian HealthCare and other entities. Call (330) 797-0070 for more information.