Alcoholism-What Does it Look Like?

How do you know whether someone has an alcohol problem, is alcoholic, or is just "a heavy drinker?" When should you be concerned about them, or yourself, if you are the drinker in question? People have their own measures--he doesn't drink every day, just on weekends; he only drinks beer, never the hard stuff; he can quit anytime he wants to, he just doesn't want to.

The difficulty in determining whether someone has a problem is inherent in the nature of the illness, which is a chronic, progressive disease. Because it is progressive, people in early stages may not manifest dramatic symptoms of insobriety that might warrant attention or concern. Symptoms include physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects. Denial is the number one symptom and the alcoholic is often the last one to believe he or she has a problem.

The road to alcoholism begins when drinking is no longer social but becomes a means of psychological escape from tensions, problems, and inhibitions. In the early stage, a person comes to depend on the mood altering qualities of alcohol. A gradual increase in tolerance develops so that it takes increasing amounts of alcohol to produce the same mood altering effects. The person may start gulping a few drinks before attending a party, need two strong drinks before dinner, or increase social drinking to 3 to 5 drinks a day. Many people might not recognize that this person is in the early stages of a progressive illness, particularly the person who is drinking.

In the middle stage of alcoholism, the compulsion to drink becomes more intense. A person may start to drink earlier in the day. Tolerance continues to increase. Although not everyone who has a tolerance for alcohol becomes an alcoholic, just about every alcoholic shows an abnormal tolerance to the drug. In this phase, dependence on alcohol, rather than situational or psychological stress, motivates most of the drinking. Loss of control while drinking may not occur regularly but is gradually noticed by others. Drinkers in this stage begin to be secretly worried and ashamed about their drinking and may make repeated attempts to stop. They may shift brands of alcohol or go from hard liquor to beer. Eventually they will revert to denial so that they can continue to drink while suppressing the internal conflict. At this point they begin to blame everything except alcohol for their plight. Physical symptoms such as stomach problems, hand tremors, blackouts, and hangovers increase.

During late stage alcoholism, symptoms of the disease become quite evident. The person grows obsessed with alcohol to the exclusion of almost everything else. They drink despite the pleading of the family and stern advice from doctors. Relationships with family or work may be completely severed, but this and severe health problems may not be enough to stop drinking. The late stage alcoholic may suffer a host of fears, including crowds and public places, and use drinking to temporarily alleviate remorse and guilt. Debts, legal problems, or homelessness may complicate his or her life. If the drinking does not stop it can ultimately lead to death. People do not necessarily have to "hit bottom" and reach the extreme stages of alcoholism to decide to get help. Many men and women recognize their increasing powerlessness over alcohol and initiate recovery before they lose their job or family.

Recovery from alcoholism is also a progressive process. The link below on Addiction and Recovery shows both the course downward in addiction as well as the course back up in recovery. This article discusses what alcoholism looks like and offers information for you to determine where in this progression you or someone you know and care about may be. Alcoholism is a treatable disease and recovery can be a healing process. For further information or assistance call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at 545-0350.

Addiction and Recovery Chart

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Last updated April 14, 2004