A New View of Alcoholism

A New View of Alcoholism

“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
     -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

“Knowledge is power.” -Francis Bacon

The more you know about a problem, the better equipped you are to solve it. By reading this page, you’ll learn more about your alcohol addiction—why you crave alcohol and what it gives you in return.   

Alcoholism changes everything about you. It becomes a way of life, a deeply ingrained pattern with physical, emotional, and even spiritual edges. There are many parts to it. With the new perspective on alcoholism presented on this page, you will take a look at drinking from a drinker’s point of view. This will help you to get acquainted with the drinker—and the non-drinker—inside of you. Then, when you’re ready to quit, you can become the non-drinker without any fear of alcohol.

This six-part perspective shows how alcohol affects the whole person. As you read it, you’ll gain a complete understanding of alcoholism. Not only will you look at the benefits you gain from alcohol, but you’ll also examine the problems it causes.

If you ask yourself the question, “D o I drink too much? ” and the answer is yes, then it’s time you consider getting treatment for alcoholism.

A Way of Coping

Alcohol helps us cope. Our drinking makes us feel better or helps us avoid some problem. Basically, we drink to gain some desired effect. There are hundreds of ways alcohol seems to help. Each person has his or her own unique set of reasons for drinking. Sometimes we find a different reason for each drink we take.

Here’s an example: Allen knows he gets nervous around others. Because he’s going to a party tonight, he has a couple of drinks. He does this to “calm himself down” and “get ready to meet people.” When he gets to the party he still feels uptight, so he has another drink to “loosen up.” A couple more drinks help him to “laugh and joke with others.” His wife is coming on to him, so he has a couple more drinks to “get in the mood.” The last drink at the party is “one more for the road.” Back home and before going to bed with his wife, he has another drink to be “a lusty lover.” And if he gets through sex without passing out, he has one last drink to “help him sleep.”

Alcohol helps Allen cope with these and many more experiences. Alcohol does so much, it’s easy to see why people become so devoted to drinking. Here are a few specific ways alcohol helps. It can help you:

     take risks
     calm yourself down
     overcome shyness
     escape loneliness
     forget some sadness
     feel bolder
     solve problems or forget problems
     overcome depression
     fit into social situations
     remove worry
     suppress anger or get your anger out
     cope with personal stress
     reduce feelings of guilt or shame
     celebrate happy occasions
     ease tensions
     get rid of aches and pains

With so many good reasons for drinking, why would anyone want to quit? There are two main reasons: 1) If you continue to drink excessively, alcohol soon stops helping you and actually begins to hurt you. It begins to cause more problems for you than it helps you to solve. 2) Most of us, sooner or later, realize we’d rather do something on our own instead of depending on a drug to help us do it.

Early in our drinking careers we’re amazed at how easily we can fit alcohol into our lives. But it gets harder and harder.  Instead of using alcohol to help now and then, we begin depending on it to help us constantly. We can’t get along without it. We stop wanting a drink and start needing a drink.

This is a crucial change. It indicates addiction. Here’s another way to see it. After a while, we start using alcohol to cope with problems that only alcohol is causing. We need a drink to stop the shakes. Or to blot out the memory of our drunken behavior the day before. Or to cut the pain of a hangover. That’s how powerful this drug can be. We use it as a medication for so many of our problems—even problems it itself causes. No wonder we feel we need it! Later in this book, you’ll list specific ways alcohol helps you. Also, you’ll discover many different ways of coping—ways that, in the long run, will work better for you than alcohol ever did.

Something You Learned

Alcohol is not an easy drug. It doesn’t come with instructions; you have to learn how to use it. In fact, the more you drink, the more there is to learn.

Some of this learning can be fun. When we first start drinking, we learn the many ways alcohol helps us. We think it’s great. Then we begin a long process of learning how to gain the most benefits every time we drink. But that means we also spend a lot of time learning to minimize the many problems alcohol can cause.

For instance, Mary learned early on that alcohol helped her with shyness. It helped so much she quickly began to drink in all social situations. She practiced drinking just enough to get the right buzz for every occasion. She worked on it long and hard. She had to learn how to pace herself so she wouldn’t get too drunk too soon and blow her cool. Learning not to over-drink, to get the perfect glow every time, is difficult. You have to learn your limits. If you drink too much too fast, you might become sick or cause an embarrassing scene. You might get in a bad mood or just get downright sloppy. You might get in trouble with the law. Or you might lose control and hurt someone you really care about.

How can you control your drinking all the time? It’s hard. In fact, it’s damned near impossible. There are just too many variables. For instance, whether you get drunk and how fast you get drunk, depends on

how much you’ve eaten, what you’ve eaten, and when
what your mood was before you started drinking
how long since your previous drink
how long since your previous drunk
how many other toxins your liver is struggling with (such as food preservatives and chemical additives, environmental toxins from the air or water, any drugs you have taken including prescription drugs, how much sugar you’ve consumed and so on)
how you’re consuming your alcohol (how fast, what strength, from what source—beer, wine, or liquor, and even what type of beer, wine, or liquor) other variables such as time of month (for women especially but men also have monthly biological cycles), outside stress factors in your life, whether your body is fighting an illness (even something as simple as a sore throat)

That’s a lot to learn. But as alcoholic drinkers, we attempt to learn it all. Our purpose? To gain control over alcohol—so we can get as high as we want, without overdoing it. Some of us become so adept that we can control these variables most of the time.  But when you get this good, surprisingly, there’s not much excitement anymore. When you’re this good at drinking, you normally follow the same routine every day. You maintain a steady alcoholic equilibrium and after awhile it gets very boring.
Most alcoholic drinkers lose control of their alcohol intake. Not all the time, but often. In some ways it’s more exciting to lose control once in awhile, but it’s also dangerous. When we get too drunk, accidents can happen. Serious accidents. So we try to control the uncontrollable and minimize the danger of hurting ourselves and others. As we drink we think, “I can control it if I try.” And we keep trying. And trying…

Just a Part of You

Jud would tell anyone sitting next to him at the bar, “I’m an alcoholic…there’s no two ways about it.” Then he’d quaff another brew.

Actually there are two ways about it. A part of you remains non-alcoholic no matter how much you drink. This is very important. Why? Because most people label themselves one thing or another, as alcoholic or not alcoholic, but not something in-between. Then they act as if they’re stuck in their description and have no choice. Even if you’re a down-and-out alcoholic drinker who stays drunk constantly, only a part of you can be considered “alcoholic.”

Even though all of your cells contain alcohol as a result of your alcoholic blood, even though each cell craves alcohol as soon as the alcohol level goes down, each one still retains some integrity. This integrity is provided by alternatives to alcohol: the food you eat, the water you drink, the air you breathe. To be sure, a definite part of you does not depend on alcohol.  In fact, this part dislikes alcohol intensely and fights against it. This part works to preserve your body’s natural health. Donna’s friends and family members could easily see both sides of her. They would say, “She’s okay… especially when she’s not drinking.” Or: “I know deep down in her heart she’s a good person… if only she wouldn’t drink so much.”

Look closely inside yourself and you’ll see two opposing forces. One of them is alcoholic. The other is not.

The part of you that’s not alcoholic lies just below the surface, close at hand. But, as you might expect, the drunker you are the harder it is to get in touch with this part. Still, it’s there and it’s very strong. This non-alcoholic part of you has quite a bit of character. It’s an interesting side of yourself that you probably don’t know too well. The alcohol keeps it hidden.

Yet it’s this non-alcoholic part of you that thinks you might be “alcoholic.” It’s there the morning-after, shuddering and shaking at what you’ve done to yourself the night before. The non-alcoholic part of you knows you have a problem.

It’s the alcoholic part of you that thinks you’re fine. This part keeps excusing your alcoholic behavior and hiding you from your problems. This part will do virtually anything to keep you drinking.

It’s the non-alcoholic part that sees the problems alcohol is causing. This part wants to quit drinking. This is the part of you that has decided to read this information. It is this part which you need to get to know.

Why? Because the non-alcoholic part of you will win your battle against alcohol. This whole side of you begins to grow as soon as you quit drinking. Best of all, this side will help you live a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life than you can ever experience by living through your alcoholic side.

Your Own Special Struggle

 “Some of us might find happiness if we would quit struggling so desperately for it.”
     -William Feather

Part of you is trying to attain happiness through alcohol, but alcoholic drinking involves you in a struggle—one part of you going one way, one part of you another. You fight with yourself. And you fight with alcohol to get what you want.

The reason? Alcohol helps you but it hurts you too. Your thrills tonight become high blood pressure, headaches, nausea, and regrets tomorrow.

So drinking is a challenge. And challenges are fun, right?  Alcohol challenges you to get the benefits it brings while finding ways to avoid the problems. Hey, it’s not easy!

You try not to get too drunk here, not to make a fool of yourself there. It’s a full-time job. You work hard at it. You juggle your schedule to fit as much alcohol into your life as possible. You find novel ways to handle hangovers.  This becomes a monumental struggle as hangovers get worse and worse. If you’re responsible for earning money, you make an extra effort to get to work on time. You try not to drink on the job, or else try not to drink too much. Sometimes you feel completely helpless.  Often you endure a lot of pain.

You’d think, if alcohol causes such distress, it would be easier to quit. And indeed it would be, but for the fact that most of us get completely involved with the struggle itself, so much so that it becomes our own personal life-struggle, the inner story of our lives. And of course we grow to like it.

Here are some reasons we get attached to the alcoholic struggle:

     It’s a challenge.
     It gives us a sense of involvement.
     It’s like a game—we play hard and try to win.
     Like the concept, “no pain, no gain,” sometimes we need to feel as if we’re suffering before we can have a good time.
     It gives us something to complain about.
     It requires strength to keep it up—so it shows how tough we are.
     It’s like an adventure—every time we drink we don’t know where it will lead.

You may like the alcoholic struggle for any one, or for all, of these reasons. Most of us get involved in our struggles for many different reasons and we may even have different reasons on different days.

“You gotta be tough,” my uncle used to say, as he handed my father a drink. Then he’d insist, “Here…drink up…it builds character.”

He was serious, in a joking-sort of way. But it’s true. Alcohol does build character. The “alcoholic character” deals with a deeper life-struggle than most people can handle. It’s an intense struggle, requiring a great deal of energy.

You feel it every day. You live hard. You go for all the gusto you can get. And even though you look beat most of the time, and even though you feel exhausted, you continue.

But slowly, over time, you begin to lose it, no matter how tough you are. Granted, you may continue fighting on the surface, but alcohol keeps hurting you deeply. Sometimes it feels as if you’re fighting for your very life. And, deep down, this is actually what’s happening. Alcohol begins destroying your organs faster than your body can repair them. It speeds the disease process in your body and you begin to have more and more serious illnesses. In a way, it’s like reminding yourself of death, so the life you feel is a true exhilaration.

This requires strength to keep it up. But ultimately you must surrender. You must surrender by giving your life to alcohol, or you must surrender by quitting it altogether.

If you choose to quit, you will find something else to challenge you, something else to give you a sense of involvement; something to work on, spend your time on; something more interesting to struggle with. This book will help you. Here, you’ll discover many exciting, workable alternatives—alternatives that will be more fun, bring more rewards and allow you to be a greater success in your life.

A Physical Addiction

Alcohol could be a free ticket through life if it weren’t for the physical addiction. The physical addiction drags you down. You begin drinking more but enjoying it less.

What happens? You go from wanting a drink to needing a drink. Deep down, alcohol becomes your medicine. It seems to cure everything. The problem is, you begin feeling healthy only when you’re drinking, and you feel sick whenever you stop.

For Gloria, quitting wasn’t easy. Every time she stayed off alcohol for more than a day, she grew nervous and upset, and she began getting angry at everyone around her. Like clockwork every time, by the end of the day, she would say, “I can’t stand it anymore! I gotta have a drink.” Her drinking no longer seemed a choice.

Gloria could go without alcohol for about a day. Others can go for three or four days or even a week, before they can’t stand it anymore and have to have a drink. Other drinkers, especially everyday drinkers, cannot go for more than a few hours. Many of them wake in the middle of the night, needing a drink just to get back to sleep.

Two Signs

There are two signs to the physical addiction. (1) You begin needing more and more alcohol to get the same effects. This is called increasing tolerance. (2) You begin to feel as if you can’t get along without alcohol. You feel more and more pain whenever you try to quit. This sign of addiction iscalled the withdrawal syndrome.

“Tolerance” describes how much alcohol your body can handle. As your body adjusts to alcohol, your tolerance increases. What two drinks did in the beginning may take five, ten, twenty, or even more drinks as tolerance increases. Your body finds its limit. Your cells adapt to the sedative effects of alcohol, harden to protect themselves from the toxic irritation, and learn to use more and more calories from alcohol as a source of food. But these three adaptations take their toll. In fact, after many years of heavy drinking, tolerance begins to reverse. Tolerance reverses when cells start breaking down and simply can’t handle as much alcohol.

The second sign of physical addiction, the “withdrawal syndrome,” appears only when you take alcohol away. Your body complains out loud, your nervous system flashes urgent signals to the mind: “Give me another drink to calm me down.” The agitation in the cells can be so great that your whole body can go into convulsions. This is serious. About 20%-25% die during these convulsions if they don’t have medical treatment.

As a rule of thumb, the longer and harder you’ve been drinking, the more problems you’ll experience during withdrawal. The shorter and less excessive your drinking career, the more likely your withdrawal syndrome will look like a hypoglycemic attack. You’ll feel fatigued, jumpy, restless, headachy, quick to anger, and depressed. Further, these symptoms will disappear temporarily, if you eat or drink something sweet, or if you drink alcohol.

Two Causes

Medical research shows two major causes of physical addiction. (1) Your cells adapt to alcohol; and (2) your body has a problem with alcohol metabolism.Adaptation in the cells. To your cells, alcohol becomes a way of life. Your blood bathes every cell in alcohol on a fairly regular schedule. Your cells adjust. They grow to expect these doses on time.

Your cells learn to cope with alcohol by defending themselves against alcohol’s toxic effects. Cell walls harden to retain stability and reduce toxic damage. But as your cells get tough against alcohol, gradually more and more can be consumed. Your tolerance increases.

In the long run, however, cell walls break down. At this point, your cells lose their ability not only to keep toxins out but to retain the essential nutrients you get from food.  Many of them stop functioning altogether, or start functioning abnormally. That’s when your organs (heart, brain, liver, kidneys, etc.), which are nothing more than whole systems of cells, begin to fail. Your cells show signs of physical addiction another way. They crave alcohol as a food.

Alcohol converts almost instantly to glucose in the blood. Known as blood-sugar, the body uses this as food for all the cells. When you drink alcohol, like eating a candy bar or drinking a soda, the cells get a quick burst of energy. This energy, as you may know, is measured in “calories.” Alcoholic beverages pack a lot of calories. Five to ten drinks provide the same amount of calories as a well-balanced meal. But the meal, of course, would have provided essential vitamins, minerals, proteins (amino acids), fats, fiber, and the complex carbohydrates—all of which thebody needs to stay healthy. Unfortunately, the simple carbohydrates of alcohol satisfy the hunger too well. And, when you drink a lot, you usually don’t feel like eating a meal, balanced or not.

Your cells adapt another way. They grow to crave alcohol for the sedation. Alcohol sedates all of your cells. Also, secondary compounds called isoquinolines form in the brain where they cause heroin-like sedation of the brain and nervous system. That’s why, among all the cells, nerve cells react most violently whenever alcohol is taken away. You’ll see anything from shaking hands and nervous irritability, to convulsive seizures.  

Problem with alcohol metabolism. Physical addiction, the body’s normal reaction to too much alcohol too often, doesn’t affect everyone the same way. A select group of people who have a problem metabolizing alcohol are especially susceptible.

Alcohol metabolism is normally a simple chemical process. Basically the liver attempts to detoxify the body of alcohol by breaking toxic alcohol into acetaldehyde (another toxic chemical), and then reducing acetaldehyde to acetate or acetic acid which quickly convert to glucose in the blood. In “alcoholic” drinkers the liver functions poorly during this second step. It converts acetaldehyde to acetate at about half the speed of a “normal” drinker’s liver.

This malfunction causes two main problems. First of all, acetaldehyde builds in the blood. As a powerful toxin, acetaldehyde adds to the toxic damage alcohol causes the cells, which start to fight as much to protect themselves from acetaldehyde as from alcohol.

Secondly, acetaldehyde interacts with brain enzymes, creating isoquinolines, those opiate-like chemicals that tranquilize the brain and nervous system. This chemical byproduct doubles or even triples the sedative effect of the alcohol. What’s more, this added sedative in the brain dramatically increases the addictive power of alcohol. Because of it, withdrawal becomes more extreme. You go all the way from euphoric sedation while drinking, to a high-pitched buzzing anxiety when you withdraw.  How do you get rid of the anxiety? Alcohol. Or other sedative drugs.

 So the metabolic problem causes greater agitation in your cells, as they’re forced to fight another toxin. But it causes greater sedation as well. That’s why, when you get the alcohol “really working,” you’re raring to go yet calm and cool. How can you beat this high?

And all this because of a glitch in metabolism. Clearly this glitch is the main reason for your physical addiction. About 10% of all drinkers have this problem. They are the ones who become “alcoholic.”

So why do some livers develop this metabolic problem, while others do not? Why do some livers set the stage for alcoholism by processing alcohol at a slower rate? There are at least five ways the metabolic problem can begin:

     Genetic inheritance.
     Fetal alcohol addiction.
     Sugar addiction.
     Prolonged excessive drinking.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.  Genetic inheritance. The “alcoholic metabolism” can be inherited. If your mother or father or any of your four grandparents had a problem with alcohol, you stand a better than average chance of having a problem with it.

What’s the average chance? In America, about 10% of all drinkers become alcoholic drinkers. If you have a history of alcoholism in your family, and if you become a drinker, your chances of becoming an alcoholic drinker are anywhere from 2 to 5 times greater than average. Instead of a 10% chance, you have a 20%-50% chance of becoming an alcoholic.  The chance increases because you inherit certain elements of your biochemistry through your genes. Your ability to metabolize alcohol is more likely to be weak, if it was weak in one or more of your parents or grandparents.

One other point: You may also inherit a weak sugar metabolism, and this can lead to a problem with alcohol metabolism once you start drinking.  So your genetic history plays an important role in the development of alcoholism. If alcoholism runs in your family and if you start drinking, there is a greater than average risk that you will become an alcoholic.  However, you can’t say whether you will be alcoholic for sure, based on genetic factors. Even with a strong genetic history of alcoholism, you still have a 50%-80% chance of not being affected.

Obviously, other factors are involved.   

Fetal Alcohol Addiction A baby can be born with a full-blown alcohol addiction. At birth, the child’s liver can have a problem with alcohol metabolism, and he or she can have built up a tolerance to alcohol, exhibit a withdrawal syndrome, and show all the physiological traits that accompany alcoholism.

This can happen to any baby whose mother drank heavily during pregnancy. Why? Because alcohol goes from the mother’s blood directly into the fetus: It crosses the placenta. What’s worse, if the mother has the “alcoholic metabolism,” toxic acetaldehyde that builds in her blood also crosses the placenta.

 In fact, if the mother drinks too heavily during pregnancy, the baby can suffer fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Symptoms include unusual deformities in skull and facial features, mental retardation, severe problems with digestion and metabolism, nervous disorders, malnutrition and many other extremely serious disorders.  But if you were born with even a mild addiction to alcohol and begin drinking later in life, alcohol is much more likely to cause you problems. Why? You can reactivate the alcoholic metabolism that developed when you were in the womb.

Advice to pregnant mothers? Don’t drink. Current medical advice says don’t drink at all during pregnancy. Some studies show that even small amounts of alcohol may compromise fetal health. Also if you are breast feeding, don’t drink, because alcohol passes directly into mother’s breast milk.  Sugar addiction. The body metabolizes alcohol and sugar in nearly the same manner. That’s why a serious sugar addiction early in life can become the perfect set-up for an alcohol addiction later on.

Over-consumption of sweets and other foods high in sugar often leads to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Like alcoholism, hypoglycemia is a metabolic problem. And, like alcoholism, it cause a vicious cycle of addiction.  What’s the relationship between hypoglycemia and alcoholism? Studies show 95%-100% of all alcoholic drinkers suffer from hypoglycemia.  Here’s what happens: When we ingest sugary foods or alcohol, our blood-sugar (glucose) shoots up like a rocket.

Blood-sugar, you may remember, is a form of food for the cells. It’s how the cells get energy. In a strong and healthy body, this energy remains fairly constant. Our cells burn blood-sugar at a fairly even rate, keeping our energy level stable.  We even have built-in controls to ensure this. For instance, when blood sugar rises too quickly, the body undergoes a stress reaction.